ETIAtalks Season Review: Topics in Sustainable Agriculture

by Maria Wirth & Victoria Haykin

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ETIAtalks is an annual series of panel discussions organized by students of the Environmental Technologies and International Affairs (ETIA) programme offered conjointly by the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and the Vienna University of Technology.

Panel topics explore environmental issues, and how these interconnect with society, politics, international relations and development economics. The event aims to raise awareness by bringing together experts, politicians and professionals to create a wide range of perspectives in an open atmosphere between the various disciplines.

Technical and political interference, which are wont to shape agricultural production, have historically been subject to heated debate and deeply divided opinions. Novel practices are often highly scrutinized, driven by the desire to preserve food quality, the livelihoods of small landowners and rural landscapes. This past season’s ETIAtalks expert panels centered upon three key approaches to increase agricultural efficiency, namely nuclear applications, European Union policy, and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), each of which pose both significant opportunities and threats to sustainable agriculture.

Nuclear Technology in Agriculture?

The first of three panels staged in November addressed the use and safety of applying nuclear technology in the production and processing of agricultural commodities. The joint mission between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) deals specifically with nuclear applications to achieve food safety and security. In post-harvest application, low-dose irradiation kills pathogens and makes product quality survive transport and storage. Panel speaker Friedrike Strebl, an engineer working with ionizing radiation at Seibersdorf Laboratories, stated that scientists today “agree it is safe and almost all nutritional value is saved.”

According to panelist Carl Blackburn, a food irradiation specialist at the IAEA/FAO joint mission, irradiation carries remarkable potential for worldwide food security. Communities in developing countries engaged in food production benefit from gaining access to foreign markets. “Mexican farmers can sell their products to the United States, because irradiation is used to kill pathogens otherwise carried across borders,” Blackburn explained.

Green Party spokesperson and organic farmer Wolfgang Pirklhuber contested, stating that potential health risks remain highly uncertain. Furthermore, he emphasized that nuclear laboratories are “very capital intensive and facilities cannot be installed everywhere.” Pirklhuber called for the more feasible objective of building regional food markets. Nevertheless, all panelists agreed that this technology was simply one of many meant to ensure food safety and security.

10 Years Common Agricultural Policy in Europe

At the second ETIAtalks panel in March, experts discussed the shortcomings of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), particularly in Eastern Europe. The CAP is built upon the Treaty of Rome 1957 and the areas of market support and rural development. More recently, the 2004 eastern expansion of the EU posed a great challenge to its structure.

Thomas Resl, head of the Austrian National Institute of Agricultural Economics, pointed out that while many feared “German farmers would not be able to compete with the cheap producers in the new Member States… Instead, the market was extended [and] could carry surpluses.” But even after 10 years of inclusion in the CAP, much remains to be done. Subsidies “were mainly invested in machinery instead of broader rural development,” he said, and “productivity in Eastern Europe is still relatively low.”

Several shortcomings of the CAP were put forward. Ursula Bittner, manager of the Danube Soy Association and the Austrian Soy Association, criticized the lack of a protein strategy. “The overwhelming majority of livestock in the EU is fed with GM [i.e. genetically modified] soy or maize from overseas, which requires no label and causes immense CO2 emissions,” she said.

The CAP also lacks a sectoral, or production modality target, according to Klaus Salhofer, lecturer and researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Economic Development at BOKU Vienna. The “CAP has not one or two, but a series of goals. These…can undermine each other in how they are met,” he said.

As Resl pointed out, structural change is necessary and “the rapid development of Germany in the 60s would not have been possible if some people [hadn’t had] to leave their farms.” However, he called for subsidies “in terms of workers” instead of “support of hectares,” a greater allocation to organic farmers and an end to CAP subsidies independent of land use.

TTIP and GMOs: Resources Revolution or Unnecessary Evil?

ETIAtalks’ third and final panel, held in late April, addressed the contentious issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and their possible influx into the European market as the result of free trade negotiations between the European Union and the United States. Officially, the European Commission touts the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) as an opportunity to boost Europe’s global influence, create new job opportunities and increase market potential. Local European consumers, however, fear the worst.

Dr. Franz Sinabell, researcher at WIFO the Austrian Institute for Economic Research, opened the first round by pointing out that he is unabashedly pro-trade. TTIP and other such agreements, however, are merely a “second-best approach.” Moreover, he averred that “GMOs are widely used, [and] in many countries lead to enhanced productivity and less input of environmentally harmful substances,” but ultimately the discussion comes down to striking a balance between consumer concerns and providing access to emerging GMO technologies.

According to Irmi Salzer, an organic farmer, economic backlash as a result of TTIP is inevitable. For years Salzer has led a resistance movement against WTO agreements which, she feels, are the “result of trade policy dominated by industrialized nations…against rural communities.” Already small organic farmers in America are struggling in the face of heavy competition from those who produce GMO crops.

Johann Marihart, CEO of Agrana, largely supported Salzer’s view that TTIP could jeopardize the EU’s sustainable approach to agriculture. “GMOs are always sold as the future solution,” he said, but “in the moment it is nothing like that.” In addition, he did not feel that TTIP would lower consumer prices as promised and that, due to Europe’s unique approach to agricultural production, synchronizing the CAP with the American system could prove problematic. “[T]here is not a level playing field which you need to compete,” he said.

Contrary to the opinions of Salzer and Marihart, Arnaud Petit, director at COPA COGENA, argued that “we cannot avoid TTIP because it is much more than trade, it is investment and economic partnership.” Currently, the EU exports 70 percent of its processed product to the U.S. and, according to Petit, there is a lot of potential for both sides to derive mutual benefit under TTIP. At this point, however, negotiations are still at an early stage and “answers about the endgame are unclear.”

ETIAtalks’ second season covered a broad range of topics under the overarching theme of sustainable agriculture. Experts and audience members alike presented their views on today’s “hot button” issues in an engaging and informative way. The third annual ETIAtalks are set to be held over the course of the 2015-2016 academic year and will feature three similarly-styled panel discussions on the issue of Climate Change and the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference (COP 21).


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