Bert-Jan Ruissen: The EU should not be dependent on food imports, as is the case with energy

Bert-Jan Ruissen is a Dutch MEP from the Conservative Group and a member of the European Parliament’s agriculture and fisheries committees.

At the start of the war, he urged the European Commission to take further steps to protect Europe from a food crisis over the suspension of food and fertilizer imports from Ukraine and Russia. The letter proposes to replace the record-breaking fertilizers with manure to ensure the harvest, and to financially support the most affected sectors. As well as a ban on the construction of solar panels on arable land to give farmers more space for their crops.

Ruissen is among opponents of the European Parliament’s Green Deal, saying plans to achieve carbon neutrality in the European economy by the middle of the century are unrealistic. He graduated in botany and before taking up politics he was an adviser to the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture.

Mr. Ruissen, the war in Ukraine seems to affect both the future harvest and the export of cereals and fertilizers from Ukraine, one of the world leaders in grain and fertilizer exports. How will this affect European security?

– I take seriously the warnings about the reduction of crops and agricultural products from Ukraine. In my opinion, this poses serious risks to food shortages and extremely high food prices in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. European farmers can make up for part of the shortage, but they must be allowed to do so. I believe that supply disruptions will mainly affect food markets in North Africa. In the EU, reduced supply could lead to continuing higher food prices, which is very bad news for low-income people.

To help find a solution, I have proposed a plan of ten easy-to-implement actions to increase the food supply in the EU. The main idea is to stop the regulation of compulsory set-aside, which will quickly increase the EU’s arable land by 5 percent. I am happy that this has been accepted by the European Commission. I also believe that fertilizers should be able to be replaced with manure, but now this is limited by European regulations. The European Commission is investigating the matter.

Special circumstances require special measures so that we can ensure sufficient food is available. Now is not the time to impose additional restrictions on agriculture.

At the beginning of the war, some supermarket shelves were empty, but the shortage was quickly restored. However, prices continue to rise. Some blame it on record energy prices, which rose sharply before the war, but others warn that the worst is yet to come and will affect food availability. What do you think about this problem and when will you find out if Europe will face a food crisis?

– Certainly, inflation due to the ECB’s monetary policy and energy problems is making all types of products more expensive. But it should also be noted that farmers also pay high prices for feed, fuel, and fertilizers. They continue to produce our food, thanks to higher market prices for most products.

Some countries produce enough food for their populations and do not import agricultural products from Ukraine, others are directly affected by export disruptions. What should be the approach to ensuring food security – national or European?

– I think that the EU needs to take care of its farmers now more than ever and they should not be burdened with more requirements and costs. I do not think it is appropriate now to introduce the objectives of the Green Deal to use 25% of the agricultural land for organic farming or to halve the use of fertilizers to protect the climate. These targets could mean lower production at higher costs and perhaps even overload the organic food market. Our group wants an in-depth impact assessment for these purposes.

The same goes for fishing. In the Netherlands, a significant proportion of fishermen have stopped fishing due to the record price of petrol. The EU allows state aid, but the Dutch government refuses. So now they catch less sole – the main type of fish that provides their income. Now is not the time to burden the fisheries sector even more with the closure of parts of the sea for fishing due to the construction of new wind farms.

The European Commission proposed extra money for farmers in March and a derogation from some green measures, but since then we have not heard much about how the EU will ensure its food supply. Do you think that the measures taken so far are sufficient and what still needs to be done?

– The measures are not enough. Of the € 500 million in aid, about € 300 million comes from a crisis fund paid for by the farmers themselves. So it won’t do much good. For me, the money for this aid must be found elsewhere in the EU budget.

In addition, the EU must closely monitor the production and sustainability of our farmers. The EU must never become dependent on food imports, as has happened with energy from Russia, for example. It would be an extremely unwise policy to replace dependence on Russia with dependence on some food-producing countries.

That is why we need to look closely at the impact of farm-to-table strategies on greening European agriculture: if this reduces production and increases dependence, as some experts predict, we need to seriously reconsider them.

You are proposing to ban solar parks on agricultural land, but at the same time, the EU is battling energy shortages and hopes that renewable energy sources can ensure its energy independence. How to choose which type of security should be a priority and how to combine both?

– I am sure that there can be smart synergies for more sustainable energy and food production. For example, solar panels over fields with free-range chickens, on stables, or wind turbines in meadows. What I am proposing is to temporarily ban solar parks where they would take away arable land.

I think this is reasonable because there are still so many other places for solar panels. For example, roofs. The European Parliament must set a good example by placing solar panels on its buildings.

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