Luis Planas, acting Minister of Agriculture, will receive his counterparts from the European Union in Córdoba starting this Sunday to hold an informal meeting in which they will address the role of new technologies as a tool for a more resistant agriculture to the climate change.
Among these, they will deal with the latest techniques of gene editing, a line of action on which Spain hopes to advance during its presidency of the Council of the EU, so that in the future the use of some practices will be simplified. The meeting will be marked by other problems such as drought and high food prices, and by a national protest of farmers and ranchers in Córdoba. In reference to the description of the situation made by the agrarian organizations, Planas believes that “there are farms that are very profitable, others that are profitable and some that have difficulties. From there to qualifying the situation as ruinous, there is a stretch.”
Why bring the Ministers of Agriculture of the European Union to Córdoba?
First, because I am from Córdoba and because Córdoba magnificently represents what we want to show the European ministers at this meeting. It is an agri-food province, which has key sectors such as olive oil, but also others such as wine, citrus fruits, cereals and livestock, to name a few. Second reason, the cultural, historical and artistic heritage of Córdoba deserves to be exhibited and I am proud as a minister and as a representative for Córdoba to bring my European colleagues. Finally, there is a more European, more general dimension. Here we are in southern Europe, in the south of the south, and this is an agriculture that needs to be shown.
The event begins this Sunday with an informative session on olive oil and a visit to the Mosque-Cathedral. Are they two jewels of the province?
The four denominations of origin of Córdoba, in this tasting, will have the opportunity to show their excellence: Priego, Baena, Lucena and Montoro-Adamuz. Next, a dazzling spectacle is always the visit of the Cathedral Mosque.
The historical prices of olive oil have led to a drop in national consumption that UPA places around 40% for extra virgin.
The prices are abnormally high. The last two campaigns have been particularly low. That figure you mentioned is probably excessive, but it is true that some studies show that between 10% and 12%, specifically, is 1.9% of the weight of the shopping basket of an average Spanish family.
Will it be easy to win back consumers who now opt for other fats?
I want to think that this movement, even if it is slight, is absolutely conjunctural. Precisely, what we want is to increase the number of olive oil consumers in the world, but for that we have to have production. The campaign has been low, we estimate that the next one may be higher than the current one, but not yet at normal levels.
Do you anticipate that you can increase production despite the drought?
It depends on the weather conditions. There have been two elements in the spring that have been a negative and a positive. The negative was the high temperatures during the flowering period. The positive, the rains that came later. Now we have to wait for new rains. If there are, obviously, we will make production grow.
The meeting of EU ministers is held under the title ‘New technologies for a more sustainable and resilient agriculture’. Is the sector prepared for the challenges that lie ahead?
There are three aspects that we are raising in this topic. In the first place, what refers to agriculture and precision livestock. The digitization process that is allowing us to use, for example, phytosanitary products or fertilizers, and measure plant growth so that we can apply the correct doses. Secondly, what specifically refers to water. Reducing losses and waste of water is essential, as is the use of treated wastewater and the possibility of desalination. A third element of this technological innovation, to mention just three aspects, is related to new gene editing techniques. In other words, in a natural process, making progress and making production periods shorter, and above all, plants and seeds more resistant to phenomena such as high temperatures. The OECD says that by 2030 we have to increase the average productivity of the primary sector by 28% if we want to maintain a balance between the fight against climate change and, at the same time, food production. In Andalusia and Spain we already have examples of how this food production of the future is being carried out.
The use of genomic techniques to obtain plant varieties resistant to problems such as drought is a legislative proposal of the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the EU. What path is left to go?
The European Commission presented a proposal two months ago on the new genomic editing techniques and it is a matter of moving forward in the discussion process here in Córdoba and also with the European Parliament to draw some first political conclusions, so that in the coming semesters reach an agreement on the new legislation that allows certain practices to be subject to simplified authorization and, therefore, easier to use.
In addition to this line of work, what can the Spanish Presidency of the Council contribute to European agricultural policies?
Spain is an agricultural power, we are the seventh exporter in the world. During our presidency we have to lead the EU to reach conclusions on other very important issues, I will mention a couple of them. The first, geographical indications. They are essential to increase the value of some of our flagship products, for example, oil, wine and cheese. The new regulation, which we hope to conclude no later than November, will allow us to provide an even clearer and more solid legal framework internally but also externally. Another fundamental point will be the issues related to the reduction of phytosanitary products, to sustainable fertilization. It is very important that we achieve competitive sustainability.
Farmers from all over the country will protest next Tuesday in Córdoba on the occasion of the meeting of EU ministers. They denounce that they live in a “ruinous” situation. Do you share your concern?
First, I respect any statement made with respect. Second, I have a tendency as a minister to empathize with whom I work with and, therefore, his problems are also my problems. The current moment is very complicated, we have had a pandemic, a war in Ukraine, now, a drought. I simply ask a question out loud: What would we do without PAC? What would we do without agricultural insurance? What would we do without the direct aid that we have approved from the Government in 2022 and 2023 for the war in Ukraine? That, plus the Food Chain Law, has meant the most powerful response that any Spanish Government has given in this century to our primary sector. From there, the day-to-day reality depends on each one. There are very profitable farms, others profitable and some that have difficulties. I am next to all. From there to qualifying the situation as ruinous, there is a stretch.
The sector demands that imported products be required to meet the same requirements that are requested in the EU. Is this possible to do?
I was the first EU agriculture minister to raise this issue in the Council, so I am very clear about it. There are two tasks, the first, to convince and achieve a majority in the Council and in the European Parliament, and the second, to convince the rest of the world’s countries in the WTO that this is the best approach.
The field denounces that the greater environmental demands have repercussions in a drop in productivity. How could this situation be compensated?
We have to achieve sustainable food production that is also profitable. That is the key. Finding the right balance so that this transition and this response can be made is the number one topic in the food production debate.
Agrarian organizations also denounce that the aid that is being enabled is insufficient. Can other measures be studied?
We have three main pillars of support: PAC, agricultural insurance and extraordinary direct aid, and other instruments. We are in much better condition than many others.
“It is not normal that the price of food is at the current levels”
The price of food is still high. Is the drop off at the supermarket close?
It is that producing is expensive. In a context like the current one, where we have had increases in energy prices, a very significant increase in the price of fertilizers, cereals and oilseeds, all of this has led to very complicated circumstances. If we add to that the drought, the context is not simple. What are they going to decrease? I am absolutely convinced, because it is not normal for them to be at the current levels.
“It is not necessary to incur in catastrophizing (in the face of drought), but to call for responsibility”
If it doesn’t rain this autumn, will the next few months be even harder for the countryside and for the population?
It is very difficult to make a forecast. It is not necessary to incur in catastrophizing, but to make a call to everyone’s responsibility. We have to be very clear that the issue of water is fundamental. It is necessary to take into account its good use, alternative possibilities, reclaimed water or desalination, and take the necessary measures in terms of production. There are those who, for example, have already made a change of crops. New gene editing techniques are another answer. It is true that in the last 20 years the average rainfall in Spain has been reduced by 12%. It is not a matter of a day, but of a trend, and we are capable of adapting to it.
In the north of Córdoba, problems related to water continue and the population has taken to the streets. Are you afraid that the situation will jeopardize the viability of livestock companies?
There is no magic wand, that is why the call for responsibility and coordination between administrations, and for each one to do what they have to do.
In another order of things, the PSOE finally registered an increase in votes in the general elections, do you trust that Pedro Sánchez will continue as president?
Pedro Sánchez has said it very clearly. On the part of the PSOE there are two references. One, the method, which is dialogue, we are talking to everyone. The PP is only capable of talking to Vox, because they are something very similar. Secondly, thanks to this dialogue, only within the constitutional framework, we are convinced that sooner rather than later we will be able to establish a majority in the Government.
What could be the keys to forming a government, taking into account that a part of society rejects agreements with independentistas?
The president has made it very clear, within the Constitution and only within it. And that is where we plan to move and advance.
Would you like to repeat in the position as minister?
The work as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is very important, it is a great pride, but it is also complicated. I am at the party’s and Pedro Sánchez’s disposal for any future tasks that he deems appropriate to entrust to me. Apart from all that, I have a great responsibility, which is to be a deputy for Córdoba.
What are the main challenges of the Ministry of Agriculture for the next legislature?
I have defined the key challenge throughout this interview: how do we achieve that competitive sustainability that allows us to continue producing food in quantity and quality, while at the same time protecting the environment and biodiversity. On the other hand, there are very important support elements that we have to reinforce, for example, agricultural insurance. Finally, family farming is essential for the life of the whole of Spain.
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