A man demonstrates outside parliament in Warsaw on May 7, 2020, before legislation allowing a presidential election was delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: AFP

Beyond diplomatic scandals and finger-pointing during the past years, Russia-EU relations have found yet another potential stumbling block – fertilizer production.

It all started four years ago when the European Commission introduced new regulations on organic and waste-based fertilizers. Included in the rules were proposed limits on the amount of the toxic heavy metal cadmium which could be allowed in fertilizer.

Cadmium can damage kidneys and other organs and is common in nature but there is debate about safe levels of the metal in fertilizer for humans.

The EU measures reflected a target to boost the use of recycled materials in phosphate fertilizer production as part of the EU Circular Economy Action Plan.

The new rule initially proposed to gradually introduce cadmium limits in phosphate fertilizers, starting with 60 milligrams of cadmium per kilogram of phosphorus pentoxide (P2O5), then decreasing to 40mg/kg after three years and to 20mg/kg after 12 years.

But the rather neutral “green initiative” quickly sparked fierce debate among the EC, European Parliament and some member states, with Poland one of the main opponents of the pro-environmental standard.

North and West Africa are also major suppliers of phosphate to the European Union, while Poland, another major player in fertilizer production, has invested heavily in phosphate mines in Senegal.

However, the regulations threatened to disrupt the status quo by barring an estimated 10-15% of supply to EU countries that exceeded even the 60mg/kg limit. Opponents focused on Russia, whose producers benefit from some of the lowest cadmium levels globally due to the nature of their reserves.

Polish and African producers, fearing they could lose market share, lobbied hard against strict cadmium restrictions.

The controversies surrounding regulations continued to mount. Eventually the measures adopted by the EU in 2019 avoided setting low cadmium targets and left the maximum level at 60mg/kg, which would impact only a small portion of the market with the highest cadmium levels.

But the cadmium saga wasn’t over. The regulations also stipulated voluntary green labeling for phosphate-based fertilizers with the lowest levels of cadmium below 20mg/kg. This initiative stirred new debates, as the “green labels” would highlight suppliers of products with levels lower than 20mg/kg. It could also help the new European Commission plans and strategies embodied in the Green Deal.

The latest draft states that “there are two ways to declare low cadmium, either by text and/or using a pictogram,” and gives two pictogram options: black and green.

The move will help farmers and consumers pick products that will not contribute to pollution and accumulation of cadmium in the soil and adhere to green standards but might redraw EU fertilizers markets.

North African suppliers and Poland would have to invest in changes to production processes to remove cadmium. Producers from Russia, Egypt, Canada, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and other countries with naturally low-cadmium phosphate producers, could benefit if farmers choose to opt for “cleaner” crop nutrients.

Lobbying against this phosphate fertilizer green label has sought to play on geopolitical tensions between Russia and the EU to further complicate the picture.

During the past few years the relationship between Moscow and Brussels has cooled, as mutual alienation has set in. In the past 12 months, bilateral ties were once again shaken by “hard evidence” of Russia’s hacking of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s constituency-office e-mails and the murder of a former commander of Chechen separatists in Berlin allegedly orchestrated by Russian intelligence.

During a videoconference at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung foundation, the think-tank connected to the center-right Christian Democratic Union, with political group leaders from the European Parliament, Merkel spent very little time addressing Russia and announced that the EU merely seeks to maintain a “peaceful co-existence.” The statement reflects some of the lowest point in Russia-EU relations during the past 30 years.

The decision might also cause political divisions, as countries that believe they stand to lose out commercially from stricter environmental regulations continue to talk about “dependence” on Russia, while other member states might question Brussels over its environmental policies favoring geopolitical adversaries.

The demand for a “green economy,” on the one side, and the notorious “Russian threat” on the other, put Brussels at the crossroads. But geopolitical fears are likely to be played down this time by the consequences of Covid-19.

A few years ago the EU could have probably again reversed its position to ease tensions but the pandemic has very likely changed the calculus.

Disruption of global supply chains and public pressure for greater levels of sustainability spearhead transition to circular economy. For instance, the Farm to Fork Strategy is at the heart of the European Green Deal and aiming to make food systems more environmentally friendly, and improving quality of fertilizers is a part of it.

The new cadmium regulations seem to adhere to green-economy principles and emerge as tenets of the future image of the EU agricultural sector. Furthermore, new guidelines might pave the way for more regulations in the future that might create a very different fertilizers market in coming years.

Many signs indicate that EU politicians are determined to go ahead with the regulations this time. A recent article in Politico showed that Brussels was poised within “the coming weeks” to adopt guidelines.

Therefore, more politicians might prefer to deal with domestic agriculture first and monitor whether it results in any real shift toward a “dependence” on Russia. The EU has access to a diversified supply of phosphate fertilizers, and it is unlikely that this threat will actually materialize.

Nonetheless, it will make sense for the EU to monitor the behavior of the Russian companies, assessing their reliability and detachment from the Kremlin’s geo-economic objectives.

But nothing is certain until the decision in announced and it is evident that the guidelines will be battled until the last minute.

The author is a political analyst and independent journalist. He is a consultant on policy and strategy and has written about Russia’s foreign policy.

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