Agri-food actors have been summoned to Brussels by the European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen to help forge a new long-term vision for agriculture amid mounting protests from farmers across the continent.
The strategic dialogue for the future of agriculture was announced in von der Leyen’s annual State of the Union address to cope with increasing polarisation in the agriculture and food policy debate.
The initiative comes at a moment of stalemate in the implementation of the EU’s flagship food policy Farm to Fork and while struggling farmers are taking to the streets throughout Europe claiming to be neglected by policymakers.
“I think we all sense that there is an increasing division and polarisation when it comes to topics related to agriculture,” von der Leyen said at the kick-off meeting of the dialogue in Brussels on Thursday (25 January).
The main goal, according to the commission president, is to collect thoughts, ideas, and proposals to develop scenarios for the future of agriculture that will feed into the work of the current and potentially the forthcoming EU executive.
Topics of discussion will range from elevating the standard of living for farmers and boosting the attractiveness of rural communities to making agriculture more sustainable and exploiting opportunities offered by technical innovations.
“This dialogue aims to find a new consensus on issues which we all struggle with,” said von der Leyen, claiming she wished to find “a new way forward and common and lasting solutions” for European agriculture.
Decisions by consensus alone
Consensus is fundamental to the initiative, which consists of a reflection group with a limited number of invited actors from farmers’ cooperatives, agri-business, and rural communities, as well as non-governmental organisations and civil society representatives, financial institutions and academia.
German Professor Peter Strohschneider, who chaired a similar special committee for the German federal government in 2020-21, will direct studies divided between different sectoral groups.
When a smaller group reaches a provisional consensus on a given topic, it may submit a draft paper for a form of plenary discussion within the strategic dialogue.
“We will see how far we get, how often we have to revise papers of this kind and send them back to a working group, or whether we can make them the basis for drafting the final report,” said an EU official close to the organisational aspects of the dialogue.
The main objective is to produce a final report based on a common vision among the key agri-food actors by the end of the summer.
Criticism on invitations
The initial meeting attracted criticism since stakeholders were only invited to attend at the end of last week, deemed insufficient notice for preparation by many.
Others complained about the absence of some traditional agriculture stakeholders, and the overrepresentation of environmental NGOs and the downstream of the agri-food chain such as food manufacturers and retailers.
“They invited the WWF. What they’re going to bring at the table – bamboo?” was among the stronger comments from excluded stakeholders heard by Euronews.
“We can’t invite everybody, so we had to carry out a selection,” said a Commission spokesperson, adding that the executive had been “extremely representative in the choices made in trying to reflect the diversity”.
According the several sources, the list of the 30 guests was drafted by the European Green Deal contact point in the von der Leyen’s cabinet, Peter Van Kemseke.
Among the major agriculture players excluded by the dialogue, were the EU pesticide lobby CropLife Europe and the agriculture machinery industry (CEMA). “The Commission excluded some of the main associations dealing with technologies,” CEMA Secretary General Jelte Wiersma told Euronews.