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Denmark decries EU decision to till fallow lands in face of food shortage

Some say reversing orders to fallow portions of land to improve biodiversity — even temporarily — is not the right answer to an expected food supply crisis prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (CN) — This past month, European agriculture officials agreed to let farmers grow food and sow crops on their fallow lands. The decision clashes with the new agricultural reform 2023-2027, which calls for a mandatory 4% increase in unused farmland.

The EU justified the decision as necessary to counter the prospect of a food supply crisis catalyzed by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine export over a quarter of the world´s wheat, and the former is a major global supplier of fertilizer.

In addition, the war has caused a sharp spike in already volatile energy prices, which have tripled for many European households and companies.

While the European Commission states that “food availability is not currently at stake in the EU,” the primary concern is soaring production costs for European farmers and — perhaps more importantly — the inability to export enough food to North Africa and the Middle East.  

Allowing farmers to use land that has been ordered fallowed to improve biodiversity — an “exceptional and temporary derogation," according to EU agriculture officials — is seen as a necessary force majeure measure. Yet Rasmus Prehn, Denmark’s minister for food and agriculture, called it “old-school” and “contra-intuitive” after meeting his colleagues in Brussels.

“Taking already fallow fields, plowing them up, using pesticides, gives a minimal amount of food. On the other hand, the impact on climate and the environment is quite big,” he said.

Prehn failed to convince a majority of the other European ministers. Consequently, each member state will decide how they want to implement the exemption while offering farmers the same green compensation as before.

Among Danish members of the European Parliament, the decision evokes strong sentiments. Nikolaj Villumsen, member and vice-chair of the Left group, is highly critical.

“It is symbolic politics, but it is extremely harmful. The lands chosen to be fallow fields are the least productive ones, so using them has a limited effect on the net food production. However, they have a very high nature value so the damage will be severe to the climate and the environment. We risk releasing carbon and destroying the biodiversity we have worked to restore,” he said.

Villumsen notes that there is a significant difference between a food supply crisis and a payment crisis. Suppose the world market expects the former, that speculation can — on its own — lead to rising energy prices. The most present problem is to secure food on the tables in North Africa and countries like Egypt, which import a lot of corn from Russia and Ukraine, he underlines. The best measure to prevent that is, in his view, for European countries to donate to the United Nation’s food program.

However, the overarching way to handle the crisis is to accelerate an agricultural change toward less meat production, Villumsen said.

“We stand at a crossroad and have to choose whether we want to push the speeder on green transition or roll back measures. I think we should move towards more plant-based food products. But, unfortunately, the decision of using fallow areas and pesticides takes us in the other direction,” he says.

In the liberal Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament sits Danish MEP Asger Christensen. He has a farming background and works in the committee on agriculture and rural development, dealing, amongst others, with food imports from Ukraine and Russia.

He is equally concerned about the current situation but takes an opposite stance.

“It is unbelievable that Denmark, as the only EU country, opposes the decision. We are obliged to grow as many crops as we possibly can in this harvest year. If we wait just two or three months, it will be too late. We already see unrest in different parts of the world because fertilizer is so expensive. At least a year will go by before the supply chains can be somewhat up and running again”, Christensen said.

For example, he noted Libya only has a month’s worth of corn and pointed to the current state of emergency and protests in Peru over rising food and fertilizer prices. He said the EU decision will allow the use of between 20 and 25 million acres.

“As a member of Parliament, I see it as my responsibility to help fill the plates in poor countries. Otherwise, we will see political unrest and people who start to migrate. So, in this matter, I am taking the side of the poor,” Christensen adds.

By the end of April, Christensen will travel to Ukraine to see the situation for himself and give a hand to local farmers. He said Parliament is currently discussing aid packages for the region, including diesel to help sow the fields.

In addition to its decision to till fallowed fields, the European Union has agreed on a $500 million aid package for farmers and OK’d private storage of pork. Yesterday, Ukraine’s agriculture minister Mykola Solskyi asked the EU for help but also said Ukrainian farmers can still farm 50 to 70% of the nation’s land.

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