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Transatlantic cooperation: The path to sustainability
Event summary

10th Nov 2021

Collaboration and innovation are key: that is the view of our expert panel on how the US and EU can tackle climate change through making agriculture more sustainable while providing enough food for a growing population. It was the topic of our latest event in Brussels where the panel debated the new transatlantic cooperation agreement between the US and the EU, launched on November 3.

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There were many questions around the new agreement. How do the US and Europe see it? How can it work in practice? What about trade barriers and imports? And why is this the right time?

Dialogue is needed now

Climate change is the top issue facing agriculture – and a transatlantic dialogue is needed now more than ever to enable US and EU efforts towards climate-friendly farming. Mark Titterington, our moderator, opened the debate saying: “Such a dialogue can help drive the agenda on agriculture, enable agriculture to meet the challenges that it faces in relation to farm profitability, productivity, greater resilience, sustainability and particularly the environment, and enable agriculture to respond to and mitigate some of the challenges of climate change.”

Joao Pacheco, Senior Fellow at Farm Europe, highlighted: “The US and the EU share agreement that it’s urgent to mitigate climate change and adapt to the consequences.”

Common goals and challenges

The new cooperation rests on the US and EU having common goals on agriculture and the climate. They may take different pathways to reach them, said US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and the new platform is a place to exchange knowledge and information and to promote mutual understanding and trust on the journey.

The US is committed to developing and deploying new technologies, new practices and new methods in agricultural production: “The US stands behind the importance of science-based, data-driven decision making… we must also guard against trade barriers and restrictions that are not based on science.”

Both continents have many challenges and opportunities in common, said EU Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski, so it is vital to share knowledge and solutions. This common ground includes farm size; lack of digital connectivity in rural areas; and the challenge of building a more resilient food chain after the pandemic exposed the vulnerability of food systems on both continents.

Europe will learn vital lessons as it transitions to greener food production under the Farm to Fork strategy, and it is important to share this knowledge with the US more fluently than before, said Mr Wojciechowski. “As two of the largest agri-food producers, importers and exporters in the world, the US and the EU are in a strong position to lead this change.”

The right moment?

But why is this the right time for this collaboration? And what signals do our panellists hope the transatlantic cooperation will send? The US and EU have a responsibility to step up to the climate challenge and the challenge of feeding an ever-increasing world population, and do it in a sustainable way, said Mr Vilsack.

And Mr Wojciechowski added: “Like in the song, tomorrow will be too late.” He said that in one decade, Europe has lost four million family farmers because they simply could not compete in a culture of intensive agricultural production. Policy-makers need to give farmers’ families the chance to develop data-driven farms and sustainable agriculture such as organic production – all without reducing food production.

Agriculture – part of the solution?

The panel looked at the fundamental question of whether agriculture is the problem, or whether it can and should be part of the solution to climate change.

Mr Vilsack was clear: agriculture can gain quick wins. “The key is being able to measure and quantify the results that we obtain from climate smart agricultural practices and then to be able to translate that into some kind of market opportunity for farmers that creates a financial incentive,” he said.

Mr Wojciechowski highlighted carbon farming, saying it was vital to support farmers to introduce data from sustainable agricultural practices. He also said short supply chains are crucial to agriculture’s contribution on the climate.

The key question is not what the goals are, but how agriculture on both continents can get there through innovation. This was the view of Paolo De Castro, Member of the European Parliament, Committee for Agriculture and for International Trade. More time and money needs to go into considering new technologies, such as gene-editing to improve plant breeding, he said.

View on US farmers

Are US farmers and ranchers interested in embracing the sustainability agenda – and are they able?

With an emphatic ‘Yes’, Mr Vilsack said he expected so see “very significant action” from US agriculture, including farmers and ranchers.

“There has been a sea change in the US agricultural community to the point that farmers and the food system have joined together in an alliance to promote the need for large-scale commitments of demonstration projects and pilots to really learn more about exactly how climate-smart agriculture works and to quantify and measure the results of it,” he continued.

The difficult topics

In the past, collaboration between the US and the EU has not always been smooth, said Mr Titterington. How would the cooperation agreement enable progress on topics such as trade, or R&D?

Mr Wojciechowski’s view was that having the platform would actually help to avoid difficulties such as in the past, for example on tariffs. And Mr Vilsack said there will be innumerable ways in which the platform can allow for meaningful knowledge exchange. He highlighted a sensor technology that allows farmers to identify crop areas that do not need any fertilizer, asking: “Is there an opportunity to work collaboratively to make that kind of sensor technology available and affordable to farmers across Europe and across the US?”

Dairy and livestock with zero methane?

The prospect of livestock farming without massive methane emissions was brought up by Mr Vilsack. Significantly reducing the methane emissions connected to livestock farming was a better option for the world than curtailing production, he said. Technology could offer ways to reduce and re-use methane – for example, feed additives to cut the amount of methane produced by the cow, and the ability to capture methane to convert it to fuel. “The US has dairy farmers who believe that with the right kind of technology they can get to net zero in a matter of years,” he said.

How to engage consumers?

Educating consumers was highlighted by Mr De Castro: “The problem is to try to explain to our consumers, to our public opinion that we need more science… good technologies, innovations.” He was optimistic about the acceptance of technology, saying that because of the pandemic people have become more aware of science. Farmers also have a responsibility to educate, and it needs to start with young people, said Mr Vilsack.

Closing the event, Thierry de l’Escaille, Secretary General of the European Landowners’ Organization, said that common and ambitious goals on will require a constant exchange of knowledge and information, along with common standards. “By setting out the common objectives and intent… we are perhaps taking the most important step.”

Have you enjoyed this taster of the discussion? Then watch the full event here

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Our expert panel and attendees:
Tom Vilsack, US Secretary of Agriculture
Janusz Wojciechowski, EU Commissioner for Agriculture
Paolo De Castro, Member of the European Parliament, Committee for Agriculture and for International Trade.
Moderator: Mark Titterington, Senior Advisor, Forum for the Future of Agriculture
Opening and closing remarks: João Pacheco, Senior Fellow at Farm Europe
Closing remarks: Thierry de l’Escaille, Secretary General of the European Landowners’ Organization.

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