Mariann Fischer Boel took over as the EU’s Agriculture Commissioner earlier this year. During her five-year term in office, she plans to place a greater emphasis on food quality, in order to meet consumer expectations and enable EU exports to be more competitive, as she told’s David Haworth in Brussels.

Higher quality standards in European food production will be a keynote of the new European Union (EU) Agriculture Commissioner’s five-year term of office, she told Mariann Fischer Boel said an even greater emphasis on quality is essential for two reasons. First, the expectations of the European consumer are rising all the time and, second, the need for EU exports to compete vigorously in third country markets in terms of price and quality was clear both to producers and processors.

The former Danish agriculture minister has settled energetically into her new responsibilities and, unlike some of her colleagues in the new Commission, has already established clear policy goals in her portfolio: “In a situation when food has never been so cheap, quality is assuming an even greater importance.”

She expressed this conviction even before being confirmed in her job by the European Parliament and now intends to do what she can to put it into practice.

Rural development

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Sharpening the competitiveness of the agri-food business will therefore be a priority as the Commissioner oversees the implementation of the CAP 2003 reforms, measures that had her full support when they were being drafted by her predecessor. “I’m certain we’ll gradually see the benefits of the reforms. Meanwhile farmers have got to change their working practices and understand the benefits of being able to produce what the market wants,” she said.

But a market-biased EU agriculture structure will need the strongest support of the agri-food industry in R&D terms, the Commissioner believes, an important issue as the Commission draws up plans for the 2007-10 seventh framework programme on research.

Being a politician, she is also concerned that the EU taxpayer and consumer become more aware of the benefits derived from agriculture and rural development. “There are cultural aspects to agriculture which involve, among other things, keeping people active in rural areas, having public-private partnerships – and not to turn those areas into a sort of museum. It’s important to remember that agriculture is not only about food delivery but should also provide good experiences for the public who might travel in rural areas,” she stressed.

The details of how these themes are to be accomplished will be published later this year in a promised document, the “European Strategy Document for Rural Development”.

New fruit and veg regime

In parallel the Commission is preparing proposals for a new EU fruit and vegetable regime which should be ready for a first examination by the Council of Ministers in approximately twelve months. To this end, Commission officials are already in touch with producers’ organisations; one of the objectives will be to try to avoid what is perceived as a heavy wastage of both fruit and vegetables across the Union.

A similar timetable is expected for Commission suggestions on the wine industry’s future that are intended to meet the twin challenges of EU overproduction (eight million hectolitres each from the Union’s three largest producers during the last two seasons) plus the intensely competitive imports from Latin America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and a decline in consumption.

The Commissioner’s most immediate concern, however, is crafting a new EU regime for sugar, a delicate task as she admits, because of its implications for such a wide range of produce. The results of an appeal against a hostile WTO finding should be made known on 28 April. Although she is keeping an open mind about the findings – and obviously will not comment ahead of their announcement – some Brussels-based experts fear the WTO will once more give the EU thumbs down.

Contentious regulations

Either way, the Commissioner will have to act briskly once the result is known. She acknowledges a huge resistance to any proposal for cross-border quotas. “On the other hand, if there’s a linear cut you will damage the EU’s most competitive companies.”

Fischer Boel accepted she will soon have to square the circle of how far and how fast new sugar regulations will have to go with reductions in both quotas and price.

“All the EU member states realise that something will have to be done about a regime which has been unchanged for forty years,” she added, but this acceptance does not mean that the introduction of new regulations won’t be extremely difficult. Even bee-keeping has become contentious recently and the subject of repeated demonstrations in front of the EU’s executive headquarters by honey producers. And sugar manufacturers are much bigger players. She said she accepts that sugar reform in the EU would probably be her most crisis-fraught policy issue of her five-year term of office. She said she was already bombarded with conflicting advice from all quarters, “but doing nothing is not an option.”

She continued: “Everyone should realise that the timetable is going to be very tight if we’re to replace the existing arrangements by 1 July 2006. It’s going to be extremely difficult.” The reduction in the price gap, she said, would certainly be radical. But after 2009, developing country sugar producers would have a duty-free EU market for their exports. Meanwhile, however, the Union’s sugar price levels will remain higher than those prevailing in the world markets and these will affect the competitiveness of producers across the food sector, she noted.

How should Europe deal with such problems, apart from stressing liberalisation, well there is always a focus on food quality, the Commissioner noted. She said the ten new eastern and southern European member states are making progress in this area; for them it’s the only way forward for better intra-EU trade and, of course, exports elsewhere. The region is Europe’s frontier as regards quality, notably regarding meat, with frequently expressed concerns by the meat trade during the negotiations for the EU’s latest enlargement of ten new countries that some exports from eastern European slaughter houses would not be up to scratch as regards western European standards.

Increased competition

Furthermore, the Commissioner said, the looming prospect of Bulgaria and Romania joining the EU raised similar questions. “Both are already making progress on food safety issues and, remember, the new countries only have access to our markets if they comply with standards which are obligatory for the older member states,” she said.

The EU consumer was becoming more and more demanding on questions of food quality, especially meat, she pointed out.

By the same token the whole EU’s trade in food and agricultural products will have to be prepared in the near future for increased competition from burgeoning economies such as Brazil and China. Value added exports were the best way to meet this challenge, she said.