Trends in EU agricultural self-sufficiency

Worries and concerns about food security, real or imagined, have figured prominently in the debate on EU agricultural policy since the Commission launched its consultation document on the recent CAP reform in 2010, stimulated by the price spike on global food markets in the years 2007-08. This week, at the informal Farm Council in Milan on Tuesday 30 September under the Italian Presidency, agricultural ministers will discuss how EU agriculture can contribute to the food security challenge.

One of the issues that constantly pops up in this debate is the importance of food self-sufficiency as a guarantor of food security. Food self-sufficiency is defined as the proportion of domestic consumption met from domestic production. In my view, identifying food security with food self-sufficiency is misleading and, indeed, potentially dangerous if it diverts attention away from more real threats to food security, but that argument is for another day. Nonetheless, to debate this issue requires, at least, good information on the underlying figures and trends. Despite the public interest in these figures, it is actually rather difficult to get reliable information.

Eurostat has thrown its hands up….

Eurostat used to produce self-sufficiency ratios for agricultural commodities in its domain ‘food_in_pagr6’ but this dataset has been discontinued since 13 March 2013. In any case, it was of limited help because it only gave incomplete information on individual countries and did not calculate a self-sufficiency ratio for the EU as a whole (data for the latest available year in this series can be found not on the Eurostat website but in the DG AGRI publication EU agriculture – Statistical and economic information – 2013).

Eurostat also seems to have given up on publishing commodity balance sheets, even though these are regularly calculated by national statistical offices in the EU. Its latest information on crop supply balances (which in any case only covered cereals, sugar and wine but not, for example, vegetable oils or oilseeds) mentions that all other supply balance sheets have been discontinued, and that the year 2013 is the last year for the supply balance sheets on cereals and sugar. Only the wine supply balance sheets will continue in the future. I could find no reason for this decision on its website.

Noleppa and Cartsberg, in their 2013 working paper Agricultural Self-sufficiency of the European Union: Statistical Evidence comment that “The information base on the EU’s agricultural self-sufficiency is very weak”. In their attempt to build agricultural self-sufficiency indicators for the EU, they turn to FAOSTAT commodity balance sheets where the information can be readily derived. But it is unsatisfactory to have to rely on FAO figures to throw light on self-sufficiency trends in the EU.

In fact, the only rather opaque official EU source that I know from which agricultural self-sufficiency ratios can be derived is the statistical annex in the annual medium-term market outlook publication produced by DG AGRI. This source also includes vegetable oils and oilseeds, but its tables are forward-looking (covering projections for the coming decade) and only include a couple of years’ historical data in each issue. DG AGRI helpfully provides Excel versions of these tables on its market outlook website (but a suggestion to the good people in DG AGRI, why not include the full series of historic data in these Excel tables in future editions?).

… or has it?

I was surprised, therefore, when attached to the background document prepared by the Italian Presidency for the informal Farm Council I found a statistical table showing commodity self-sufficiency ratios for the EU as a whole for the period 2004-2013….. prepared by Eurostat! How the Italian Presidency managed to drag these figures out of the bowels of the Eurostat building in Luxembourg remains a mystery, but I reproduce the table here. The ratios generally agree with those in the latest DG AGRI medium-term market outlook, though with some differences for the estimated 2013 outcome.

The table covers the period from 2004, i.e. just before the introduction of decoupling, to 2013 (where the figures are estimated). The revealed trends in self-sufficiency are interesting. Fitting exponential trends to the data, there are five commodities – cheese, skimmed milk powder, beef and veal, pigmeat and sheep and goat meat – where there has been a statistically significant increase in EU self-sufficiency. There has been no significant change in self-sufficiency ratios over the period for the four cereals (wheat, barley, maize and rice), nor for whole milk powder and poultrymeat.

For only two of the commodities in the table has self-sufficiency declined, sugar and butter. In the case of sugar, where the ratio only relates to sugar use in food production (the use of sugar for ethanol production is excluded) this was a deliberate consequence of the reform of the EU sugar regime. In the case of butter, the decline in the self-sufficiency ratio is small, albeit statistically significant, and the EU remains a net exporter.

Self-sufficiency depends both on consumption and production, and the ratio can increase even if production is falling if consumption is falling even faster. Nonetheless, it is striking that the EU has increased its self-sufficiency in meats, given the oft-heard suggestion that the industry’s competitiveness has been undermined by higher animal welfare and environmental standards.

The introduction of decoupling in 2005 was expected to lead to a reduction in EU self-sufficiency but it seems that, for most commodities, this has been balanced by the removal or reduction in supply controls (set-aside for arable crops, increases in milk quotas) and the prevailing high market prices over the period.

Projected future trends in EU food self-sufficiency

To complete the story, I attach a second table which shows the expected trends in self-sufficiency rates derived from the 2013 edition of the DG AGRI medium-term market outlook. This source also gives data for vegetable oils and oilseeds which throws light on the ‘protein gap’ debate within the EU. I have truncated the table at 2020 although the source gives figures to 2023.

Overall, very little change in the EU’s self-sufficiency ratios is expected to 2020 based on these projections. Small increases in self-sufficiency will be seen in cheese, skimmed milk powder, pigmeat, poultrymeat and oilseeds, and small decreases in barley, rice, whole milk powder and beef and veal. No significant trend is observed for the remaining commodities.

When the agricultural Ministers meet on Tuesday to discuss how EU agriculture can contribute to the food security challenge, I hope they will not dwell too much on food self-sufficiency as a factor in this debate. The figures should be monitored, but the trends tell us little about whether the EU is becoming more or less food-secure. The EU is both an exporter and importer of food commodities, depending on its comparative advantage, and this is as it should be.

But wouldn’t it be great if Eurostat could get its act together and regularly disseminate the relevant figures not just for the EU as a whole for also for the individual member states?

Picture credit: Pixabay

This post was written by Alan Matthews.

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