Producers in Belgium back the aims of the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy, according to Luc Vanoirbeek, general secretary of the Association of Belgian Horticultural Cooperatives (VBT), as long as they are ”affordable, realistic and fair”

How would you summarise the state of the industry in Belgium at the moment?

Luc Vanoirbeek: I’m going to tell you something quite surprising: it’s very complicated! There are a lot of different issues. Let’s start with production. Last year, we experienced something for the first time: apple growers didn’t harvest their whole crop. In Europe, there’s something wrong with the relationship between supply and demand of apples. But this was the first time that the answer from apple growers was not to harvest, due to rising costs and low prices.

Luc Vanoirbeek

Luc Vanoirbeek

Growers are now thinking not about quantity but quality, growing something special and being different. More than 50 per cent of our apples are Jonagold. It is a good apple, and we are proud of it, but consumers are looking for something else. We are making that switch, looking at new varieties and also new marketing concepts.

Is the situation similar for vegetables?

LV: For vegetables, it’s the same story. The big crisis for tomatoes was in 1995 and they responded by looking for new things, new types of tomato. We have to continue to do this, while also looking at new production techniques.

Costs are 10-15 times higher for energy, fertiliser, plant protection products, packaging – you name it. Salaries for seasonal workers have increased by more than 11 per cent. So if prices are not at least 11 per cent higher, you are losing. At least we have seasonal workers, but they are getting expensive.

How is the sector progressing with regard to the key sustainability aims? Do you think we’re on the right track with the Farm to Fork strategy?

LV: We are convinced that something has to be done on the environment and the climate. The main thing for us is the timing. Do you give the sector time to achieve this and get suitable alternatives? You can’t send people into the fields without a tool box, so plant protection companies have to help us with products that have less of an impact on the environment. We need a certain pressure, it’s true, and we need targets, but the timing has to be realistic. And it has to be affordable. The role of producer organisations is key here, as they can do a lot of things to make the lives of producers much easier.

Finally it has to be fair. This has to do with competition worldwide. You cannot have a system where some people try to make enormous progress and set the highest standards, then products come in from places with much lower standards. This is a guarantee that we have to get from the EU.