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Is the EU a ‘museum of agriculture’? This outdated label should be consigned to history

Farmers in Western Europe are practicing some of the most advanced farming methods in the world, argues Brian Gardner

Despite the recent comments made by Woody Johnson, the US Ambassador to the UK, European agriculture is no ‘museum piece’.

Johnson claimed that the EU is far behind the rest of world in adopting new scientific and technological tools in farming.

“It is not sustainable for the whole world to follow the EU’s ‘museum of agriculture’ approach. We have to look to the future of farming, not just the past,” he wrote in an article for The Daily Telegraph, in which he made the case for a post-Brexit US-UK trade deal.

In fact, farmers in France, the UK, the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands practice the most advanced farming methods on the planet. Arguably, their burgeoning productivity on commercial farms is backed by the world’s leading agricultural research establishments.

Output per person, per hectare and per unit of capital are unsurpassed in global terms. On these terms Europe’s best more than equal those on the other side of Atlantic.

What Johnson appears to misunderstand is that Europe in fact has ‘two agricultures’: the high-powered business farming of the west and the predominantly peasant, small farm structure of the centre and east.

To confuse the two creates a very distorted picture. In terms of commercial size farms, the US and the EU are surprisingly similar.

In both, the percentage of farms in the 1,000-acre-plus category is similar: around 5% of the total farms. The US still has a lot of small farms: over 35% in the less than 50-acre category. Similarly, both regions have relatively small numbers of farm businesses with annual incomes greater than US$500,000 – around 5%+ of the total number of farms.

As for modern farming techniques, there is little difference between the highly technical methods adopted by farmers in Iowa, Kansas or the Paris Basin.

Wheat, which represents 54% of the French cereal production and covers 12 million acres, is mostly located in the west of France and around the Parisian basin. Yields in France far exceed those in the US - the current average wheat yield in France is around 105.67 bushels/acre; in the United States it is 47.6bu/acre.

Precision agriculture

Precision farming is widely applied in the large-scale agriculture of western Europe and is now becoming common practice in the EU, with the European Commission pledging funds for research and to boost uptake.

Its basis is the optimized management of inputs according to actual crop, involving data-based technologies, including satellite positioning systems like GPS, remote sensing and the Internet of Things, to manage crops and optimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Over the last five years, German and French farmers, in particular, have increasingly utilized precision farming technologies.

For example, the French drone manufacturer AIRINOV, whose precision drone-controlled fertilizing system is proved to have dramatically increased productivity. A three-year study has indicated that French farmers increased their profit by €69 per hectare with its use.

This is in contrast with the traditional practices in which various agricultural activities such as irrigation, fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides are uniformly applied throughout the field, ignores variability and thus involves significant waste of resources.

A recent French Government report recommended the inclusion of agricultural robotics in the New Industrial France plan, commencement of an agricultural robotics research plan with a goal of creating five types of agricultural robots that are produced in France, increase robotics students’ interest in agricultural problems by organizing agriculturally themed robotics challenges.

In the dairy sector, the size of commercial milking units in the EU is now larger than in the US dairy industry, which is still in need of heavy frontier protection to protect it from imports from Canada and other more efficient operators.

Electronic health monitoring systems are now highly developed in the EU industry and mechanical feeding and handling methods are widely applied. The most advanced units are now developing completely mechanized systems; even the milking process itself is now being fully automated in hands-off milking parlours.

In recent years, EU total factor productivity in agriculture has risen by more than 1.5% a year. In the most developed agriculture of the western EU countries however, with the ‘catch-up factor’ of the newer central and eastern countries removed from the calculation, then the annual gains have been lower at around the same TFP in the United States – around 0.5% pa (based on USDA calculations for the period 2007-15).

Food safety standards

But what Ambassador Johnson was most critical of is not necessarily EU ‘agricultural practices’, but the EU rejection of US post-farm treatment of meat and other products.

“Inflammatory and misleading terms like ‘chlorinated chicken’ and ‘hormone beef’ are deployed to cast American farming in the worst possible light. It is time the myths are called out for what they really are: a smear campaign from people with their own protectionist agenda,” he said.

Washing chicken with chlorine is a “public safety no-brainer”, Johnson argued, insisting that it is the most effective and economical way of dealing with “potentially lethal” bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter.

What US officials seem unwilling to acknowledge is that the American poultry and pig industries are more intensive, with lower animal welfare standards than in the UK and the rest of western Europe and that therefore greater human health protection has to be applied at the slaughtering and processing stages.

As a consequence of the lower production standards, chicken meat has higher levels of bacteria, so the US industry has had to use acid and chlorine washes at the end of the meat production chain, without which producing chicken and pig meat that may not be safe for consumers to eat.

The proof could be said to be in the eating. Incidences of food poisoning in the US affect 14% of the population annually. This is 10 times greater than in the UK, where 1% is affected.

There are in addition animal husbandry practices in the US which are banned in Europe for protection of human health. The prophylactic use of antibiotics in pig and poultry production is the outstanding example.

Long since proven to be a major cause of antibiotic resistance in humans, the practice is banned by the EU. In the US, the use of antibiotics per animal in farming is on average 5 times higher than in the UK; the EU argues that these practices should not be sustained.

It can be argued that the use of growth hormones in beef production is another. The diplomat defended the use of growth hormones by stating that it allows more meat to be produced at a lower cost to consumers and the environment, while being completely safe to eat.

But investigations have shown that antibiotics crucial to human medicine are still being used in “unacceptable” quantities on US livestock farms, despite rules brought in last year to curb their use and combat the spread of deadly superbugs.

Scientists have warned that by 2050, as many as 10 million people could die annually from antimicrobial resistance – much of it resulting from consumption of antibiotic contaminated meat.

Animal welfare

In the US, it should be noted, there are currently no federal regulations to control or safeguard the welfare of animals used in agriculture. There are only a handful of federal animal protection laws.

The US Animal Welfare Act of 1966 is the primary federal animal protection law. It thus largely predates the massive intensification of animal husbandry of the recent decades.

The AWA mainly involves animals kept at zoos and used in laboratories, as well as animals who are commercially-bred such as puppies. There is no protection for farm animals.

EU standards for health protection and animal welfare have nothing to do with ‘antiquated farming methods’ and everything to do with the protection of human health and the humane treatment of farm animals.

The EU has some of the world’s highest animal welfare standards, which have been in force for decades, and animal welfare objectives are embedded in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) with state payments dependent on compliance.

The most recent EU Commission animal welfare strategy is aimed to address compliance issues and to improve synergies with the CAP.

If the UK were to swap current EU food safety regulations for lower US controls imposed by any trade deal the risks to human health would undoubtedly be increased. UK and EU public opinion are also unlikely to accept the United States’ absence of controls on the way food animals are reared.


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