‘Unfair competition’: French farmers up in arms over EU free-trade agreements

French farming unions are taking aim at the European Union’s free-trade agreements, which they say open the door to unfair competition from products arriving from overseas. At a time when the EU is urging farmers to adopt more sustainable – and sometimes more costly – agricultural practices, unions say these trade deals are making it hard for them to stay solvent.

French farmers say that one of their biggest fears is that Chilean apples, Brazilian grains and Canadian beef will flood the European market, thereby undermining their livelihoods. France’s farmers continued to demonstrate on the country’s motorways on Wednesday, protesting against rising costs, over-regulation and free-trade agreements –partnerships between the EU and exporting nations that the farming unions say leads to unfair competition. 

The EU has signed several free-trade agreements in recent years, all with the objective of facilitating the movement of goods and services. But farmers say the deals bring with them insurmountable challenges.

“These agreements aim to reduce customs duties, with maximum quotas for certain agricultural products and non-tariff barriers,” said Elvire Fabry, senior researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute, a French think-tank dedicated to European affairs. “They also have an increasingly broad regulatory scope to promote European standards for investment, protection of intellectual property, geographical indications and sustainable development standards.”

South American trade deal in the crosshairs

Some non-EU countries – such as Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland – maintain comprehensive free-trade agreements with the EU because they are part of the European Economic Area. This allows them to benefit from the free movement of goods, services, capital and people.

Other nations farther afield have signed more variable agreements with the EU, including CanadaJapan, Mexico, Vietnam and Ukraine. The EU also recently signed an accord with Kenya and a deal with New Zealand that will come into force this year; negotiations are also under way with India and Australia.    

However, a draft agreement between the EU and the South American trade bloc Mercosur is creating the most concern. Under discussion since the 1990s, this trade partnership between Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay would create the world’s largest free-trade area, a market encompassing 780 million people. 

Read more‘French agriculture can’t be bartered away’: Farmers unite against EU rules and globalised markets     

French farmers are particularly concerned about the deal’s possible effect on agriculture. The most recent version of the text introduces quotas for Mercosur countries to export 99,000 tonnes of beef, 100,000 tonnes of poultry and 180,000 tonnes of sugar per year, with little or no customs duties imposed. In exchange, duties would also be lowered on exports from the EU on many “protected designation of origin” (PDO) products. 

At a time when the EU is urging farmers to adopt more sustainable agricultural practices, French unions say these agreements would open the door to massive imports – at more competitive prices – of products that do not meet the same environmental standards as those originating in Europe. French farmers are calling out what they say is unfair competition from farmers in South America who can grow GMO crops and use growth-promoting antibiotics on livestock, which is banned in the EU

Trade unions from various sectors went into action after the European Commission informed them on January 24 that negotiations with Mercosur could be concluded “before the end of this mandate”, i.e., before the European Parliament elections in June.      

The FNSEA, France’s biggest farming union, immediately called for a “clear rejection of free-trade agreements” while the pro-environmental farming group Confédération Paysanne (Farmers’ Confederation) called for an “immediate end to negotiations” on this type of agreement.   

A mixed record

“In reality, the impact of these free-trade agreements varies from sector to sector,” said Fabry. “Negotiations prior to agreements aim to calibrate the opening up of trade to limit the negative impact on the most exposed sectors. And, at the same time, these sectors can benefit from other agreements. In the end, it’s a question of finding an overall balance.”

This disparity is glaringly obvious in the agricultural sector. “The wine and spirits industry as well as the dairy industry stand to gain more than livestock farmers, for example,” said Fabry. These sectors are the main beneficiaries of free-trade agreements, according to a 2023 report by the French National Assembly.

“The existence of trade agreements that allow customs duty differentials to be eliminated is an ‘over-determining factor’ in the competitiveness of French wines,” wrote FranceAgriMer, a national establishment for agriculture and maritime products under the authority of the French ministry of agriculture in a 2021 report. The majority of free-trade agreements lower or abolish customs duties to allow the export of many PDO products, a category to which many wines belong.

However, the impact on meat is less clear-cut. While FranceAgriMer says the balance between imports and exports appears to be in the EU’s favour for pork, poultry exports seem to be declining as a result of the agreements. Hence the fears over the planned treaty with New Zealand, which provides for 36,000 tonnes of mutton to be imported into the EU, equivalent to 45% of French production in 2022. France,however, still has a large surplus of grains except for soya. 

‘A bargaining chip’

Beyond the impact on agriculture, “this debate on free-trade agreements must take into account other issues”, said Fabry. “We are in a situation where the EU is seeking to secure its supplies and in particular its supplies of strategic minerals. Brazil’s lithium, cobalt, graphite and other resource reserves should not be overlooked.”

The agreement with Chile should enable strategic minerals to be exported in exchange for agricultural products. Germany strongly supports the agreement with Mercosur, as it sees it as an outlet for its industrial sectors, according to Fabry.

“In virtually all free-trade agreements, agriculture is always used as a bargaining chip in exchange for selling cars or Airbus planes,” Véronique Marchesseau, general-secretary of the Confédération Paysanne, told AFP.

Michèle Boudoin, president of the French National Sheep Federation, told AFP that the agreement with New Zealand will “destabilise the lamb market in France”.  

Read moreWhy French farmers are up in arms: fuel hikes, green regulation, EU directives

“We know that Germany needs to export its cars, that France needs to sell its wheat, and we’re told that we need an ally in the Pacific tocounter China and Russia. But if that is the case, then we need help to be able to produce top-of-the-line lamb, for example,” she said.

Finally, “there is a question of influence”, said Fabry. “These agreements also remain a way for the EU to promote its environmental standards to lead its partners along the path of ecological transition, even if this has to be negotiated,” said Fabry. 

Marc Fesneau, the French minister of agriculture, made the same argument. “In most cases, the agreements have been beneficial, including to French agriculture,” Fesneau wrote on X last week, adding: “They will be even more so if we ensure that our standards are respected.”

Mercosur negotiations suspended? 

As the farmers’ promised “siege” of Paris and other major locations across France continues, the French government has been trying to reassure agricultural workers about Mercosur, even though President Emmanuel Macron and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva relaunched negotiations in December. “France is clearly opposed to the signing of the Mercosur treaty,” Prime Minister Gabriel Attal acknowledged last week.

The Élysée Palace even said on Monday evening that EU negotiations with the South American bloc had been suspended because of France’s opposition to the treaty. The conditions are “not ripe” for concluding the negotiations, said Eric Mamer, spokesman for the European Commission. “However, discussions are ongoing.” 

Before being adopted, the agreement would have to be passed unanimously by the European Parliament, then ratified individually by the 27 EU member states.

This article has been translated from the original in French

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From sledgehammers to milking robots: French film charts half a century on a dairy farm

Gilles Perret’s “La Ferme des Bertrand” is something of a rarity in French film: a tale of rural success for three generations of a family of dairy farmers. Its release next week has acquired added resonance as farmers across France rise up in protest at taxes, costs and regulations they say are killing their livelihoods.

The plight of France’s farmers is a well-trodden path in French cinema, typically focusing on the stricken family businesses that modern life has left by the wayside.

In his seminal trilogy “Profils paysans”, Raymond Depardon followed octogenarian farmers and herdsmen scraping a living in remote areas blighted by the rural exodus. Others have investigated the damage wrought by intensive farming and the agrochemical industry, with their trail of livelihoods wrecked and family farms pushed into bankruptcy.

French farmers now number fewer than half a million, a fraction of their postwar total. But their fading world still occupies an outsized place in the national psyche, infused with nostalgia for France’s rural past and tinged with guilt at the hardship experienced by so many. 

Read moreFewer, older, poorer: France’s farming crisis in numbers

La Ferme des Bertrand”, which opens in French cinemas next week, tells a different story: that of a dairy farm’s successful transition to modernity under three generations of the same family.

Its aim is not to belittle or ignore the struggle of others, says Perret, who wrote the film with his partner Marion Richoux, but to showcase an agriculture that is both viable and appealing, and deeply respectful of the environment.

Economic success, human failure

Early on in the film, we meet a trio of shirtless brothers smashing stones with sledgehammers to build the foundation of their future milking parlour. Their lean, muscular bodies hint at an austere life of back-breaking toil and frugality.

The black-and-white footage is taken from a 1972 documentary shot by France’s national broadcaster in the Alpine hamlet where Perret grew up, a few steps away from the dairy farm run by the Bertrand brothers. 

Twenty-five years later, Perret borrowed a camera to film the same trio as they prepared to pass the farm on to their nephew and his wife. He resumed filming another quarter of a century later, with a third generation of Bertrands now at the helm, before merging the three epochs into a fascinating chronicle of half a century of rural resilience and adaptation.

The Bertrand brothers in a 1972 documentary by Marcel Trillat. © ORTF

When they pass the baton in 1997, the three brothers leave behind a healthy business but at a steep cost: all three have remained bachelors, casting aside their personal aspirations to stay tied to their land and cattle throughout a lifetime of personal sacrifice.

As the mustachioed André, the film’s standout character, says in a sobering reflection, their story is one of “economic success and human failure”.

It takes a third generation of the Bertrand family to finally strike a healthier balance between work and family life, aided by an impressive array of machines that has changed the nature of their work beyond recognition.

“The youngsters barely do any manual work nowadays,” mutters André, hunched over his stick, still soldiering on in the film’s most recent footage. “But they sure know a thing or two about machines.”

A protected bubble

André and his brothers provide many of the film’s most endearing scenes, whether expertly wielding a sickle, massaging a chicken, or calling each of their one hundred cows by name.

But Perret’s film does not indulge in nostalgia for a bygone era. It opens with a shot of a brand-new milking machine, which the retiring Hélène, from the second generation of the Bertrand family, jokingly introduces as her “replacement” – one that will make her son’s work less tiring and repetitive.

Hélène (left), her son Marc (right) and her son-in-law Alex: generations two and three of the Bertrand family.
Hélène (left), her son Marc (right) and her son-in-law Alex: generations two and three of the Bertrand family. © Laurent Cousin

The intent is to provoke viewers, says Perret, introducing a form of farming that is in step with society and with the technological evolutions that are shaping our world.

“In many other sectors, mechanisation has led to job losses and a deterioration in working conditions,” he says. “In this case, it appears robots can be of great help to humans, taking over some of the most exhausting tasks in a profession that requires around-the-clock presence, 365 days a year.”

For all the talk of success, the film makes no secret of the physical toll on the Bertrands. André’s two brothers died just weeks into retirement. Their nephew only made it to 50, leaving Hélène with three children and a farm to run.

The fact that the farm powered on owes much to its privileged location in the protected cheesemaking region of Haute-Savoie, home to Reblochon cheese. 

The designation means their milk is sold at twice the price of milk from the plains or industrial farms. They effectively operate in a bubble, protected from the market forces that leave countless other farmers at the mercy of volatile prices they have no control over. 

Toiling with a purpose

In the 25 years since he first filmed the farm, Perret has built up a large body of socially-minded work, sometimes teaming up with the muckraking journalist-turned-politician François Ruffin to denounce the worst effects of unbridled capitalism. His films focus on the human impact of economic and societal transformations, shining a light on spaces of resistance to the coercive forces of globalised economies.

He says growing up alongside the Bertrand family has helped shape his outlook and his interests.

“In all my films I’ve tried to question our relationship to work, the meaning of what we do, how we can improve conditions, and what can be done to preserve our environment,” he says. “These are all things that are at the heart of their lives.”

André's brother Patrick wields his scythe in footage from 1997.
André’s brother Patrick wields his scythe in footage from 1997. © Gilles Perret

In order to qualify for the Reblochon label, the farm is bound to strict guidelines which rule out non-natural foods for the cattle and require the animals to be out grazing in the mountain pastures for a minimum of 150 days a year. 

“It doesn’t quite qualify as organic farming, but it comes very close,” says Perret, stressing the Bertrands’ role in shaping and preserving the pristine environment around the hamlet he still lives in – both a gift of nature and a legacy of their painstaking labour.

“The money we make is for living,” says one of the brothers midway through the film as he soaks in the view, resting on his scythe after a day of toil. “The real satisfaction comes from keeping our nature clean and healthy.”

“La Ferme des Bertrand” (89min) opens in French cinemas on Wednesday, January 31.

France’s farming protests

French farmers have blocked roads, junctions and motorways in protest at pay, low food prices and environmental rules they say are ruining their livelihoods, in an echo of protests taking place in other EU countries.

With convoys of tractors advancing on Paris and threatening to blockade the capital, France’s new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced key concessions on Friday including an end to rising fuel costs and the simplification of regulations.

But the main farming union, the FNSEA, described the measures as insufficient, vowing to maintain its mobilisation until the government meets all of its demands.

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Why French farmers are up in arms: fuel hikes, green regulation, EU directives

French farmers have engaged in a standoff with the government to express anger over a perceived lack of respect, rising costs and suffocating EU regulation. Prime Minister Gabriel Attal seeks to calm the protesters while the far-right National Rally hopes to take advantage of their anger, just five months before the European elections.

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France’s farmers are angry with their government. Several dozen of them have been blocking a portion of the A64 highway near Toulouse since January 18 to express their anger. Then an explosion between Thursday and Friday night blew out the windows of a local government building in the nearby city of Carcassonne. Two graffiti tags left at the scene attributed the act to a mysterious collective of winemakers.

“It is not insignificant that this [the protest movement] comes from the south of the country,” said François Purseigle, a sociology professor at the French agronomy faculty of the Toulouse Institute of Technology. “Farmers are on the frontline of climate change, with successive droughts taking place, and they have been repeatedly told they are not doing enough for the environment.”   

Read moreCan technological fixes solve France’s water crisis amid record droughts?

Surprised by the farmers’ blockades, France’s government announced a delay of “several weeks’” for reforms announced over a year ago to help farmers. The stakes are high: France lost 20% (101,000) of its farms between 2010 and 2020, according to a recent survey.

“Many young people today prefer to avoid self-employment because they would earn less than a farm employee, and this should not be the case,” said Yohann Barbe, a cattle farmer in the Vosges department in northeastern France. Successive governments have been struggling to stop the phenomenon. “Nearly 200,000 farmers will be of retirement age by 2026, but there are not enough buyers [to take over their farms],” said Purseigle. “There is a gap between Macron’s speech on ‘civic rearmament’ and the reality of farmers who feel completely disarmed.”

‘We can’t expect farmers to shoulder the ecological transition’

The vulnerabilities of farmers are increasing day by day. “Emmanuel Macron made a great speech on agriculture during a meeting at Rungis International Market in 2017, but never acted upon it. We’re fed up,” Barbe said.

Protesters say their movement, which originated in the southwest, is bound to spread nationwide, especially if the government does not quickly respond to their grievances. These include the government’s move to increase taxes on agricultural diesel, a polluting fuel, used by farmers, that has long benefited from government tax breaks. The move will directly affect the sector’s production costs.

Read moreFrench politicians attempt to appease angry farmers ahead of European elections

Farmers are also denouncing non-compliance with a law passed in 2018 which guarantees that hikes in production costs be covered by the agrifood chain through trade negotiations. 

“I sell my milk to Savencia (an agribusiness group), even though I don’t even know how much milk will cost on February 1, because we didn’t reach an agreement with them in December,” said Barbe, who is also a member of the National Federation of Farmers’ Unions (FNSEA). In another example, the 2018 law required 20% of the food distributed in canteens to be organic by 2022, but the threshold is still stagnating at around 6%, according to the French newspaper Les Echos. “We can’t expect farmers to shoulder the ecological transition by themselves,” said Barbe.

The European Union targeted

Also jarring to farmers are the mounting environmental standards put on agricultural production. They point out that the frequent transposition of European directives make national standards even stricter than European standards. “We are not against more supervision, but we need compensation on prices,” said Barbe. This comes at the risk of losing to foreign competition. France imported more than one chicken out of two consumed in 2022 from abroad (notably, from Belgium, Poland and Brazil).

The farmers are also holding the European Union itself responsible for their situation. With a budget of €53.7 billion for the 2023-2027 mandate, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) implements a system of agricultural subsidies and other programmes. Farmers describe it as dysfunctional. “For the first time, the CAP subsidies have still not yet been paid to all our farmers in 2023. Several farmers are having problems with their bank or their suppliers, who they weren’t able to pay as a result,” said Barbe.

Anger over European regulations grows among French farmers

The far-right National Rally did not hesitate to use this anger against Brussels to launch its campaign for the European elections in June. Jordan Bardella, chief of the National Rally, spent last Sunday with workers on the wine-growing lands of Médoc.

“The European Union and the Europe of Macron (want) the death of our agriculture,” said Bardella. “French farmers are exposed to unfair competition from products from around the world which don’t respect the strict standards that they (French producers) have to observe,” he added.

For Purseigle, the farmers’ anger will be a major theme in the coming European elections. “If they have succeeded in one area, it is in putting agricultural issues on the political agenda,” he said. The newly appointed Prime Minister Gabriel Attal also rushed to the Rhône department in east-central France on Saturday before receiving the FNSEA and the Young Farmers Union Monday in an effort to calm the discontent. “Politics is also about responding to emotions,” Purseigle noted.

As for the farmers, they have already announced they won’t hesitate to block Paris and disrupt the Paris International Agricultural Show, which begins on February 24, if the government ignores their demands.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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Heat records and climate accords: How did the environment fare in 2023?

From drought in Spain to floods in the Horn of Africa and wildfires in Canada, 2023 was marked by some alarming environmental disasters. However, it wasn’t all bad news – the past few months have seen some significant advances in the fight against climate change.

The hottest year in history

It was hot this year, sometimes very hot – temperatures reached 53°C in Death Valley in the United States, 55°C in Tunisia, and 52°C in China

Even after summer, the mercury did not drop to regular levels with September, October and November all experiencing unusually warm temperatures. The news everyone anticipated finally came in early December: 2023 was the hottest year in recorded history.

For the period from January to November, the average global surface temperature was 1.46°C above the pre-industrial era. It was also 0.13°C above the average of the previous hottest year, 2016. The combined effects of the El Nino climate phenomenon in the Pacific and climate change are to blame.

Oceans suffered from extreme heat

The heat was not confined to land; the planet’s oceans also experienced frighteningly high temperatures. March, April, May, June, July, August, September and October all recorded their hottest maritime temperatures ever.

On July 30, the average global ocean surface temperature reached an unprecedented 20.96°C, according to the European climate monitoring service, the Copernicus Institute. Just a month later, the Mediterranean Sea set its daily heat record, with a median temperature of 28.71°C, according to the main Spanish maritime research centre.

Read moreWorld’s oceans set new temperature record, EU data says

These repeated new records indicate an increasing frequency of marine heatwaves, something that could have dramatic impacts on biodiversity.

Both poles melting at rapid rates

In February, towards the end of the summer in the southern hemisphere, the Antarctic ice sheet reached an alarmingly low level before growing back at an unusually slow pace over the winter.

The ice sheet’s surface in September was 16.96 million km2, the lowest sea ice maximum since measurements began by a wide margin, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC)

At the other end of the globe, the Arctic experienced its warmest summer on record, with an average temperature of 6.4°C. Both regions are affected by the “polar amplification” phenomenon which mean they warm faster than lower latitudes, partly due to the melting of the ice sheet and ocean warming.

Long periods of drought

The year was also marked by a series of severe droughts. France, for instance, recorded no significant rainfall for the 32 consecutive days between January 21 and February 21 – “the longest period since records began in 1959”, according to the Copernicus Institute.

In Spain, parts of the population had to deal with a lack of rain for more than 100 days, sparking frustration and raising tensions with neighbouring Portugal over water use.

The European Union was far from the only affected territory. In early June, Iran warned that 97% of the country lacked water due to a lack of rain. A historic drought that has had serious consequences for agriculture since 2020 continued in the Horn of Africa.

Unprecedented wildfires

With drought comes fire. Some 6,400 fires burned 18.5 million hectares of Canada’s famous forests – more than twice the previous record of 7.6 million hectares set in 1989 – giving the country its worst fire season ever recorded.

Images of an orange and apocalyptic New York skyline went viral after smoke from the Canadian wildfires made its way south, polluting air and disrupting traffic.

The Statue of Liberty is covered in haze and smoke caused by wildfires in Canada, in New York on June 6, 2023. © Amr Alfiky, Reuters

Across the Atlantic, thousands of tourists had to be evacuated from the Greek island of Rhodes due to forest fires in what was the European country’s largest evacuation operation ever.

Rains intensify

Episodes of drought were followed by intense rains, often causing floods. In early August, a month’s worth of rain fell in less than 24 hours in Slovenia, killing three people and causing an estimated €500 million of damage.

In the Horn of Africa too, drought gave way to torrential rains, killing more than 300 and displacing two million people, according to the UN. 

In Libya, several thousand people died, and tens of thousands were displaced due to floods in the eastern part of the country.

Serious flooding also occurred in the United States, Japan, Nepal, China, and even France, which experienced historic autumn rainfall in the Pas-de-Calais region.

Fossil fuels mentioned in a COP final text

For the first time, a United Nations Climate Conference (COP) – held in early December in Dubai – concluded with a text calling for a “transition away” from the primary driver of climate change, fossil fuels. 

However, the text has been criticised for its many shortcomings by environmental NGOs and activists, notably for favouring carbon capture technologies and presenting gas as a “transitional energy”. 

Renewable energies made headway

Renewable energies advanced at full speed in 2023. Mainly driven by solar and new photovoltaic capacities, renewable energies are expected to produce 4,500 GW of power in 2024, equivalent to the combined electrical production of the United States and China, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.

In the EU, this momentum is expected to be boosted by a new “Renewable Energy Directive” which set a binding target of achieving 42.5% renewable energy by 2030, compared to the current 22%. Following COP28, EU member states also committed to tripling the production of renewable energy.

An EU law on nature restoration and biodiversity

There was also good news for forests, meadows, lakes, rivers, and corals. After months of tension and hours of negotiations, the European Parliament and EU states reached an agreement in November on a nature restoration bill. The stated goal is to restore 20% of the EU’s land and seas by 2030, and all degraded ecosystems by 2050 – representing 80% of total natural habitats.

Watch moreMeeting Dr Jane Goodall: A global champion for the environment

While the text is less ambitious than it was originally supposed to be, especially regarding restoration obligations for agricultural land, it raised hopes at a time of grave biodiversity loss.

The first treaty on the protection of international waters

After 15 years of discussions, in June, the UN officially adopted the High Seas Treaty, a first of its kind aimed at protecting international waters and preserving marine life.

International waters begin where the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of states end – up to a maximum of 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the coasts – and are therefore not under the jurisdiction of any state. Although they constitute nearly half of the planet and more than 60% of the oceans, international waters have long been ignored in environmental efforts. Today, only about 1% are subject to conservation measures.

The new treaty will facilitate the creation of marine protected areas. The text is expected to come into effect in 2025, at the next UN Ocean Conference in France.

Is a treaty against plastic pollution in the works?

The good news may not end with 2023. Representatives from 175 countries have been developing a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution. This is a significant challenge as plastic, derived from petrochemicals, can be found everywhere – from the depths of the oceans to the tops of our planet’s highest mountains.

Read moreTackling plastic pollution: ‘We can’t recycle our way out of this’

However, there is a divergence of views on plastic pollution. Some are calling for a binding treaty aimed at “restricting and reducing the consumption and production” of plastic, while others argue for a focus on better waste management.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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The state of the planet in 10 numbers

This article is part of the Road to COP special report, presented by SQM.

The COP28 climate summit comes at a critical moment for the planet. 

A summer that toppled heat records left a trail of disasters around the globe. The world may be just six years away from breaching the Paris Agreement’s temperature target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, setting the stage for much worse calamities to come. And governments are cutting their greenhouse gas pollution far too slowly to head off the problem — and haven’t coughed up the billions of dollars they promised to help poorer countries cope with the damage.

This year’s summit, which starts on Nov. 30 in Dubai, will conclude the first assessment of what countries have achieved since signing the Paris accord in 2015. 

The forgone conclusion: They’ve made some progress. But not enough. The real question is what they do in response.

To help understand the stakes, here’s a snapshot of the state of the planet — and global climate efforts — in 10 numbers. 

1.3 degrees Celsius

Global warming since the preindustrial era  

Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions have been driving global temperatures skyward since the 19th century, when the industrial revolution and the mass burning of fossil fuels began to affect the Earth’s climate. The world has already warmed by about 1.3 degrees Celsius, or 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit, and most of that warming has occurred since the 1970s. In the last 50 years, research suggests, global temperatures have risen at their fastest rate in at least 2,000 years.  

This past October concluded the Earth’s hottest 12-month span on record, a recent analysis found. And 2023 is virtually certain to be the hottest calendar year ever observed. It’s continuing a string of recent record-breakers — the world’s five hottest years on record have all occurred since 2015. 

Allowing warming to pass 2 degrees Celsius would tip the world into catastrophic changes, scientists have warned, including life-threatening heat extremes, worsening storms and wildfires, crop failures, accelerating sea level rise and existential threats to some coastal communities and small island nations. Eight years ago in Paris, nearly every nation on Earth agreed to strive to keep temperatures well below that threshold, and under a more ambitious 1.5-degree threshold if at all possible. 

But with just fractions of a degree to go, that target is swiftly approaching — and many experts say it’s already all but out of reach.

$4.3 trillion  

Global economic losses from climate disasters since 1970  

Climate-related disasters are worsening as temperatures rise. Heat waves are intensifying, tropical cyclones are strengthening, floods and droughts are growing more severe and wildfires are blazing bigger. Record-setting events struck all over the planet this year, a harbinger of new extremes to come. Scientists say such events will only accelerate as the world warms. 

Nearly 12,000 weather, climate and water-related disasters struck worldwide over the last five decades, the World Meteorological Organization reports. They’ve caused trillions of dollars in damage, and they’ve killed more than 2 million people.  

Ninety percent of these deaths have occurred in developing countries. Compared with wealthier nations, these countries have historically contributed little to the greenhouse gas emissions driving global warming – yet they disproportionately suffer the impacts of climate change.  

4.4 millimeters  

Annual rate of sea level rise

Global sea levels are rapidly rising as the ice sheets melt and the oceans warm and expand. Scientists estimate that they’re now rising by about 4.4 millimeters, or about 0.17 inches, each year – and that rate is accelerating, increasing by about 1 millimeter every decade.

Those sound like small numbers. They’re not.  

The world’s ice sheets and glaciers are losing a whopping 1.2 trillion tons of ice each year. Those losses are also speeding up, accelerating by at least 57 percent since the 1990s. Future sea level rise mainly depends on future ice melt, which depends on future greenhouse gas emissions. With extreme warming, global sea levels will likely rise as much as 3 feet by the end of this century, enough to swamp many coastal communities, threaten freshwater supplies and submerge some small island nations.  

Some places are more vulnerable than others. 

“Low-lying islands in the Pacific are on the frontlines of the fight against sea level rise,” said NASA sea level expert Benjamin Hamlington. “In the U.S., the Southeast and Gulf Coasts are experiencing some of the highest rates of sea level rise in the world and have very high future projections of sea level.”  

But in the long run, he added, “almost every coastline around the world is going to experience sea level rise and will feel impacts.”

Less than 6 years

When the world could breach the 1.5-degree threshold

The world is swiftly running out of time to meet its most ambitious international climate target: keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Humans can emit only another 250 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide and maintain at least even odds of meeting that goal, scientists say. 

That pollution threshold could arrive in as little as six years.

That’s the bottom line from at least two recent studies, one published in June and one in October. Humans are pouring about 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, with each ton eating into the margin of error.  

The size of that carbon buffer is smaller than previous estimates have suggested, indicating that time is running out even faster than expected.  

“While our research shows it is still physically possible for the world to remain below 1.5C, it’s difficult to see how that will stay the case for long,” said Robin Lamboll, a scientist at Imperial College London and lead author of the most recent study. “Unfortunately, net-zero dates for this target are rapidly approaching, without any sign that we are meeting them.”

43 percent 

How much greenhouse gas emissions must fall by 2030 to hit the temperature target

The world would have to undergo a stark transformation during this decade to have any hope of meeting the Paris Agreement’s ambitious 1.5-degree cap. 

In a nutshell, global greenhouse gas emissions have to fall 43 percent by 2030, and 60 percent by 2035, before reaching net-zero by mid-century, according to a U.N. report published in September on the progress the world has made since signing the Paris Agreement. That would give the world a 50 percent chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. 

But based on the climate pledges that countries have made to date, greenhouse gas emissions are likely to fall by just 2 percent this decade, according to a U.N. assessment published this month

Governments are “taking baby steps to avert the climate crisis,” U.N. climate chief Simon Stiell said in a statement this month. “This means COP28 must be a clear turning point.” 

$1 trillion a year 

Climate funding needs of developing countries

In many ways, U.N. climate summits are all about finance. Cutting industries’ carbon pollution, protecting communities from extreme weather, rebuilding after climate disasters — it all costs money. And developing countries, in particular, don’t have enough of it. 

As financing needs grow, pressure is mounting on richer nations such as the U.S. that have produced the bulk of planet-warming emissions to help developing countries cut their own pollution and adapt to a warmer world. They also face growing calls to pay for the destruction wrought by climate change, known as loss and damage in U.N.-speak. 

But the flow of money from rich to poor countries has slowed. In October, a pledging conference to replenish the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund raised only $9.3 billion, even less than the $10 billion that countries had promised last time. An overdue promise by developed countries to deliver $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to rising temperatures was “likely” met last year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said this month, while warning that adaptation finance had fallen by 14 percent in 2021. 

As a result, the gap between what developing countries need and how much money is flowing in their direction is growing. The OECD report said developing countries will need around $1 trillion a year for climate investments by 2025, “rising to roughly $2.4 trillion each year between 2026 and 2030.”

$7 trillion 

Worldwide fossil fuel subsidies in 2022

In stark contrast to the trickle of climate finance, fossil fuel subsidies have surged in recent years. In 2022, total spending on subsidies for oil, natural gas and coal reached a record $7 trillion, the International Monetary Fund said in August. That’s $2 trillion more than in 2020. 

Explicit subsidies — direct government support to reduce energy prices — more than doubled since 2020, to $1.3 trillion. But the majority of subsidies are implicit, representing the fact that governments don’t require fossil fuel companies to pay for the health and environmental damage that their products inflict on society. 

At the same time, countries continue pumping public and private money into fossil fuel production. This month, a U.N. report found that governments plan to produce more than twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with the 1.5-degree target. 

66,000 square kilometers

Gross deforestation worldwide in 2022

At the COP26 climate summit two years ago in Glasgow, Scotland, nations committed to halting global deforestation by 2030. A total of 145 countries have signed the Glasgow Forest Declaration, representing more than 90 percent of global forest cover. 

Yet global action is still falling short of that target. The annual Forest Declaration Assessment, produced by a collection of research and civil society organizations, estimated that the world lost 66,000 square kilometers of forest last year, or about 25,000 square miles — a swath of territory slightly larger than West Virginia or Lithuania. Most of that loss came from tropical forests. 

Halting deforestation is a critical component of global climate action. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that collective contributions from agriculture, forestry and land use compose as much as 21 percent of global human-caused carbon emissions. Deforestation releases large volumes of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, and recent research suggests that carbon losses from tropical forests may have doubled since the early 2000s.  

Almost 1 billion tons

The annual carbon dioxide removal gap 

Given the world’s slow pace in reducing greenhouse gas pollution, scientists say a second approach is essential for slowing the Earth’s warming — removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The technology for doing this is largely untested at scale, and won’t be cheap.  

A landmark report on carbon dioxide removals led by the University of Oxford earlier this year found that keeping warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less would require countries to collectively remove an additional 0.96 billion tons of CO2-equivalent a year by 2030.

About 2 billion tons are now removed every year, but that is largely achieved through the natural absorption capacity of forests. 

Removing even more carbon will require countries to massively scale up carbon removal technologies, given the limited capacity of forests to absorb more carbon dioxide. 

Carbon removal technologies are in the spotlight at COP28, though some countries and companies want to use them to meet net-zero while continuing to burn fossil fuels. Scientists have been clear that carbon removal cannot be a substitute for steep emissions cuts. 

1,000 gigawatts 

Annual growth in renewable power capacity needed to keep 1.5 degrees in reach  

The shift from fossil fuels to renewables is underway, but the transition is still far too slow to meet the Paris Agreement targets. 

To keep 1.5 degrees within reach, the International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that the world needs to add 1,000 gigawatts in renewable energy capacity every year through 2030. By comparison, the United States’ entire utility-scale electricity-generation capacity was about 1,160 gigawatts last year, according to the Department of Energy.

Last year, countries added about 300 gigawatts, according to the agency’s latest World Energy Transitions Outlook published in June. 

That shortfall has prompted the EU and the climate summit’s host nation, the United Arab Emirates, to campaign for nations to sign up to a target to triple the world’s renewable capacity by 2030 at COP28, a goal also supported by the U.S. and China.

“The transition to clean energy is happening worldwide and it’s unstoppable,” International Energy Agency boss Fatih Birol said last month. “It’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s just a matter of ‘how soon’ – and the sooner the better for all of us.”

This article is part of the Road to COP special report, presented by SQM. The article is produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers.

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Glyphosate: Europe divided by the world’s most widely used pesticide

This article was originally published in French

The European Commission is preparing to renew the authorisation of glyphosate for a further ten years, with a vote scheduled for 13 October in Brussels.


The European Union authorised the use of the herbicide glyphosate in 2017 for an initial five years, for a further year in December 2022.

Brussels’ decision to give this chemical the green light was based on conclusions from a European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) report, published in July, which found that glyphosate did not present a “critical area of concern”. But, this resolution has given rise to debate and concern within EU Member States.

Théo, a victim of weedkiller

In 2006, Sabine was still unaware that she was pregnant while using glyphosate at work. However, this powerful herbicide was about to mark her life forever.

“Every year, as part of my job as a horse ride organiser, I had to use a glyphosate-based weed killer on our riding arena. It’s a sandy area of about 700 square metres. And it took me several days to do it every time,” Sabine Grataloup told Euronews. “And that’s when Théo was in my belly, it was the beginning of my pregnancy and that’s exactly when Théo’s larynx, trachea and oesophagus were malformed.”

In 2018 Sabine sued Monsanto, the US agrochemical giant that sold the pesticide. The link between glyphosate and Theo’s malformations was recognised by a compensation commission for prenatal children exposed to pesticides.

This is the first time in France the herbicide has been officially recognised as a possible source of birth defects.

“It’s an amount that has the merit of existing, which is around €1,000 per month, paid from around March- April 2023 until March 2025, so for three years. And in March 2025, the Commission will re-examine Théo’s case to see whether the compensation should be extended or whether it is considered that his condition is no longer evolving,” Sabine explained.

A clear victory but one that does not erase years of suffering. 

“Théo has malformations in his oesophagus, trachea and larynx. It’s a polymalformative syndrome, so he has a series of malformations that required a lot of operations. He had a total of 54 operations,” said his mother.

Even today, because of a ruptured oesophagus, Théo, now aged 16, can only breathe with a tracheotomy, which is a hole made in his windpipe. Up to the age of six, he was fed through a tube.

Ahead of Friday’s vote, Sabine Grataloup is appealing to MEPs: “What I would like to say to them is to take their noses out of the figures, to take their noses out of the economic balance sheets and statistics, to tell themselves that behind the statistics there are real victims. If they take the decision to keep glyphosate on the European market, they are taking the decision that there will be these victims, they are responsible for this suffering and these future victims.”

What is glyphosate?

Glyphosate is a herbicide widely used around the world to eliminate weeds that invade agricultural crops and public spaces. It was introduced to the market in the 1970s by Monsanto under the trade name Roundup, although many other manufacturers also produce glyphosate-based formulations.

Its popularity is based on its undeniable effectiveness in controlling weeds, its ease of use and its relatively affordable cost. Its mode of action is to inhibit an enzyme that is crucial to plant growth, leading to elimination.

However, glyphosate is at the heart of controversy and debate due to growing concerns about its possible impact on human health and the environment. According to Gergely Simon, Senior Chemicals Officer at Pesticide Action Network (PAN Europe), an NGO dedicated to sustainable agricultural practices and the reduction of pesticide use in Europe, “Glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide in Europe and worldwide, and is essentially a herbicide. It’s used for a variety of applications such as pre-harvest use and desiccation, but it’s even used in national parks to combat invasive species, and we even know that quite a large quantity is used, for example, along railway lines for maintenance. But there are many other uses I could mention.”

According to the experts, this substance could easily be replaced. But Glyphosate EU, an organisation that brings together companies in favour of the pesticide, disagrees: “Many of the alternative approaches suggested for weed management require the reintroduction of mechanised farming practices. Apart from the negative impact this would have on the environment, the structural conditions of many crops do not allow the use of mechanical methods. For example, it is not possible to use machinery without destroying the crops,” the group told Euronews.

“In addition, no individual herbicide or combination of herbicides currently registered in Europe could offer the same benefits in terms of reduced tillage and the possibility of adopting cover crops, which are essential elements of conservation agriculture.”

The risks

Environmental groups have called EFSA’s assessment “shocking”.

“In our view, EFSA has downplayed the existing evidence from animal and epidemiological studies on the effects of glyphosate, which can cause DNA damage in certain organisms,” says Gergely Simon. “This indicates that glyphosate can cause cancer. We therefore believe that, in line with international guidelines from the US EPA, glyphosate should be classified as carcinogenic, which has already been done by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and also by France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm). They have all concluded that, based on the available evidence, there is a probable link between exposure to glyphosate and the development of cancer”.


EFSA, for its part, responded that “data gaps are mentioned” in their report, “either as questions that could not be completely answered or as open questions.”

The three questions that could not be finalised relate to the assessment of one of the impurities present in glyphosate, the dietary risk assessment for consumers and the risk assessment for aquatic plants. “Overall, the information available does not allow definitive conclusions to be drawn regarding this aspect of the risk assessment,” EFSA told Euronews.

Gergely Simon stresses that the risks should not be underestimated under any circumstances. “Numerous studies show that exposure to glyphosate can be linked to both autism in children and Parkinson’s disease. We therefore believe that the fact that EFSA has stated that there is no standardised protocol for drawing conclusions on the neurotoxicity of glyphosate should be a critical area of concern, which would mean that glyphosate could not be authorised as it currently is,” he emphasises

“In addition, there is a large body of alarming evidence about the destructive effects of glyphosate on the microbiome, as glyphosate is both a herbicide and an antibiotic. It is primarily used, for example, to alter the soil microbiome, but also the human gut microbiome. We know that there are many health risks associated with the destruction of the microbiome. Finally, EFSA has confirmed that glyphosate has the potential to cause endocrine disruption at doses considered safe in the European Union”, adds the PAN Europe representative.

“There are no internationally recognised guidelines for assessing the risks associated with the microbiome in the field of pesticides. Further research is needed”.


Glyphosate EU, the group of companies in favour of renewing the authorisation of glyphosate in Europe, says: “All allegations have been raised on several occasions and have been dealt with by the regulatory authorities, in Europe and throughout the world. This is yet another attempt by non-governmental organisations to discredit the most comprehensive scientific dossier presented in the application for renewal of EU approval for glyphosate, and to undermine confidence in the regulatory authorities in order to prevent the renewal of approval for glyphosate in the EU”.

Opposing countries

Germany has argued in favour of abandoning glyphosate in the European Union. In September 2023, at the end of a meeting between representatives of the 27 member states to discuss the European Commission’s proposal, the German agriculture minister warned of the threats to biodiversity and stressed the need for a coordinated phase-out of glyphosate at European level, while warning of uneven levels of protection within the EU.

In 2021, the German government announced its decision to withdraw glyphosate from the market by the end of 2023. The country is therefore expected to vote against renewing the authorisation of this herbicide within the EU at the vote scheduled for 13 October.

France, for its part, had also tried to adopt restrictive measures with regard to glyphosate. In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron announced his commitment to completely ban glyphosate in France before 2021.

In early 2019, Macron buried his promise during the Grand Débat. “Can we say that there will be no more glyphosate in five years? It’s impossible. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s not true. If I told you that, I’d be completely killing certain sectors”, he said. 


PAN Europe carried out a poll in which two-thirds of those questioned said they wanted a total ban on pesticides such as glyphosate. “We believe that the Commission’s proposal not only breaches EU law, but also ignores the legitimate concerns of European citizens. Only 14% of citizens expressed support for the use of glyphosate. Around two-thirds of those questioned said they wanted a total ban,” concludes Gergely Simon.

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Is the EU sacrificing animal welfare to tackle the cost of living?

Long-awaited EU animal welfare proposals are falling through without an official explanation. Some reports suspect that economic objectives are at play.


A raft of highly-anticipated EU animal welfare proposals are overdue, and it seems that the European Commission will fall short on its commitments for the long-promised legislative reforms.

Brussels appears to be handling the matter discreetly behind closed doors, following leaks that revealed the proposals could be scrapped in an effort to tackle the high food prices and inflation gripping the continent.

Animal welfare organisations have accused policy makers of a U-turn and seem to be at loss in understanding what is happening after the Commission committed to ‘End the Cage Age’ years ago.

The End the Cage Age was a citizens’ initiative, signed by almost 1.4 million people in 2020.

It prompted the Commission to commit to proposing legislation to phase out the use of cage systems for animals such as hens, rabbits and ducks by the end of 2023.

The legislative framework was also meant to include a stop to the practice of slaughtering day-old chicks, and the sale and production of fur, as well as shortening the transport of live animals. 

The deafening silence of the European Commission

As the moment of truth approached, news reports began to cast doubts about the fate of the legislation.

The topic was also missing from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s State of The Union speech, which was seen as an opportunity for the president to sum up what her administration had left to do before the European elections next year.

This didn’t escape the attention of animal welfare NGOs.

Euronews reached out to the European Commission but received no response as of this article’s publication.

Finally, at a hearing in the European Parliament on Tuesday, European Commission Executive Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, nominated to oversee the European Green Deal, raised many eyebrows when he couldn’t commit to a deadline of the animal welfare proposals in question.

The vice-president, however, kept repeating that the animal welfare proposals remain a priority for the upcoming months.

The following day, on World Animal Day, Vice-President Šefčovič wrote to MEPs indicating that the European Commission will present its proposal to protect animals while they are transported, in December 2023.

He did not commit to any deadline concerning the rest of the animal welfare issues, however, noting that the Commission will continue working on the remaining proposals.

Animal welfare organisations, including FOUR PAWS International and Compassion in World Farming, immediately reacted saying that the European Commission is not delivering what it had promised.

Compassion in World Farming said that the “Commission slaps democracy in the face, and signals GAME OVER for EU animal welfare revolution”.

“The Commission’s U-turn regarding the much-touted animal welfare reform is a failure for democracy and the European project,“ said Olga Kikou, European Affairs Manager at Compassion in World Farming. 

Could inflation be the reason for abandoning animal welfare?

The European Commission has yet to communicate any clear reasons why it has abandoned the proposals, but media reports suggest that there are fears that the animal welfare amendments could fuel food inflation further.


The Financial Times (FT) reported on a draft impact assessment by the Commission, that showed how farmers’ costs could surge by an average of 15%, potentially leading to higher consumer prices and an increase in imports.

Improving the housing of broiler chickens could add one cent to the price of an egg, according to the draft assessment.

In its report, the FT asked the EU farmer’s group Copa-Cogeca for its opinion on the proposals, which said it was in favour of many of the suggested changes as long as they came with financial aid and as long as imported meat had the same standards as that in Europe.

Despite these fears, while still high, food inflation has actually started slowing down in recent months, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistics office.

Furthermore, the proposals would take years to be signed into the statute books and put into practice, making the current food inflation an even less significant factor.


FOUR PAWS’s director of European policy, Joe Moran, told Euronews that the proposals remain proposals until they are adopted. 

“We’re looking at 2028, 2027, then there would have to be an implementation period before they actually apply,” he said.

The transition periods for such measures often take 10 to 15 years.

“So to not go ahead with something now because of costs that could be spread over 20 years would, in my view, be a bit like someone cancelling their summer holiday in 10 years time because they’ve looked online and it’s raining at their destination today,” Moran said.” It literally doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s bonkers.”

The director shared his suspicion that scrapping the plans may be “all about optics” in the light of the European Commission’s efforts to secure the new EU-Mercosur trade deal involving Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, before the end of this year.


The impact of the planned animal welfare proposals to international trade relations

In April, 2023 a leaked impact assessment showed that the trading partners most affected by the higher standards were expected to be Brazil and Thailand in the case of poultry meat, and Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the case of beef.

Moran said the European Commission thinks it would be “incredibly dangerous” for the legislative package to come to light during the course of the talks, as it could jeopardise a deal if South American imports were required to meet the same high standards.

“They see this as a kind of straw that might break the proverbial camel’s back,” he said.

Moran added that to his knowledge, the originally planned proposals were ready to move to the inter-service consultation stage, to then be ultimately published within weeks. He said he cannot understand why, at this stage, they cannot be released to the public.

“A proposal is only a proposal. […] We’re asking them simply to put these texts in the public domain in front of MEPs, in front of member states,” said Moran. “They could then be amended. They can be changed. But at least discussions like this should happen in daylight in a democracy. I don’t believe that they should be happening behind closed doors.“


What’s at stake?

The director called attention to the pressing issues that the proposals were supposed to address, such as ending piglet castration, preventing the separation of calves from their mothers right after birth, and stopping chickens from growing at such rates that essentially they can’t stand up because they can’t their legs can’t support their own weight.

The European Food Safety Authority notes that farmed animals’ welfare is directly connected to the safety of the food chain, and that the relationship between animal welfare, animal health, and food-borne diseases is tight, with stress factors and poor welfare leading to increased susceptibility to transmissible diseases among animals.

It’s worth remembering that there is no serious concern about food safety in the European Union as the bloc has the highest standards of animal welfare in the world already.

While acknowledging that the EU is a leader in many respects, Moran emphasised that other parts of the world better regulate certain aspects of animal welfare, such as banning live exports, even if their overall welfare regulation pales in comparison to Europe’s.

“If we want the EU to continue to be the world’s leader in animal welfare, we need these proposals now,” he said.

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Blockaded on all fronts: Poland and Hungary threaten to cut Ukraine’s export route to the West

As Russia once again bombards and blockades Ukraine’s Black Sea ports — through which the country exports its vast agricultural produce — Poland and Hungary threaten to cut off the country’s western exit routes.

Poland will unilaterally block trade with Ukraine if the European Commission fails to extend temporary restrictions on grain imports at least until the end of the year, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a meeting of agriculture ministers from five Eastern EU countries in Warsaw on Wednesday.

“I want to make it clear,” Morawiecki told reporters, “we will not open our border. Either the European Commission will agree to jointly work out regulations that will extend this ban, or we will do it ourselves.”

Hungarian Agriculture Minister István Nagy echoed Morawiecki, saying his country would “protect Hungarian farmers with all its means.”

Days after killing a deal to allow Ukraine to export grain across the Black Sea, Moscow unleashed a wave of attacks on the Ukrainian ports of Odesa and Chornomorsk — two vital export facilities — damaging the infrastructure of global and Ukrainian traders and destroying 60,000 tons of grain.

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borell, called Russia’s escalating offensive “barbarian” on Thursday. “What we already know is that this is going to create a huge food crisis in the world,” he told reporters in Brussels, adding that EU countries needed to step up alternative export routes for Ukraine.

Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest exporters of corn, wheat and other grains. Following Russia’s invasion and blockade of its Black Sea ports last year, the EU set up land export routes through its territory.

In the year since, export corridors set up by the EU called ‘solidarity lanes’ have carried about 60 percent of Ukraine’s exports — mostly along the Danube to the Romanian port of Constanța. The remaining 40 percent has trickled through the country’s own ports under the now-defunct Black Sea Grain Initiative brokered by the U.N. and Turkey.

But the opening of the overland routes also led to an unprecedented influx of cheap Ukrainian grain into neighboring EU countries — Romania, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia — which was bought and resold by local traders instead of being exported further afield. The glut has put the solidarity of the bloc’s Eastern members with Ukraine in its war of defense sorely to the test.

With an election looming this fall, Poland sought to appease local farmers — a vital constituency for the right-wing government — by closing its border this spring to Ukrainian imports. Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria followed suit while Romania, which didn’t impose its own restrictions, joined the four in calling for restrictions at EU level.

In May, the five countries struck a deal with the Commission to drop their unilateral measures in exchange for €100 million in EU funding and assurances that Ukrainian shipments would only pass through the five countries on their way to other destinations. 

It’s these restrictions, which will expire on September 15, that the five countries want extended.

Other EU countries have criticized the Commission’s leniency towards the five Eastern troublemakers, saying the compromise undermined the integrity of the bloc’s internal market.

Open the borders

Borrell said that, instead of restricting trade, the EU should respond to Russia’s Black Sea escalation by opening its borders further.

“If the sea route is closed, we will have to increase the capacity of exporting Ukrainian grain through our ports, which means a bigger effort for the Ukrainian neighbors,” he said before a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

“They will have to contribute more, opening the borders and facilitating transport in order to take the grain of Ukraine from the Black Sea ports. This will require from Member States more engagement. We have done a lot, we have to do more.”

Separately on Thursday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called on the EU to make “maximum efforts” to facilitate grain exports from the country.

“While Russia destroys the Grain Initiative, attacks Ukrainian ports and tries to make money on rising food prices, Ukraine and the European Union should make maximum efforts to simplify food exports from Ukraine, particularly by increasing the capacity of alternative transport corridors ‘Solidarity Lanes’ as much as possible,” he said.

During Wednesday’s meeting in Warsaw, agriculture ministers from the five EU countries signed a declaration calling on Brussels to extend and expand the trade restrictions, amid concerns that Russia’s renewed Black Sea blockade could further pressure their domestic markets.

Only Poland and Hungary threatened to take unilateral action if the restrictions were lifted.


Despite the threat, a senior Commission official said on Thursday it was “premature” to say whether there was a need to extend the restrictions beyond the September 15 deadline.

In recent months, officials have stepped up surveillance and customs checks, and Romania and other countries have significantly increased investment in infrastructure and investment to facilitate the transit of grain through their countries and to other markets, the Commission official said.

But in the year since the land-based export routes were opened, Poland has taken no major steps to improve its own infrastructure or the capacity of its Baltic ports. Analysts say it is unlikely the country will be able to repeat the feat come this summer’s harvest. The Polish government has repeatedly blamed Brussels for not providing enough help.

Despite the ongoing trade dispute, officials in Kyiv have been careful not to openly criticize their counterparts in Warsaw.

That’s because Poland has played a leading role in supporting Ukraine since the war broke out, acting as the main transit point for Western weapons and sending plenty of its own. It has also taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees.

“We highly appreciate all the work done so far within the solidarity lanes by the European Commission and neighboring member states,” Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, Vsevolod Chentsov, told POLITICO.

Still, he added: “Statements by some member states of the need to extend the ban on the export of Ukrainian agrarian production [cause] serious concerns.” Without naming Poland he said that this “politicizes” the practical reality of what is a logistical challenge “jeopardizes the effectiveness of the solidarity lanes.”

Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting

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Blueberries have joined green beans in this year’s Dirty Dozen list | CNN

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Blueberries, beloved by nutritionists for their anti-inflammatory properties, have joined fiber-rich green beans in this year’s Dirty Dozen of nonorganic produce with the most pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental health organization.

In the 2023 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, researchers analyzed testing data on 46,569 samples of 46 fruits and vegetables conducted by the US Department of Agriculture. Each year, a rotating list of produce is tested by USDA staffers who wash, peel or scrub fruits and vegetables as consumers would before the food is examined for 251 different pesticides.

As in 2022, strawberries and spinach continued to hold the top two spots on the Dirty Dozen, followed by three greens — kale, collard and mustard. Listed next were peaches, pears, nectarines, apples, grapes, bell and hot peppers, and cherries. Blueberries and green beans were 11th and 12th on the list.

A total of 210 pesticides were found on the 12 foods, the report said. Kale, collard and mustard greens contained the largest number of different pesticides — 103 types — followed by hot and bell peppers at 101.

Dirty Dozen 2023

2023 Dirty Dozen (most to least contaminated)

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Kale, collard and mustard greens
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Bell and hot peppers
  • Cherries
  • Blueberries
  • Green beans
  • “Some of the USDA’s tests show traces of pesticides long since banned by the Environmental Protection Agency. Much stricter federal regulation and oversight of these chemicals is needed,” the report said.

    “Pesticides are toxic by design,” said Jane Houlihan, former senior vice president of research for EWG. She was not involved in the report.

    “They are intended to harm living organisms, and this inherent toxicity has implications for children’s health, including potential risk for hormone dysfunction, cancer, and harm to the developing brain and nervous system,” said Houlihan, who is now research director for Healthy Babies, Bright Futures, an organization dedicated to reducing babies’ exposures to neurotoxic chemicals.

    There is good news, though. Concerned consumers can consider choosing conventionally grown vegetables and fruits from the EWG’s Clean 15, a list of crops that tested lowest in pesticides, the report said. Nearly 65% of the foods on the list had no detectable levels of pesticide.

    2023 Clean 15

    2023 Clean 15 (least to most contaminated)

  • Avocados
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapple
  • Onions
  • Papaya
  • Frozen sweet peas
  • Asparagus
  • Honeydew melon
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Mushrooms
  • Mangoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Watermelon
  • Carrots
  • Avocados topped 2023’s list of least contaminated produce again this year, followed by sweet corn in second place. Pineapple, onions and papaya, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, honeydew melon, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, mangoes, sweet potatoes, watermelon, and carrots made up the rest of the list.

    Being exposed to a variety of foods without pesticides is especially important during pregnancy and throughout childhood, experts say. Developing children need the combined nutrients but are also harder hit by contaminants such as pesticides.

    “Pesticide exposure during pregnancy may lead to an increased risk of birth defects, low birth weight, and fetal death,” the American Academy of Pediatrics noted. “Exposure in childhood has been linked to attention and learning problems, as well as cancer.”

    The AAP suggests parents and caregivers consult the shopper’s guide if they are concerned about their child’s exposure to pesticides.

    Houlihan, director of Healthy Babies, Bright Futures, agreed: “Every choice to reduce pesticides in the diet is a good choice for a child.”

    Nearly 90% of blueberry and green bean samples had concerning findings, the report said.

    In 2016, the last time green beans were inspected, samples contained 51 different pesticides, according to the report. The latest round of testing found 84 different pest killers, and 6% of samples tested positive for acephate, an insecticide banned from use in the vegetable in 2011 by the EPA.

    “One sample of non-organic green beans had acephate at a level 500 times greater than the limit set by the EPA,” said Alexis Temkin, a senior toxicologist at the EWG with expertise in toxic chemicals and pesticides.

    When last tested in 2014, blueberries contained over 50 different pesticides. Testing in 2020 and 2021 found 54 different pesticides — about the same amount. Two insecticides, phosmet and malathion, were found on nearly 10% of blueberry samples, though the levels decreased over the past decade.

    Acephate, phosmet and malathion are organophosphates, which interfere with the normal function of the nervous system, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    A high dose of these chemicals can cause difficulty breathing, nausea, a lower heart rate, vomiting, weakness, paralysis and seizures, the CDC said. If exposed over an extended time to smaller amounts, people may “feel tired or weak, irritable, depressed, or forgetful.”

    Why would levels of some pesticides be higher today than in the past?

    “We do see drops in some pesticides since the early ’90s when the Food Quality Protection Act was put into place,” Temkin said. “But we’re also seeing increases of other pesticides that have been substituted in their place which may not be any safer. That’s why there’s a push towards overall reduction in pesticide use.”

    Chris Novak, president and CEO of CropLife America, an industry association, told CNN the report “willfully misrepresented” the USDA data.

    “Farmers use pesticides to control insects and fungal diseases that threaten the healthfulness and safety of fruits and vegetables,” Novak said via email. “Misinformation about pesticides and various growing methods breeds hesitancy and confusion, resulting in many consumers opting to skip fresh produce altogether.”

    The Institute of Food Technologists, an industry association, told CNN that emphasis should be placed on meeting the legal limits of pesticides established by significant scientific consensus.

    “We all agree that the best-case scenario of pesticide residues would be as close to zero as possible and there should be continued science-based efforts to further reduce residual pesticides,” said Bryan Hitchcock, IFT’s chief science and technology officer.

    Many fruits and veggies with higher levels of pesticides are critical to a balanced diet, so don’t give them up, experts say. Instead, avoid most pesticides by choosing to eat organic versions of the most contaminated crops. While organic foods are not more nutritious, the majority have little to no pesticide residue, Temkin said.

    “If a person switches to an organic diet, the levels of pesticides in their urine rapidly decrease,” Temkin told CNN. “We see it time and time again.”

    If organic isn’t available or too pricey, “I would definitely recommend peeling and washing thoroughly with water,” Temkin said. “Steer away from detergents or other advertised items. Rinsing with water will reduce pesticide levels.”

    Additional tips on washing produce, provided by the US Food and Drug Administration, include:

    • Handwashing with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after preparing fresh produce.
    • Rinsing produce before peeling, so dirt and bacteria aren’t transferred from the knife onto the fruit or vegetable.
    • Using a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm produce like apples and melons.
    • Drying the produce with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present.

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    Megabasins: solution or “insane” response to drought?

    France finds itself at a tug-of-war between opponents to megabasins and the agricultural sector.

    In the west of France, the Marais Poitevin, France’s second largest wetland, is the epicentre of the conflict surrounding water reservoirs for agricultural irrigation. Opponents of these gigantic reservoirs call them “basins” or “megabasins”.

    Wherever these projects see the light of day, resistance is being organised against these reservoirs, which are accused of plundering groundwater resources.

    Firstly, on the legal front, environmental associations have had several replacement reservoirs declared illegal because of inadequate impact studies; secondly, on the direct action front, with the sabotage of several of these reservoirs.

    The final front was mass mobilisation. On 25 March 2023, for example, a banned demonstration in Sainte-Soline brought together between 6,000 and 30,000 people, and marked a historic turning point in the fight for access to water.

    Firstly because of the scale of the project, and secondly because of the images of the clashes between the police and demonstrators, which left more than 200 demonstrators injured.

    A few weeks later, we met up with Mathieu, an activist with “Bassines Non Merci”, in the Deux-Sèvres region of France. It’s no coincidence that the movement has moved towards more frontal methods:

    “For four years, we’ve swept up all these possible fields of action, with mobilisations, conferences, round tables and public debates,” Mathieu explains.

    “We can see that, despite this, dialogue is not possible and that the first projects are starting; effectively, at this point, there is also an evolution in our form of mobilisation,” he acknowledges. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to call for a reopening of dialogue and a moratorium, because that’s the only way we think we can get out of this,” he says.

    Joëlle Lallemand, the President of the APIEEE (Association de Protection, d’Information et d’Études de l’Eau et de son Environnement) gives us her point of view: “There are still preserved areas [in the Marais Poitevin], but they are shrinking because the trend everywhere for years has been to destroy wet meadows and replace them with corn,” she explains.

    Jean-Jacques Guillet, spokesman for “Bassines Non Merci”, adds: “Before making basins, it would be better to restore these wetlands, which serve both to store water and to clean it up. If we have to find solutions to mitigate global warming in the future, the solution is not to put groundwater in the sun, but to do everything possible to put water back into the soil: that’s where it’s at its best, protected from light and pollution,” he points out.

    In practical terms, a basin is a hole several hectares in size covered with strong and impermeable tarpaulin sheets. In these, water is stored to water farmland during the summer.

    The special feature of these reservoirs is that they are filled by pumping from the water table during the winter months.

    Although the system has been in existence for 40 years, it was not until 2007 that the first collective projects, supported by the State, saw the light of day. There are now more than a hundred such projects, both planned and completed, in the west of France.

    François Pétorin is a director of the Coop de l’eau 79. This cooperative of 220 farms has a project for sixteen replacement reservoirs, covering an area that includes the Marais Poitevin and the rivers that feed it. Only one has been completed to date.

    Eventually, the largest will be the Sainte-Soline reservoir, which the demonstrators detest, and which will have a capacity of over 600,000 m³ of water – the equivalent of 250 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

    “I’m a farmer, producing cereals and seeds,” explains François Pétorin. “The project was prompted by the major droughts we had in 2005, 2007 and 2003, and the prefectoral decrees [issued] very early on that prohibited us from watering in spring and summer, so yields were penalised and catastrophic, even for wheat,” he adds.

    “So today, water storage is one of the solutions that will enable us to maintain agriculture in the region,” he asserts.

    But what kind of agriculture? This is the crux of the conflict surrounding the replacement reserves. Opponents advocate a more environmentally-friendly form of farming, based essentially on rainwater.

    Opposing them are irrigated farmers, such as François Pétorin. Irrigated farming accounts for just 7% of French farmland, but uses more than half the water consumed in the country, particularly for growing cereals such as corn.

    This irrigation is now under threat from the climate crisis and repeated droughts. Hence the idea of replacing water pumping in summer with pumping in winter, when water is, in theory, more abundant.

    This is an idea actively supported by the public authorities, who are providing 70% of the total cost of the Coop de l’eau project, estimated at 76 million euros. By its promoters’ own admission, water storage is above all a way of getting round the rules limiting the use of water resources during periods of drought.

    An exemption denounced by hydrologist Emma Haziza, who sees it not only as a form of water privatisation, but also as a danger to the entire ecosystem.

    “If you want good agriculture, you need a fairly high water table,” Haziza explains. “The level of the water table has a direct impact on the quantity of water in the first layers of soil, what we call green water, but it also directly contributes water to all the springs and rivers, and if you cut off this exchange by taking this pocket of water and completely disconnecting it from the environment, you will not only collapse the water in the river more quickly, but all the living organisms behind it,” she warns.

    According to this researcher, there is a scientific consensus that the basins risk exacerbating droughts and are ill-adapted to the climate crisis.

    Unreliable data?

    For their part, the Coop de l’eau 79 and the French government continue to support them, basing their position on a report by the French Geological and Mining Research Bureau (BRGM).

    According to the report, replacement reserves would have a “limited impact” on groundwater and river flows. A report criticised by several experts and qualified by BRGM itself at a hearing in the French Senate. “We did not simulate the consequences of global warming, nor did we say that we could necessarily draw water in winter,” said Michèle Rousseau, President of BRGM.

    “This study is based on data from 2001 to 2011, data that are totally obsolete because climate change is starting to be seen from 2016-2017 in France,” explained Haziza. “From then on, we’re going to start having non-winters and periods when our water tables are no longer recharged,” she says.

    “In reality,” she continues, “it’s not even a solution, it’s not even a misadaptation, it’s becoming downright insane to move towards these solutions. And yet they are being implemented everywhere,” she laments.

    Despite the protests, the French government is asserting the use of replacement reserves in its plan to implement the new Common Agricultural Policy: an envelope of €45 billion between 2023 and 2027 to support French agriculture.

    An ‘interest’ of the European Commission

    Since 2021, anti-pooling campaigners have taken their demands further, to the European level, in the form of a petition, accusing this type of reservoir of violating several European environmental directives.

    While the European Commission acknowledges certain shortcomings and says it is taking this case very seriously, it is currently referring the matter to the French courts to ensure that the reservoirs comply with Community law.

    Does this augur well for the extension of the basins and the tensions they generate to the rest of Europe?

    At the end of April, as they do every month, the agriculture ministers of the 27 Member States met under the aegis of the Council of the European Union. It was their first meeting since the demonstration at Sainte-Soline.

    “This is not something we have discussed at this Council, it was not on the agenda, but that may of course change,” Peter Kullgren, Sweden’s Minister for Rural Affairs acknowledged about megabasins in France. Janusz Wojciechowski, European Commissioner for Agriculture, added: “We are open to discussion on this proposal, which is interesting and worthy of consideration. Potential interest in ponds from Member States and the European Commission.

    The weight of agricultural lobbies

    What about the European Parliament? We put the question to the chairman of the Environment Committee, Frenchman Pascal Canfin, who says he supports the basins under certain conditions.

    “A mega-basin may just be a headlong rush, but if it’s linked to changes in farmers’ practices, such as switching to crops that need less water, it’s a way of securing their transition,” he says.

    However, according to this MEP, this transition faces a major obstacle – the European Parliament’s powerful Agriculture Committee.

    “You have opposition to all the European texts that seek to encourage a change in agricultural practices, such as the text on pesticides, the one on nature restoration or the one on industrial emissions from livestock farming,” says the MEP from the Renew group.

    For decades, agricultural lobbies have been defending the interests of the agro-industry, using food sovereignty and safety as their main argument.

    At European level, the lobby that has the ear of the Agriculture Committee is COPA-COGECA.

    According to a document from 2018, COPA-COGECA states that water storage “is the most important means of improving water security” and calls for “increased fiscal and financial support” and “a reduction in the administrative burden” to achieve this.

    Marco Contiero, agricultural policy specialist at Greenpeace, is not at all surprised by this stance.

    “The farmers who are protected and whose interests are at the heart of the work of COPA-COGECA and other lobbies do not represent the majority of farmers,” he says.

    “They are a very small minority of larger, sometimes truly industrial, farms that are in fact responsible for most of the pollution,” he says.

    “Yet a committee that is supposed to be looking after agriculture, of course, but that is also supposed to be helping the farming sector in this transition, is stubbornly defending the status quo, and that’s a problem!

    A structural problem linked to the Common Agricultural Policy

    But one man is trying to change things. Benoît Biteau is an agricultural engineer, the owner of an organic farm in France and one of the leading figures in the anti-bassin movement. He is also a Member of the European Parliament and Vice-Chairman of the Agriculture Committee. In his view, the agricultural transition is also coming up against a structural problem, linked to the allocation of financial aid.

    “When you look at how public aid under the Common Agricultural Policy is distributed, 80% of the budget is taken up by the 20% largest structures,” points out the MEP for the Greens/European Free Alliance.

    “The mechanism is that aid is given per unit area, so the more hectares you have, the more aid you get, and it’s precisely these large areas that are the biggest users of water,” he points out, before adding: “Public aid under the CAP does not sufficiently condition the reduction of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, which disrupt soil fertility.

    “So we are continuing to support agriculture that is moving away from restoring soil fertility, which is the answer, instead of agriculture that is more frugal in terms of consumption of pesticides, synthetic fertilisers and, of course, water,” he stresses.

    “It’s not a systemic response” says the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency

    According to the European Environment Agency, groundwater pollution in Europe is mainly caused by pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Agricultural irrigation is the biggest threat to groundwater levels.

    As a result, almost a third of groundwater tables are struggling to meet the quantitative and qualitative requirements set out in European regulations. The Agency is therefore calling for the precautionary principle to be respected in strategies for adapting to the climate crisis. A principle that substitution reserves would not necessarily respect.

    “This is not a systemic response: it’s a band-aid and it’s a band-aid that, on top of that, could disrupt and worsen the general state of the local environment and our ability to really adapt to the circumstances of climate change,” says Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency (2013-2023).

    “Secondly, the basins are not economically feasible without substantial public subsidies, so it is questionable whether this is an economically realistic way of supporting agriculture,” he asks. “More than the precautionary principle, I don’t think this is the systemic response the farming system needs,” he says.

    Yet a systemic change would be in the interests of many farmers. Between 2005 and 2020, 5,300,000 farms disappeared in Europe – that’s almost 1,000 farms a day. 87% of these were small farms of less than 5 hectares.

    Faced with a climate crisis that our societies are making worse by the day, ponds have become the symbol of an agricultural model that illustrates the European Union’s difficulty in reconciling its environmental objectives with its economic priorities.

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