Dhe European Commission, the powerful administration of the EU, has sent practically all employees home in the corona isolation. This also applies to their highest representatives. EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski is currently working from his home country Poland.
At the moment, however, he comes to the EU representation in Warsaw every day – because he needs the right technology for the regular video discussions with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the Commissioner colleagues and the national capitals. However, he picked up the telephone receiver for the conversation with WELT.
WORLD: During these weeks, consumers regularly face empty supermarket shelves. So far, replenishment has only been lacking for individual products such as yeast, pasta or canned tomatoes. But can consumers rely on food supplies to work even in the corona crisis?
Janusz Wojciechowski: The supply of food is secure. We produce enough food in Europe and farmers continue to work even in times of crisis. Nobody has to fear bottlenecks. At the moment we only have problems in individual areas such as flour production, but they too will subside.
WORLD: Why do consumers sometimes face empty shelves?
Wojciechowski: The problems lie in transportation and distribution. We sometimes have too few truck drivers, and over the past few weeks too tight border controls have caused bottlenecks. However, the EU Commission has reacted to this and made recommendations to the member countries to improve the situation at the borders. There are now special lanes for food and animal transport, and this has greatly accelerated clearance at the borders.
WORLD: Another problem is that EU countries have closed the border for harvest workers and other agricultural workers. Germany, for example, only allows a limited number of seasonal workers to enter the country. What does this mean for care in the coming months?
Wojciechowski: The Commission recommended early on that people with critical care jobs should continue to travel freely. In addition to medical personnel and many other professions, this also includes harvest workers and other employees in agriculture. Nevertheless, too few seasonal workers cross the borders.
Fruit and vegetable growers in particular and some meat producers clearly feel that seasonal workers are missing. Corona is a wake-up call for the farmers. The strong specialization of many companies becomes a problem in the corona crisis. Our lesson for the future must be that politics encourages farmers to specialize less. Companies that produce different products can theoretically master the current situation better.
WORLD: With decommissioned businesses, workers working at home and closed borders, consumers are now facing rising prices.
Wojciechowski: In the crisis, food becomes more expensive; this applies not only to Germany, but also to many other EU countries. But farmers cannot help rising prices, they earn even less. In March, prices for agricultural products in Europe fell by 4.3 percent. The farmers got twelve percent less for vegetables, 19 percent for sugar, three percent for milk and one percent for meat.
Responsible for consumer price increases are the problems with transportation and distribution, the lack of manpower in these areas and the many restrictions due to Corona. But that’s only part of the truth. Traders could use Corona to raise prices. Large chains in particular have the ability to monitor demand and supply very closely and to raise prices accordingly.
We currently have no evidence of such anti-competitive practices, but Member States should monitor this very closely. And I emphasize again: farmers are not responsible for rising prices. Farmers are also victims of the crisis.
WORLD: What does the crisis mean for farmers?
Wojciechowski: Farmers were the first to feel the financial consequences of the crisis. The problem is the breakdown of exports. The EU is the world’s largest exporter of food, and many areas of agriculture depend on doing business with the rest of the world. This business is very limited now.
WORLD: How can the EU help the businesses concerned?
Wojciechowski: We have to become more independent from the rest of the world. That is what we have to do now, but especially after the crisis. It must be our priority to ensure that agricultural products are consumed where they are made. To do this, we need to improve cooperation between farmers, processing plants and traders.
WORLD: Do you mean the EU as a whole or do you speak of individual regions?
Wojciechowski: I am concerned with the local and regional level. We have to reduce the distance between farmers and consumers. We transport three billion tons of food through Europe every year. Can you imagine that? Every piece of fruit or vegetable, every cup of yogurt and every sausage that we eat has traveled an average of 100 kilometers. We can’t go on like this.
Less transport not only means fewer emissions, but also lower prices, because farmers and consumers pay for the transport. That is why we have to examine all rules and laws at European and national level to see how they hinder the development of local markets.
WORLD: Would that also mean that there will be fewer animal transports in the future?
Wojciechowski: Naturally. Animal transport is inhumane and we have to reduce it. Developing strong local markets can help.
WORLD: Apart from such long-term changes, what can the EU do in the short term?
Wojciechowski: We do a lot to help farmers. The EU Commission has allowed the member states to support agricultural businesses in the crisis with up to 100,000 euros, normally only aid of up to 20,000 euros is possible. The EU Commission continues to advocate competition in Europe, but this is a special emergency. Farmers can also spend more time applying for EU funds.
We also have 100 billion euros in the rural development fund that have not yet been used. We are open to the member countries changing their applications for these funds so that they can use the money for farmers affected by the crisis.
WORLD: The upcoming EU long-term budget is to be used to cushion the economic consequences of the corona epidemic. This would imply that less money will be available to farmers in the next seven years than planned.
Wojciechowski: I hope that the current crisis will ensure that the Member States agree more quickly on the medium-term financial framework. We don’t have time for long discussions now. In view of the Corona crisis, the EU Commission may change its budget proposal.
The new proposal should provide more money for agriculture than the current proposal. Agriculture needs a lot of money, not only to overcome the crisis, but also to reduce CO2nd– reduce emissions. One thing has become clear in this crisis: the EU must secure food supplies. Not only now, but also for future generations. And that has to be worth something to the Europeans.