War in Ukraine – Food Fight in the EU

Corn field near the village of Pavlogradske, Donetsk region, Ukraine. Photo by Fototraveller Source wikimedia commons(CC BY-SA 3.0)

The war in Ukraine is destabilising food security in Europe. The solution is not to dismantle the Farm to Fork strategy but to act on it faster. Here’s how the scenario is playing out and what’s at stake. Ashley Parsons and Oliver Moore report. 

In a fraught and changing context, the pressure is on to find a balance between reducing input dependency and maintaining current production plans. The Farm to Fork strategy includes, as a key target, reducing fertilizer inputs, while the EU has a protein crop strategy and other plans which would, in time, reduce dependency on imported feeds. However, with both feed and fertilizer pressures coming down hard and suddenly, and with an agri-food system so dependent on these inputs, what will Europe do now and for 2023 to adapt or adjust to the 4F’s  – feed, fuel, fertilizer and food?  

The food security situation as it relates to the war in Ukraine is rapidly evolving. 

There have been calls on agri ministers to:

  • Allow for the growing of protein crops on fallow land, including with pesticides treatments and ploughing, which farmers are supposed to leave for nature to receive subsidies.
  • Authorise emergency use of pesticides, even in areas that are supposed to be protected under CAP conditionality.
  • Revise the recently submitted CAP plans (as Italy and Slovakia have called for).
  • Revisit the Farm to Fork strategy and make adjustments as needed (slowing implementation further).

Bread Lines in Europe? Not exactly

The Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) suggests that in the short term, Europe should try to mitigate price inflation, especially in the Middle East and Africa, and other areas. Hoarding food stocks by EU member states must also be rejected.

In the middle term, it is too soon to tell how fuel and cereal supplies will be disrupted, if at all. The IDDR suggests that if the conflicts remain confined to urban areas and are resolved before the end of the planting (maize and sunflower) and harvest (wheat) seasons, that supply chains may in reality, not suffer significant interruptions. If however the conflict draws out further than a few more weeks, real impacts to the supply chain both in Ukraine and its exports abroad will be felt, and prices will continue to rise. 

This is a hot topic for discussion at present. Food security in Europe does not seem to be in real danger,  many argue. The Lighthouse Reports shared this helpful thread with a food security index included. (see here for a broad assessment of some geopolitical realignments) Sebastian Lakner has also assessed various agri-trade issues in some detail. His analysis  points to concerns more in north Africa and the Middle East, price increases for inputs, short term options for making up some deficits, and the threat of opportunism in rolling back environmental laws. See below for more.

War in Ukraine and World Food – What options does the international community have?

Lakner and IDDRI are not alone in pointing out that the conflict is more likely to impact food security in the Middle East and across Africa, not the EU. 

This however will in itself inevitably impact on Europe in other ways – food prices were a contributor to the Arab spring and the subsequent wars, and migrations. Moreover, the millions of refugees from Ukraine – already at 2 million and rising – will rapidly impact urban and also rural realities.

The balance between farm animals –  especially intensive pigs and poultry -, and crops for biofuels, on the one hand, and food for humans on the other, is the key battle, as we pointed out last Monday

G7 countries met virtually last week, and reiterated their commitment to keeping markets operating to allow for food flows to enable food security. Germany chairs the G7 this year, and the meeting was joined by the Ukrainian agriculture minister, as well as World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS).

The G7 argued strongly against any moves towards protectionism in food and feed markets, and against price inflation and dangerous speculation – we are “monitoring markets affecting the food system, including futures markets, to ensure full transparency” as the released statement stressed.  

Nevertheless, despite those broad agreements on feed trade globally, on the same day (Friday) Germany announced that it will authorise farmers to sow crops for feed in environmentally protected areas (fallow lands). This measure will only come into force for 2023, so already we are starting to see the longer term impacts on environmental targets because of the conflict. Germany also has plans to improve protein crop self-sufficiency – a long held goal of the EU in general, which, until now, has not been a priority – and to enable more renewables generation on-farm. 

EU traders will be urgently seeking inputs (feeds and fertilizers) from elsewhere as the seasons move forward, in advance of the coming winter. Maize and various oilseeds and oilcakes are key, as countries are less self-sufficient than in the past, and some animal fodder reserves only equipped to last weeks, rather than months. This in part explains the sudden push to give up some of the more environmentally protected land for fodder crops – for outdoor animals it is winter feed, for indoor animals, the situation is more immediate.

The Time for Farm to Fork is Yesterday

In a statement from European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC), Fergal Anderson, member of ECVC said, “We want to clearly underline that abandoning the F2F Strategy would not contribute to solving the enormous challenges facing European agriculture. On the contrary, the war in Ukraine shows that our dependence on synthetic fertilisers produced from Russian gas is a major fragility for our food sovereignty. Similarly, livestock farming is massively dependent on imports of cereals and oilseeds.”

Speaking at the recently formed – and rapidly mobilised – European Food Security Crisis preparedness and response Mechanism (EFSCM), an expert group within the European Food Security crisis preparedness and response mechanism, Michael Scannell, Commission’s DG AGRI explained that “The Commission is committed to the Green Deal and F2F, origin of the crisis is dependence on fossil fuels, Green Deal and F2F are solutions to that not the problem. No reason why the fundamental objective of creating a more sustainable agriculture economy should be compromised.” 

This meeting was stacked full of industry voices, with a wide range of ideas being bandied about – as has been the case all week at member state level too.  

The COPA-COGECA representative – Tim Cullinan, a pig farmer and president of the IFA in Ireland, where he is also one of Ireland’s wealthiest farmers, spoke of releasing fallow lands from green measures and into cereal production; the continuation of GAEC 2 areas (peaty soils) for production; the need for a crisis reserve for farmers of E500 million as well as possibly requiring private storage to take surplus meat off the market. Indeed COPA have even been arguing for more biofuels.

Scannell’s quote is in accord with more than 85 NGOs, including ARC2020 who signed a joint letter stating: “More than ever, the EU must shift towards healthy, socially and environmentally friendly farming practices, such as agroecology, organic farming, and agroforestry, which provide the only path to ensure long-term food security, food sovereignty, and the overall sustainability of the food systems. We must turn away from intensive agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture.”

Short-term and longer-term actions are related

Echoing these concerns Guy Pe’er, Sebastian Lakner and Jeroen Candel have written an open letter to the EU Commission on Friday, on how Ukraine relates also to biodiversity and climate crises. 

It states: “any response to the shocking effects of the invasion of Ukraine, must bear the greater risks in mind… we strongly argue that one should avoid false dichotomies between food security and environmental sustainability, responding wisely to the shock while keeping the larger challenges in mind. We also reject the productionist discourse that equates food security with the further intensification of production.”

In particular, they argue that further intensification will exacerbate problems – for soil, water, pollination and pest control. They also “question the validity of COMAGRI’s proposal to open Ecological Focus Areas (EFA) for production”. This will do little but cause much damage to ecosystems.

The trio argue that more consideration should be given to how we achieve the optimal allocation of food crops, to ensure human’s basic needs are prioritised over less essential uses. Also, demand matters, they point out. The EU demand for feedstuff has an effect on global markets, while the EU also dedicates over 70% of its land to the production of feed and fuel; some arable land could be used more wisely to address food scarcity in developing countries, but also, food access is the key issue in hunger issue, not a shortage of production.

>70% of the EU agricultural area being used for feed and fuel, and with significant feedstuff imports from abroad, the EU demand has a major effect on global markets. (Pe’er, Lakner and Candel)

They go on to recommend:

  • Immediately halting blending biofuels into mineral fuels.
  • Scale back subsidies in support of non-essential, intensive land-use. (intensive livestock ,coupled payments, biofuels are named, vs more circular approaches including growing crops for people not animals; feeding animals on waste streams and/or marginal lands; switching towards more plant based consumption).
  • Release parts of the emergency stocks for grain and maize as targeted food aid to the World Food
  • Call for reduced dependency not only on fossil fuels but on fuels in general, such as by cutting on
    non-essential travel or car-use
  • Call on European citizens to reduce their consumption of animal products

The academics conclude with “deep concern” that “various political actors (are) currently calling to reopen the Farm to Fork and reverse important environmental elements of the CAP. We must warn that
these calls are not aligned with science and the evidence of cause and effects, nor with the actual uses of
land in Europe. We regard these calls as misleading, and they must be examined with great caution vis-a-vis scientific facts. Otherwise, the risk is that misguided responses to short-term shocks can lead to long-term damages that we may severely regret.”


The fact that the covid crisis ultimately resulted in no food scarcity across Europe should be encouraging, not panic-inducing. This crisis in Ukraine compounds stresses from climate and covid, brings even more heartache and difficulty to Europe, but should not be a carte blanche for a backwards shift from the farm to fork goals.

Borrowing from the environmental bank, and repaying with interest. If there are environmental concessions this year and next, where are the concrete steps being taken to redouble efforts in subsequent years, so as to be closer to achieving the aims for a more balanced agri-food system, as Farm to Fork aims for?

For example, what measures will be fast tracked to reduce dependency on mineral fertilizer use? Will we see more investment in organic farming, or yet again arguments that now is not the time for organic farming?

Intensive farming is in intensive care – now what? The intensive pig and poultry sectors are especially reliant on feeds – what plans are being formed to manage output in the risky and fraught situation we are in, in the months and years ahead? At the moment, the only plans forthcoming seem to be intervention  – aka storage in freezers powered by fossil fuels in the absence of markets  – and emergency funding of hundreds of millions of euro. But what then? When – if ever – is the time to think about how these emergency measures perpetuate a reliance on fossil fuels, feeds and fertilizers? How can we start to adjust away from huge amount of Europe’s farmland being used for feeds for animals and for biofuels? 

Supply management. There is now at least some talk of reintroducing volume management measures of foods heavily dependent on these inputs? What is possible  – in the coming months and years – regarding milk quota, or introducing other quotas? what is the responsible number of calves to be born in 2023, 2024, 2025 for example? How much longer do we just aim to keep expanding and exporting, despite the obvious risks of intensively producing with such dependency of these feeds, fossil fuels and fertilizers? 

Prices across the board are rising – for many farmers and for many consumers – how is this best managed, in the short term and mid term?  

If the environment is to take yet another hit, is now the time to think about how to make adjustments? What role for the consumer – via market, retail, policy, pricing and other tools – and for dietary options? How can we more away somewhat from such heavy input foods? What incentives are needed to help farmers convert over to growing crops for humans? 

For example, there is a process, since the 2019 directive on Unfair Trading Practices, to improve farmers’ position in the supply chain. This is a welcome move, but one with an implementation that has been patchy and slow at member state level. But without this being fully implemented, the spectre of below cost selling of fruits and vegetables will remain. And this in turn will discourage farmers from converting land over to fruits and vegetables, as its almost impossible to be viable.  Consideration could be given to both minimum and maximum prices in the current context, to protect both farmers and consumers. 

There was much talk, for many months, about the need for an impact assessment of farm to fork and the wider EU Green Deal, of which it is a part. Well, current events seem a little more robust than an “assessment” – we are seeing in real time what the impacts are of relying excessively on these high energy inputs. Frighteningly, the solution for many seems to be to postpone trying to reduce reliance on these inputs – again. A raft of environmental rollbacks could be on the cards now, and quite suddenly – which will do nothing positive for biodiversity nor the climate, nor for transitioning out of this heavy reliance. So now that we have the evidence of the risk of excessive reliance on feeds, fertilizers and fossil fuels – what are we going to do to adjust to this reality?


War in Ukraine and World Food – What options does the international community have?

More Food less Feed – Agriculture and the War on Ukraine