Friday, 02 April 2021 11:55

Agrifood Brief: Virtual insanity Featured


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The future’s made of virtual insanity, sung the British band Jamiroquai back in the 90s. It now seems they didn’t have to look too far ahead for their prophecy to come true.

The past months have seen us move well and truly into the digital world, one of both virtual reality and, arguably, virtual insanity.

Virtual working and meet-ups are one thing, but the lines are also now blurring between the digital and natural worlds.

Nothing illustrates this more than the European Commission’s latest project, the Pollinator Park, described by the press material for its launch as a “fun and educational” virtual reality experience designed to illustrate the alarming decline of pollinators and action needed to reverse it.

Designed by the award-winning “archibiotect” Vincent Callebaut, the park aims to offer a glimpse into a bleak future where a series of ecological crises have seen the populations of pollinating insects crash, and where the one “beacon of hope” is a futuristic farm.

Set in the year 2050, the park supposedly serves as a “powerful wake-up call to humanity to repair its broken bond with nature”.

A laudable ambition, as I’m sure we’d all agree. But, does this idea have wings? Or is this virtual park a buzz about nothing?

One big question mark over the shiny launch of the project was how much it cost, a fact conveniently left out of the Commission’s PR material.

A few weeks ago, the Austrian Christian-democrat MEP Alexander Bernhuber filed a parliamentary question to the Commission asking what the total cost of the park will be, including the cost of external consultancies.

Although the parliamentary question is yet to receive an answer, an EU official contacted by EURACTIV confirmed that the project cost just shy of a cool half a million euros, including €375,000 for the design and creation of the project and €100,000 for its communication and dissemination.

Justifying the hefty price tag, the official said that it was important to stress that Pollinator Park is a “public good” – a “high-quality, awareness-raising and engagement tool made available to the European and global public to mobilise action against the biodiversity crisis and insect loss.”

Highlighting that the Commission partnered with several reputable, recognised scientific institutions that will help continue to “multiply” its effects, the official added that it was also important to consider “the cost of inaction on the pollinator crisis” when doing the maths.

The list of institutions includes the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Museum of Natural Sciences of Barcelona and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.

“Taking all this into consideration, the market price of virtual reality projects, and the services it delivers, we believe that the project is good value for money,” they stressed.

Still, you can’t help but wonder to what extent our relationship with ‘nature’ can be changed via a screen, and if the money, time and efforts could have been put to better use.

As Beatrice Robrolle, president of Terre d’Abeilles, a French association for the protection of bees and wild pollinators, pointed out in a recent interview with EURACTIV France, it’s not as if tools to halt the decline of pollinators don’t already exist.

“We have the answers to the problem at the European level”, she said, pointing out that what is missing is “political will” and suggesting that it may have been more prudent to spend the money on these already existing tools.

Hans Bruyninckx, director of the European Environment Agency (EEA), added that if we continue to lose species at the current rate, the idea that we will see the collapse of our ecosystems is “not unrealistic.”

“While it is not yet too late to prevent the post-apocalyptic world visualised by Pollinator Park from becoming a reality, the longer we wait to act, the more it will cost us,” he warned.

And the dystopian fun doesn’t stop here. More and more virtual farming games and experiences are popping up, inviting users to try their hand (or fingertips, to be more precise) at farming.

To what extent these imaginary experiences help with our (very real) problems remains to be seen.

But, until then, in the wise words of Jamiroquai, it sure is a crazy world we’re living in.

Agrifood stories this week

CAP super trilogue brings ‘good atmosphere’ but few decisions
An ambitious meeting called by the Portuguese EU presidency on Friday (26 March) to seek a breakthrough in talks on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) talks did not settle all the issues on the table although negotiators considered it a step in the right direction. Gerardo Fortuna brings you the latest.

Nutri-Score food labelling plan is not panacea, EU official says
The proposed colour-coded Nutri-Score labelling system should not be seen as a panacea for consumers to assess the healthiness of food, according to a member of the cabinet of EU’s agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski. Gerardo Fortuna has the story.

EU must not risk becoming an ‘agricultural museum’, stakeholders warn
The EU must up the ante when it comes to innovation if it is to align high levels of agricultural production with the vision of a more sustainable future, as set out in the Green Deal, according to EU lawmakers, who warn that the bloc is “lagging behind”. Natasha Foote has more.

Free Trade Agreements and Agriculture
Between CETA, TTIP and Mercosur, the debate over free trade agreements (FTAs) has grown over the past years. In this video explainer, EURACTIV’s Gerardo Fortuna takes a closer look at FTAs and what makes EU foodstuff so crucial in trade negotiations.

Gene editing requires ‘wide and inclusive’ societal debate, says ethics group
There is a need for a wide societal debate, including ethical reflection, over new gene-editing techniques, according to a new report from an advisory body for the European Commission, which was welcomed by industry players but accused of missing the mark by environmental campaign groups. Read more.

MEP: Labelling of gene-edited foodstuffs is impossible
Labelling foodstuffs as gene-edited products is simply not possible as the genetic improvements brought about by the new breeding technologies (NBTs) are not identifiable, according to the Italian MEP Herbert Dorfmann. Gerardo Fortuna has more.

Greener farm reform ‘still possible’, EU’s Timmermans says after meeting climate activists
A group of climate campaigners led by Greta Thunberg has met with European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, urging him to withdraw current proposals to reform the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy. See here for details.

Cyprus wins EU protection for halloumi cheese
Halloumi, a traditional Cypriot cheese known as Hellim in Turkish, is to be entered to the EU’s register of protected designations of origin, a move intended to promote unity on the divided island. Learn more.

Don’t miss: EURACTIV’s Special Report on ‘Sustainable farming ambitions: between the CAP and the Green Deal’, where the EURACTIV network takes a closer look at the relationship between the Green Deal and the CAP across seven different member states as the EU approaches a crucial moment in the final talks on the CAP reform.

News from the bubble

Tree-mendous campaign: EU farmers’ association COPA-COGECA, in conjunction with the Confederation of European Forest Owners (CEPF) and the European Landowners Organisation (ELO), are launching a new information campaign on sustainable forest management. The “Welcome to my forest” campaign aims to bring the debate back to ground realities and consists of a collection of short videos presenting testimonials of forest owners who share what managing their forests means for them, far from the clichés we have heard in the EU debates. Check it out here.

Agri Commissioner shares his thoughts on rural areas: “I am putting pressure on rural areas not to be left out in the EU Reconstruction Fund and to be supported,” stressed EU agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski during Tuesday’s EURACTIV.pl debate. The discussion with experts concerned the issue of demographics in rural areas, ideas for stopping the migration of people to cities. The EU Commissioner underlined that in the EU small farms are disappearing and the process of ageing of the farming population is being observed. “We have countries where more than half of farmers are over 65 years old,” Wojciechowski noted. The Commissioner added that the organic farm development plan is a great opportunity that can restore the potential of many smaller farms.

Long-food movement: The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) has released a new report in collaboration with the ETC Group: ‘A Long Food Movement: Transforming Food Systems by 2045‘ in which they map out two very different futures for food systems, people and the planet. The report looks first at what the next 25 years have in store under the “agribusiness-as-usual” model, before exploring what happens if the agricultural system is reclaimed by civil society and grassroots social movements who work to transform financial flows, governance structures and food systems from the ground up.

No to gene-editing: More than 160 civil society and business organisations have written to the Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, urging him to ensure that all organisms derived from genomic techniques continue to be regulated in accordance with existing EU GMO standards, that their products do not enter our food supply illegally and that the EU takes a clear stance against the release of gene drive organisms into the environment. You can find the letter here.

Promotional policy: The Commission launched a public consultation this week which aims to gather views on different policy options designed to ensure that the future EU agri-food promotion policy will support the transition to more sustainable food systems and nudge consumers to balanced diets, whilst strengthening the global competitiveness of EU farmers and agri-food businesses.

Positive outlook: The first 2021 edition of the short-term outlook for EU agricultural markets concluded that the EU agricultural sector showed resilience throughout the COVID-19 crisis, finding that the sector did relatively well thanks to increased retail sales and home consumption. In addition, prospects for the sector were found to be favourable with a dynamic global demand and the reopening of food services (restaurants, bars, cafés) expected once the vaccination campaign is sufficiently advanced.

EU-US relations thaw: The first meeting of the Agriculture Committees Chairs in the U.S. House of Representatives and European Parliament took place this week, with the aim to strengthen transatlantic relations and create long-lasting trust. Speaking after the call, the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee Chair Norbert Lins that he was “delighted” to have had a fruitful exchange with Representative David Scott. “This first meeting was a significant step forward in deepening transatlantic relations on agricultural policy,” he added. The discussion focused on cooperation on EU and US agricultural policies, global food security, rural development and climate change, as well as the right adaptation tools for farmers across the Atlantic.

Agrifood news from the Capitals

ROMANIA
Romanian farmers are naturally wary of cooperatives, which are often strongly associated with the country’s communist past and command economy. But thanks to young farmers and EU funding, more and more farmers are choosing to join forces. EURACTIV Romania reports. (Bogdan Neagu | EURACTIV.ro)
POLAND
The EU is gearing up to slash the use and risk of pesticides in half by 2030, on the back of an increasing body of research pointing to their harmful effects. In Poland, the biggest eastern member state, alternatives are currently expensive and poorly promoted. EURACTIV Poland reports. (Anna Wolska | EURACTIV.pl)
ITALY
As the debate on front of pack nutrition labelling heats up, Italy’s agriculture minister Stefano Patuanelli weighed in on the issue during a conference organized by Italy’s farmers association Coldiretti, calling the system “idiotic”. “We will not only beat our fists in Brussels but we will turn the tables to counter the idiotic mechanism of the traffic light label,” he said. (Gerardo Fortuna | EURACTIV.com) IRELAND
A recent report by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) has revealed that the import of beef consignments from Ireland to the UK fell by 32% year-on-year in January 2021 due to complications over Brexit. Agriland has more. (Natasha Foote| EURACTIV.com)

SPAIN
The Spanish government approved the extension of the authorisations for the planting of vineyards this week, a decision which was taken in an attempt to help winegrowers to face the difficulties derived from the COVID-19 pandemic. EURACTIV’s partner EFE Agro reports.

GERMANY
Last week, Germany’s 16 state agriculture ministers reached an agreement on implementing the CAP, but a disagreement between the agriculture and environment ministries (BMEL and BMU) is delaying its passage through the federal cabinet. One of the key hang-ups is around the eco-schemes, which the ministers conference on Friday decided would encompass at least 25% of direct payments. While state leaders were ultimately pleased with the compromise reached on Friday (26 March), it received criticism from both the agriculture industry and environmental groups. Both the agriculture and environment ministries are pointing fingers over who is responsible for the delay. The BMEL says that the BMU is at fault for wanting to negotiate even stricter environmental measures, while the BMU says that it had offered a process to rapidly reach agreements before the cabinet meeting on Wednesday (31 March). Cabinet negotiations will now take place on 14 April. This could put the legislative timetable (intended to pass before the Bundestag’s summer break) at risk (EURACTIV.de)

FRANCE
The French agriculture minister, Julien Denormandie, is set to defend obligatory origin labelling for milk and meat products on the European level. His announcement on Tuesday (30 March 30) follows the quashing of a decree from 2018 according to which the geographical origin of the milk had to be mentioned on all French milk products in order to offer more transparency to consumers. The French giant Lactalis had seized the State Council, arguably to “preserve” France’s exports in milk products. The Council had judged in favour of Lactalis on March 10th, arguing that the geographical indication had no proven link to the quality of the products and could thus not be compulsory. A decision Julien Denormandie has announced to fight : “The origin is within the competence of the EU”, he declared, “and so the fight will be on the European level”. ( Magdalena Pistorius | EURACTIV.fr)