Copa Cogeca is the largest agricultural lobbying group in Europe, claiming to be “the united voice” of 22 million farmers. But a new investigation from Lighthouse Reports suggests the true size of their membership is far smaller than this – and that the group uses its unrivalled influence to block climate and environmental reform, and lobby for industrial farmers at the expense of smallholders.
Bertie spoke to Thin Lei Win, Lighthouse’s Lead Food Systems Reporter, about the story.
Audio editing by Vasko Kostovski.
- ‘Europe’s Potemkin Lobby‘ – Lighthouse Reports
- ‘The truth behind Europe’s most powerful farmers lobby‘ – Politico
- View Copa-Cogeca’s specific figures on lobbying spending on lobbyfacts.eu here.
- Greenpeace’s Out of Balance report, mentioned in the interview.
- ‘EU Investigating Agribusiness Lobby Group Copa-Cogeca Over Potential Transparency Breach‘, DeSmog
- Romanian language reporting on the story from Libertatea here and here.
- Danish language reporting on the story from Danwatch here.
- Polish language reporting on the story from OKO.press here.
Hello, and welcome back to the Land and Climate Podcast. My name is Bertie Harrison-Broninski, and today I’m talking to Lighthouse Reports journalist Thin Lei Win about a recent investigation into Europe’s largest agricultural lobby group, Copa Cogeca, and the disproportionate sway they hold over EU policy making, blocking environment reforms and funnelling subsidies to industrial farmers instead of smallholders.
He received an email from a Coca Cogeca staffer, telling him to back down from that position and essentially saying that if he doesn’t withdraw this proposal for alternatives, there could be “unpleasantness”. They’ve been one of the biggest spoilers when it comes to making European agriculture more climate resilient.
I began by asking Thin why Lighthouse chose to make one of their seven newsrooms focused on food systems, and how that team ended up investigating Copa Cogeca.
We need to look at food from a holistic perspective, and that’s what we’re trying to do at Lighthouse Reports. In particular, we really wanted to look at the structural inequalities which have brought us to where we are today, because if you speak to a lot of food systems experts, they’ll tell you that the current systems that we have, from the way we are producing to the way we process, transport, consume, and discard food is broken – completely not working. We have increased the amount of food that we’ve produced dramatically over the past half a century, and yet we still have hundreds of millions of people going hungry. And so many billions of people who are malnourished. Obviously, it’s not an issue about whether we are producing enough food. There are lots of other factors that are making the system at the moment completely unsustainable because food systems, we’ve also discovered recently, account for a third of global manmade greenhouse gas emissions.
In trying to look into that, we’ve also been looking at things like consolidation and monopoly, the power food companies have over farmers, and what could be contributing to food price inflation. We’ve been wanting to speak to farmers about what they’re facing, what are some of the challenges, what are their needs. And we started talking to them actually last year. And one of the things that we kept coming across was that there are a lot of farmers who do want to change the way they produce food, make it more sustainable, environmentally friendly, biodiversity friendly, but feel like they’re locked into these systems that are way bigger than them, that they just feel powerless to change. And in discussions, we keep coming across talk about these big powerful farm unions, of which Copa Cogeca is the biggest, the oldest, and the most powerful of them all in Europe.
So you have all these national farm unions individual countries, right? Many of them. And Copa is union of unions at the EU level, and they were set up around the same time as the common agricultural policy (the CAP), which is the system of subsidies for farmers in the European Union. This was late 1950s, early 1960s, and it started out as a farming and a cooperative movement, the Copa and the Cogeca arms. And then they merged in the early 1960s, and they created this single lobby powerhouse. And they have held sway over agriculture policy making in the European Union ever since. So we thought it was natural to find out who they really are, whether their claim to power is really legitimate, because they present themselves as the “united voice of farmers”.
Is it fair to say the main findings have been that they probably overstate their membership, or at least the number of people that they represent, and that their views and objectives are often not really aligned with most farmers?
Okay, let’s look into the findings one by one. Number one is that Copa Cogeca said that they represent more than 22 million farmers and their families in the European Union, which would essentially mean every single farmer in a European Union because according to the statistics, that’s the number of farmers we have. But our investigation found that is definitely not the case. A lot of the numbers are based on membership figures that are opaque, unavailable, or unreliable. It is nowhere near 22 million. So the power from which they derive their legitimacy is based on statistics that it’s really hard to actually prove. Number two; one of the things that we found also is that they represent only a subset of farmers, not all farmers. They represent the big, large scale industrial intensive farming unions and cooperatives and farmers. Number three; despite all of that, they still have privileged access to the EU institution.
And by that, I mean, the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Council, which is the governments and the ministers. They are the only group that gets to speak to the council presidency before every meeting of agriculture ministers. No other groups get access. They have very close relationships with a lot of the members of Parliament, members of the European Parliament (MEPs), and we have seen emails and letters that they’ve sent to MEPs giving specific instructions on how to vote. You know, some of the documents go on over a hundred pages with specific amendments and votes. They have very close relationships particularly with DG AGRI, which is the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development in the European Commission. There are these groups that DG AGRI has set up to get stakeholder participation and Copa Cogeca for a very long time has had the largest number of seats.
And finally, the fourth is that they are losing touch with a lot of the farmers, whether these are farmers inside Copa Cogeca – we spoke to many insiders, member unions, who feel unrepresented, particularly unions who have small, medium sized farmers, family farmers, they feel like they don’t get a say. There’s also a lot of small farmers, independent farmers, and young farmers who are outside of the union who feel completely unrepresented.
Why is this so opaque? I found it interesting in the interview that Politico did with the Secretary General of Copa Cogeca following your investigation, where he seemed to basically claim that he even he didn’t know the numbers.
Yeah that’s really interesting, and you would have thought policymakers in Brussels would also do their own due diligence before just accepting that, ‘oh, yeah, they say they represent 22 million farmers, and therefore they do’. Yes so Politico Europe is one of our media partners for this investigation, and they did this fantastic interview with Pekka Pesonen, who is the Secretary General of Copa Cogeca. He himself admitted that the 22 million number is more probably more aspirational than realistic. It’s really interesting and we’re still, in some ways, uncovering ourselves why it is so hard to know the exact number of members.
So let me just give you a couple of examples of what our media partners in the countries that we’re looking to found, and it requires a lot of digging and our own mathmatics. So in Romania, our Romanian media partners, two reporters called Matei and Andrei (who were fantastic) looked at the Copa union members, which is an alliance of four unions and discovered that they represent, in their own words, 3500 farmers. In a country with almost 2.9 million agricultural holdings. In Denmark, we’ve also looked at the membership numbers and the biggest union there, L&F, which is the only member of Copa Cogeca. They have sort of flip flopped their membership numbers. We looked at their 2021 annual report, which gave numbers that show that they have increased the number of farmers as members by 5000, which is interesting because both at European level and at Danish national level, statistics show that the number of farmers has gone down. So we’re like, ‘oh, how come that you are seeing actually an increase in membership?’. They wouldn’t explain how they came up with those numbers. But in their 2022 annual report, they took away that number. So in Poland, the biggest union member is also supposed to have, like, more than a million members, but even their court judgment found that a lot of these agricultural chambers of commerce have absolutely no idea how many members they actually really have.
In Spain, it’s a bit better. A reporter in Spain discovered and that the three Copa members represent 40% of farmers. That’s not a majority. Part of it, I think, is just the nature of farming over vast geographical areas makes it harder to get very specific numbers every year. So it’s something that I think people are only able to do every few years doing the census. There is a representativeness survey that is being done by an EU agency called Eurofound. They did something in 2016, and we tried to sort of compare and contrast the numbers that we found the numbers that they found. But we also spoke to an external researcher commission to do that survey who said that they had to rely on what the unions tell them quite often. So it’s a very interesting paradox. You know? We’re still trying to find out more about it.
Do the members of the unions and Copa Cogeca not pay for that membership? There must be accounts that they hold with those figures, right?
You would think so, but it’s actually really hard to find those exact details. I mean, we trolled through annual reports and financial reports, and there are sometimes estimates. Sometimes there is very little data. We actually reached out to 50 members of Copa Cogeca national unions, only nine responded. Either they haven’t done a good job of keeping track of their own memberships, or it helps them in some way to keep that number slightly opaque.
Do you have a sense of, or knowledge of, where the money is coming from with Copa Cogeca? I mean, who are the most important stakeholders for them in terms of funding?
That is a very important question, and that is one that we have struggled to answer. Copa Cogeca had to file with the transparency register as part of their role up until 2021. And we found that, you know, they spent quite a lot of money, €1.65 million, in the last filing between the two of them, but then they changed their status to non-commercial in September 2022. And there is a watchdog group called CEO (Corporate Europe Observatory) who actually made a complaint with the ombudsman to say ‘Hang on. This is a lobby group. They should have to file how much they spend on lobbying costs, and they can’t just be non-commercial’. We looked at the transparency register, and the filings there sort of went down by half over the last filing compared to the previous ones, it’s been really difficult to find out.
I mean, we do know that some of the membership fees come from governments. So we know that for Romania, Spain, and Poland, the governments pay for their national unions to be part of Copa Cogeca, and our calculation showed that they pay about €1.4 million in total a year between those three countries. I’ve also discovered that Lithuania may still be paying the membership fees, and they to come up to hundreds of thousands of euros a year. And those are the only ones that we know out of the 22 European Union members that pay membership fees. We also know that, for example, Copa Cogeca, some of their events they co-organise with agri-businesses. So CropLife Europe, which is the lobby group for the agrichemicals, the fertilisers industry in particular, have co-organised at least one annual event with Copa Cogeca. Of course, they say that it’s all independent and this is part of how you defray costs and how it works and that, you know, CropLife has no sway on Copa’s positions.We do know that there are those relationships. But the exact number of funding and how much they spend on lobbying, I think only Copa Cogeca know.
Did you get the impression that generally speaking member states or governments within the EU are supportive of Copa’s objectives, or are there tensions there with any countries?
Earlier on, I talked about how Copa has really good relationships and has privileged access with multiple EU key institutions, including the Council. So the Council is made up of the governments, right? And one of the reasons for that close relationship is because a lot of the national member unions of Copa Cogeca have very close relationships with the governments. For example, again, in Romania, one of the vice presidents of Copa Cogeca used to be the Secretary of State for Agriculture in Romania. FNSEA, which is the French farming union, which is extremely powerful, they have a very good relationship with the Macron government, but not just Macron, but with the successive French governments. That, and a lot of the people who are involved in agriculture policymaking are ministers of agriculture. They’re only seeing agriculture from a very narrow spectrum, and they’re not seeing the wider societal impacts around either the environment or the consumers or biodiversity. Both the politicians and the policymakers at the national level and the European level, and people in Copa Cogeca, speak the same language.
The people who disagree, the people who think this is not the right way to do things, are sort of locked out of this process. I mean, academics call it the iron triangle, where you’ve got the executive, the interest groups, and the legislative arm. The three arms are this very chummy closed loop network that decides on policies and agriculture in the EU. So, unfortunately, a lot of the governments in the EU, in the Council, thinks very similarly to Copa Cogeca, at least when I say the government, the agricultural ministries of these governments do.
If you imagine there’s a bill that’s in proposal stage, say, through the Commission, and Copa Cogeca wants to change it in certain ways, what are the kind of options they have to do that? What different, like, avenues of influence do they have over the EU?
Yeah. So they have 3 levels of influence that they can do. One is the Commission, and Commission is the one that usually starts the drafting of the laws. Even before the law is drafted, they could lobby the Commission, particularly the DG AGRI, which they’ve always had very close relationships with, like, Copa Cogeca’s office and the DG AGRI building are, like, 2 minutes walk from each other in Brussels. But there are also other departments like the DG SANTE, which is responsible for the Farm to Fork. And they could lobby all these different directorate generals through their stakeholder groups, but also directly, particularly if you already have a close relationship. So even before the law is being written, they can push it and nudge it in a way that they would prefer for it to go.
Once the law is tabled, it reaches the Parliament, and it goes to the parliamentary committees. You’ve got the Com AGRI and the Com ENVI, I guess, the 2 that so far have been the most involved when it comes to agriculture and the Farm to Fork strategy policies. And in the Com AGRI, they have very close relationships with a lot of the members, a lot of the parliamentarians there. And even, you know, I think Greenpeace did a study a few years ago, I think 2016, that sort of looked at members of Com AGRI in the Parliament and their interest in agriculture. And a lot of them you know, have their own holdings, benefit from the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) subsidy, or are in some way linked to the agriculture sector. There’s already conflict of interest. Like, Jeroen Candel, who is the Dutch academic from Wageningen who talked about political capture in the EU because he says in any other sector, people with this kind of direct conflict of interest deciding on policies that will benefit them as an absolute no go, but in agriculture that’s sort of almost expected.
So, you know, they can influence parliamentarians at that level as well once it reached the Parliament. Like I said, they send emails. They push Parliament. You know? Tell them how to vote. Tell them what amendments should be tabled. In the interview with Politico Europe, again, Pekka Pesonen admitted that they actually table these motions for MEPs. And I want to give you a specific anecdote that our Romanian partners discovered with this Romanian MEP, who was part of a file. He’s a shadow rapporteur on the file on the school scheme to provide fruits and vegetables. So it’s something that is warm and fluffy; providing milk and fruits and vegetables to school children. Who wouldn’t want that? Who would object to anything that is being tabled. Right? And the programme was being negotiated among different political groups, and this MEP from Renew Group wanted to table providing alternatives for milk, particularly for children who are either allergic or lactose intolerant. And he received an email from a Copa Cogeca staffer telling him to back down from that position and essentially saying that if he doesn’t withdraw this proposal for alternatives, there could be unpleasantness.
Why is that so scary that this organisation has such influence? What are their aims and objectives? You said that they kind of favour big industrial farming over smallholders. Do you know any kind of specific laws and changes that they’ve made? Or do you know any specifics about that influence over kind of climate directions that agriculture has been potentially taking or not taking?
Latest statistics show that the region has lost three million farmers in 10 years. That’s a rate of 800 a day, and they’re not being replaced at a rate that they should be. The average age of a European farmer is 57 years old. If we really want a sustainable, resilient agriculture that has longevity, we really need to support the small, medium sized farmers that a lot of academics and studies have shown produce food for their local communities, not just for export. Number two, the fact that Copa Cogeca has so much power means the kind of policies that they’ve been pushing for are policies that only benefit the big ones, not the small ones. It means we keep losing small farmers. Farming is becoming more and more consolidated. And if the focus is purely just on monetary profit without looking at what are the consequences to consumers, to the natural environment, to the ecosystems, then we are going down a really dangerous path.
Another reason why it’s really concerning that Copa Cogeca is so powerful is because they have so far very much campaigned against a lot of policies and reforms to make European Agriculture more sustainable, more climate resilient, more environmentally friendly. So, you know, they’ve campaigned against efforts to restore degraded natural areas. They have campaigned against laws that would reduce use of deadly pesticides, reduce the use of fertilisers, which we know, if overused, can really have a massive impact on ecosystems and soil fertility. They’ve also been really against linking farm subsidies to environmental outcomes, or even capping farm subsidies and directing them more to its smaller farmers. They’ve been one of the biggest spoilers when it comes to making European Agriculture more climate resilient.
So one thing with Copa Cogeac is they have been very good at taking advantage of crises to really push for policies that benefit big farms and slow down and delay climate action. When COVID-19 hit, they said ‘there’s a global pandemic and we need to actually slow down Farm to Fork’. They really actually pushed the Farm to Fork strategy to be postponed, but they didn’t succeed, but they did try. And then last year, when Russia invaded Ukraine, they used that as an excuse to say, ‘Hang on. We need to produce as much food as we possibly can, we need to beat the world. And, therefore, you know, we cannot have areas to protect biodiversity’. A recent analysis that came out showed that a lot of that land that was not used to protect biodiversity wasn’t used for producing food. It was used for producing feed. It didn’t go to hungry people either in Europe or in third world countries. Again, they’ve also used the Ukraine crisis to say ‘This is food insecurity’. And they have essentially portrayed a lot of the legislation, whether it’s to halve pesticide use or whether it’s to protect ecosystems as things that are going to, number one, reduce farmer’s incomes, reduce productivity, and will lead hunger in the European Union.
And they have used studies that only look at a very narrow set of criteria or findings to push for that. They’ve said, ‘Oh, this is going to be much more expensive for farmers. This is going to be much more expensive for consumers’. Without actually taking into account what it would mean if we don’t change things. If we don’t have functioning ecosystems, we cannot produce food. That is the bottom line. Then we’re not even talking about the fact that it’s going to be expensive for farmers and consumers. It’s just that there would just be no food. What do we do then? Yeah. So they’ve taken advantage of the all these crises. They’ve used studies that only shows part of the only highlighted part of the partial issues instead of the holistic view of what we really need to do.
My thanks to Thin for coming on the show. Do check out the full investigation from Lighthouse and their media partners all linked in the podcast blurb below. If you’re still hungry for more, I’ll also link our new collection at Land and Climate of articles and podcasts that we’ve called The Future Unrefined. It looks at issues around extraction and raw materials and the climate transition. If you enjoyed this episode, do follow or subscribe on your favourite podcast platform. And if you listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts, leave us a review as well. We really appreciate it. We’ll see you again in 2 weeks’ time when Alasdair is going to dive into the complex topic of deep-sea mining. Thanks for listening.