EU head of agriculture is under pressure due to attempt to reduce intensive pig farming

Janusz Wojciechowski, the EU’s agriculture commissioner, wants to crack down on the environmental impact of intensive animal farming, but apart from animal welfare groups, his calls have so far met with mixed reactions.

In France, Italy and Poland, there are less than 80 pigs farmed per per 100 hectares of utilised agricultural land – a figure which rises to 452, 473 and 690 in Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands, the Polish commissioner said on Twitter.

“As part of the Green Deal, it will be necessary to address the problem of intensive pig farming in some EU countries, because agriculture has to be sustainable,” Wojciechowski added, in comments that sounded like a reprimand to Northern EU countries.

The Polish commissioner continued his comparison in a subsequent Tweet. Citing figures from cattle farming, he said the number of cows per 100 hectares of agricultural land reaches 43, 47, 59 and 67 on average in Poland, Italy, Denmark and France.

But in Belgium and the Netherlands, the numbers exceed 170, he pointed out.

Mixed reactions in Parliament

Wojciechowski’s comments were well received at home. Polish socialist MEP Sylwia Spurek said the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) must become a lever to achieve the goals of the European Green Deal, not a burden.

“Today’s agriculture must be a thing of the past,” she told EURACTIV. “The environmental costs which come with breeding animals for human consumption are very high and when striving for an ambitious policy on fighting climate change we cannot turn a blind eye to industrial animal farming,” she said.

But for Jérémy Decerle, a newly-elected MEP who is also a breeder of Charolais cattle in France, the Commissioner should have been more careful about how he presented the figures. Those, he said, can easily be misinterpreted and cause unnecessary tensions with farmers.

“The issue deserves more explanation and an opportunity to discuss these figures openly with actors in the sector,” he said, adding that European farmers will continue to make more efforts on animal welfare, as they have already done in the past.

Wojciechowski’s comments on animal farming prompted criticisms from Copa-Cogeca, the EU farmer’s organisation.

“Agriculture production is complex and reflects many different local, national and historical aspects. It cannot be summarised or judged in a few tweets,” said Copa-Cogeca Secretary-general Pekka Pesonen.

He also pointed out that all production sector and methods can make a positive impact on the environment and society, adding that the diversity of European farming reflects the diversity of the EU, “which we believe is its strength.”

In contrast, Wojciechowski’s comments were well received by animal welfare groups. The EU ought to minimise suffering and protect farm animals, said Olga Kikou, head of EU office at Compassion in World Farming, an NGO.

Pigs, she said, are often raised in indoor systems and are routinely tail-docked, in violation of the EU Pigs Directive. EU member states have often failed to enforce this rule, despite the fact that mutilations are quite painful for animals, she added.

Roxane Feller, Secretary-General of AnimalhealthEurope, a group representing the European animal medicines industry, defended intensive livestock production practices, saying farmers already apply high standards when it comes to animal health and welfare.

According to her, innovations applied to large intensive farms have allowed farmers to deliver food with higher efficiency, without compromising on animal health and welfare.

“We need to move away from this misconception that large-scale, modern farming will not contribute positively to a sustainable Europe,” she said.

A matter dear to him

Contacted by EURACTIV, Commission sources said the figures cited by Wojciechowsi were taken from the 2018 Statistical Yearbook of Poland’s agriculture department and the Polish national statistical bureau.

Published on Wojciechowsi’s personal twitter account, both tweets are to be regarded as his personal opinion on a matter particularly dear to him.

Before joining the Commission, Wojciechowski was chairman of the Animal Welfare Intergroup in the European Parliament. And before that, he was in charge of a report on animal welfare in livestock farming at the European Court of Auditors (ECA).

Commission sources also clarified that the EU executive will ensure that national strategic plans for agriculture are assessed against robust climate and environmental criteria. Those will encourage the use of sustainable practices such as precision agriculture, organic farming, agroecology, agroforestry as well as stricter animal welfare standards.

Some member states have more intensive farming systems than others, with varying impacts on climate change and the environment, the officials said.

“We need to keep that in mind and support those most in need,” the source added.

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