Address by President of Latvia Egils Levits at national dialogue “Resilience of the Latvian Countryside for Food and Future Generations”
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear participants of the national dialogue of Latvia,
It is my honour to address you here today at Latvia’s first national dialogue being held as part of the United Nations Food Systems Summit which will take place in New York in September.
Food is one of themes of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals defined by the UN for the 21st century, which includes ending hunger, provision of food, promoting a healthy diet and sustainable agriculture.
For us here in Latvia, the sustainable agriculture aspect of this UN Development Goal is of special importance. As is ensuring healthy food.
Over the past decades Latvia has successfully transformed itself into a food exporter country. We have integrated into the global food production chain. Having invested in businesses and our knowledge for years, using the latest technologies, we have created our own food brands to be proud of and which, through exports, acquaint the world with Latvian-produced goods. Thanks to the tools provided by the European Union, we have learned to compete in the food markets of other European countries, finding our unique niches within them. This is a great result that we have achieved together!
First, a few words about the global situation, which will be the main topic of discussion at the UN Food Systems Summit in September.
Unfortunately, despite the increasing prosperity and progress we have experienced in Latvia, several global food systems trends are not quite as optimistic.
The latest UN calculations show that nearly 700 million people or 9% of the world population still live in hunger, while 2 billion people or 25% do not have regular access to safe and healthy food.
Despite the general objective of not harming the environment and transitioning to environmentally more friendly agricultural practices, biological diversity continues to decrease. Pesticides are still harming nature, reducing its diversity, accumulating inside living organisms and entering the food chain, as well as the human body.
Alongside energy and transport, agriculture is one of the sectors contributing most, in the medium-term, to humanity threatening climate change, the adverse effects of which can already be seen today and the grave consequences expected by the end of this century.
People’s diets throughout the world are becoming increasingly unvaried, with 75% of the world's food being produced from 12 plant and 5 animal species. As variety of the sources of our food decreases, humanity is becoming less resilient against change, including climate change. Moreover, a less varied diet means that we receive less nutrients, thus harming our general health.
In order to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the global food and agriculture system needs a major overhaul. That is what will be discussed at the World Food Systems Summit. That is what we need to think about here in Latvia, taking a realistic view of global trends, as well as examining the state of our agricultural sector on a global scale and locally within Latvia. Moreover, the report published by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this week highlights the irreversible processes taking place as part of the rapid heating up of the planet and indicates the additional urgency for states to find concrete solutions in the area of food.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Even though we sometimes tend to think of ourselves as “poor”, needing aid from others, such a view of ourselves and the world is misleading. It hinders us from taking the right decisions.
Certainly, from a global perspective, and thus from the perspective of the World Food Systems Summit, Latvia ranks among the most prosperous countries of the world. This brings with it great responsibility and the duty to actively participate in solving global issues.
Therefore, we need to be part of the solution, rather than the problem. The national dialogue convened here today is a crucial initiative not only in the global context, but mostly for ourselves here in Latvia.
As regards our agriculture and its development prospects in the context of sustainability, I would like to note three levels of issues.
First is the issue of our farm structure. Over the last 10 years the number of large and wealthy farms in Latvia has increased, as has the area of land they cultivate, however, they still constitute only a small portion of the total number of farms in Latvia, employing the smallest portion of agricultural workers.
Data shows that there are more than 69,000 economically active farms in Latvia, while only 3% of those produce more than 100 000 EUR in goods.
If we take a broader look at large farms, then about 10% of farms whose production value exceeds 25 000 EUR employ about 24% of the total workforce in agriculture.
In turn, medium, small and micro farms, which constitute 90% of the total, employ 76% of the total workforce in agriculture.
We see that over the last three decades since the restoration of independence Latvia has undergone two major agricultural reforms.
The first one was implemented in the second half of the 1990s, when Soviet kolkhozes and sovkhozes were liquidated and land was restored to its former owners.
The second reform occurred rapidly since Latvia's accession to the European Union. In effect, our agricultural sector has come to rely on a small number of large farms that operate in industrial agriculture and receive the majority of EU subsidies.
This is in line with the European Union policy started in the mid-1990s, which was a turning point towards economic efficiency, industrialisation, product unification and monopolisation.
The perfect example of the last aspect — monopolisation — is, of course, “Monsanto”. Let me just add that, as a judge at the Court of Justice of the European Union, I have, on several occasions, had to take decisions pertaining to the global and European monopoly status of this global agricultural concern and I can reveal that I have always been against strengthening its power.
I have to ask whether this is the agricultural structure that our society really wants. Is this something to just be taken as a given or do we, in fact, have more or less power over it to drive it one way or another? Is the current structure and the policy supporting it truly the best choice for Latvia and its countryside? This really calls for an in-depth public discussion going beyond just a conversation among stakeholders.
The second level of issues which we need to address relates to what I already mentioned in a global context: we need to clearly understand that the methods that have dominated in agriculture thus far are not beneficial to the environment and the climate.
Of course, the harmful effects of agriculture on the environment are constantly being reduced. Yet it is clear that the rate at which this is being done is too slow, and this is also highlighted by the European Union’s ambitious climate targets. It will no longer accept this slow rate of harm reduction, and here in Latvia, just as throughout the European Union, we will have to radically alter our agricultural practices in order to continue to receive EU subsidies, maintain competitiveness on the EU single market or even just continue to work in agriculture.
Obviously a major role here will fall to organic farming. In order to increase its role, technological innovations, as well as new skills and shifts in consumer preferences will be needed.
Certainly, at least so far, organic products have been more expensive than those produced by conventional farming. Therefore, it logically follows that organic products are mostly chosen by people who have already attained a certain level of well-being, as well as the younger generation, for whom environmental, climate and health issues rank higher on their value scale. This means that, as prosperity increases and the younger generation enters society, the proportion of organic products will grow. However, this needs to be better reflected within national policy and distribution of subsidies.
I would sincerely like to remind everyone that the European Green Deal alone will already present significant changes to our agricultural sector. The quicker we prepare ourselves for this and introduce them ahead of time, the better the position our agricultural sector will have within the European market. This can be said for both export of agricultural products, as well as new agricultural technologies that we will develop.
It must be noted that for 80 years already we have our very own University of Agriculture [Latvia University of Life Sciences and Technologies]. The new higher education reform must establish ambitious goals for this institution. It needs to become a scientific hub for modern, environmentally unharmful or even harmless agriculture and green economy.
And finally, ladies and gentlemen, the third level of issues within the sustainability of our state is the social and cultural dimension of agriculture and rural areas. I could even call it the Latvian dimension.
It is an issue of what we want our countryside, our agriculture to look like. It is an issue of the Latvian identity, which is rooted in our countryside. It is an issue of lifestyle. It is an issue of farmers as the upholders of a special lifestyle.
But what is a farmer today? Is it an agricultural company, its shareholders, managers, workers — are they all farmers? This question is no less topical in Europe, considering that agriculture is subsidised by taxes paid by the whole of society. Yet why should the public subsidise just one of many areas of the economy? That is why, over the course of the last couple of years, Europe has also been debating what the so-called genuine farmer is (echte Bauern in German; véritables agriculteurs in French). For the time being, this definition and status is at the discretion of the member states, although the European Commission has indicated that this definition may need to be established at European level.
In any case, we in Latvia cannot just wait to see what Europe tells us, but rather we have to formulate our own opinion, which is best suited to us, Latvians, taking into consideration the specific features of our identity.
I could speak about this matter at length but allow me to just briefly draw your attention to one new trend in the development of the countryside as a cultural space: lately, especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the attractiveness of the countryside as a living space has increased for city-dwellers and also new families. Today, living in the countryside and working in the city or remotely is becoming increasingly simple, and thus rural areas are enticing urbanites with their nature and freedom. This could, possibly, lead to a rapid increase of the number of people living in rural areas, maybe even on small farms, but not engaging in agriculture. Yet they, too, will shape the cultural space of the countryside. This new group should also be included in the planning of rural policy, and it ought to be promoted.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I thank you for your participation in this national dialogue. There is an immense range of issues of national strategic importance pertaining to the countryside and agriculture that we need to discuss and decide upon. I have outlined but a few.
I am also well aware that this is not an easy discussion. In the age of today’s rapid communication, opinions can be formulated quicker than a substantiated and comprehensive discussion can be held. This is especially important to consider in light of sustainability and land management, because due to living each in our own information “bubble” we develop a significantly different understanding of the land as a valuable resource and how to best manage it in the long-term.
Those dwelling in cities and the countryside, small and large farmers, foresters, conventional and organic farmers, environmental protection organisations, municipal governments and state ministries — each has its own opinions and its own goals. Even though these interests often overlap, it seems that it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to reconcile our various opinions.
Therefore, I believe that this type of national dialogue is being held at the right moment and our society truly needs it to openly discuss our common objectives and seek common solutions for sustainable land management, food production, and, in a broader sense, to agree on a common future vision for the Latvian countryside.
I hope that this national dialogue will become a foundation allowing all of us together to find an effective way that each of us can live in better harmony with nature, rather than going against it.
I wish you all a successful day and successful dialogue!