A plan by the autonomous Brussels government to gobble up farmland in the Belgian regions of Wallonia and Flanders to feed the capital’s population sparked fierce criticism on Monday as leading politicians rejected the plan as “medieval” and damaging.
Alain Maron, Brussels’ environment minister, outlined a scheme to buy up large tracts of land to boost biodiversity and stimulate climate-friendly local food production. “Farmers themselves are going to cultivate the lands, we will make them available,” he told the radio station LN24.
“The idea is that there is local consumption, that there are short supply chains, that is to say that the place where we consume the produce is as close as possible to the place where it is produced,” he said.
The region’s Good Food Strategy, laid out by Maron’s predecessor, sets a target that one third of the fresh fruit and vegetables being eaten by Brussels’ 1.2 million inhabitants should be produced in Brussels or its periphery by 2035.
Maron, who comes from the environmentalist French-speaking Ecolo party, said he intends to buy agricultural land “in the coming months and years” from the Dutch-speaking Flemish Brabant province, which encircles Brussels, and also the French-speaking Wallonian Brabant province, which lies close by to the south.
But his comments appeared to surprise the two larger regions’ farm ministers, who command sway over food production in Belgium, where agriculture is largely a devolved issue.
The Walloon farm boss Willy Borsus said in a statement that Maron’s comments were akin to “a hair in the soup of our long term action on agriculture,” and denounced the “total lack of consultation” with Wallonia’s government.
Borsus, from the liberal Mouvement Réformateur (MR) party, seemed to mock Maron, writing: “If I’m not mistaken, Alain Maron’s last idea was to grow cereal crops on Brussels’ boulevards …”
Flanders’ farm chief Hilde Crevits tweeted that farmers in the Dutch-speaking region provide food for all Belgians, “preferably on their own land,” saying those plots should not become scarcer.
Even Belgium’s new federal Agriculture Minister David Clarinval slammed the Brussels minister, saying in a statement that his comments “demonstrate a medieval conception of the division of land and of the way our country works.”
Clarinval, from the same MR party as Wallonia’s Borsus, warned that buying up farmland in neighboring regions would only increase land prices which are already the subject of real estate speculation and, he said, ran contrary to the objectives of local, family farming.
Responding to Borsus on Twitter, Maron later appeared to backtrack, saying the plan was an option that would only be carried out “if it makes sense in a place, at a [particular] moment, with motivated professionals and in a framework of consultation.”
He tweeted that the capital’s €1.5 million budget for strengthening its agriculture in 2021 would prioritize projects inside Brussels. A revised version of the Good Food Strategy, which has run since 2016, is expected to be announced next year.
But he also defended his government’s policy of boosting the food belt around Brussels, arguing that many big cities are also doing so.
In an overview of the strategy, shared with POLITICO by Maron’s spokesperson, the ministry said the government’s policy does not aim to buy up land left, right and center, or to increase property speculation.
Belgian farming organizations also gave less-than-warm responses, with the farmers’ group FUGEA saying in a statement that creating a food belt around Brussels makes sense in theory, but not by buying up farmland.
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