EU’s 2022 promotional policy brands meat cancer risk, encourages shift to plant-based diets

The policy will support campaigns which help encourage “less red and processed meat and other foods linked to cancer risks (e.g. alcoholic drinks)”. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

The EU’s 2022 promotional policy will encourage a shift to more plant-based diets after branding red and processed meat a cancer risk, a move lambasted by the livestock farming sector but welcomed by civil society who stressed the need for more innovation in the plant-based sector.

The policy, €185.9 million of which has been allocated to promoting EU agri-food products in and outside the EU in 2022, funds campaigns in line with its sustainability ambitions, as outlined in the bloc’s flagship food and farming policy the Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy.

As such, similarly to 2021, next year’s promotion policy work programme will focus on products and agricultural practices that support EU organic products, fruit and vegetables, sustainable agriculture, and improving animal welfare.

“Demand for these products needs to grow if we want more producers to join the green transition,” agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski stated on the back of the policy launch.

This year’s promotional policy work programme also states that when assessing the award criteria for a proposed campaign, particular attention will be paid to “encouraging the shift to a more plant-based diet”.

An annexe of the policy’s working document specifies that this means “less red and processed meat and other foods linked to cancer risks (e.g. alcoholic drinks)”, which it defines as “beef, pig meat, lamb, and goat meat and all processed meats”.

France and Austria ask Brussels to develop EU plant-based protein strategy

French and Austrian agriculture ministers signed a joint declaration to strengthen the production of plant-based proteins such as soybeans, legumes, and oilseeds in the EU and increase “the EU’s self-sufficiency”. EURACTIV France reports.

The move received predictable backlash from the EU farmers lobby. As outlined in their position released in April of this year, they said it would promote “ultra-processed, standardised and engineered vegan products,” putting many farmers at risk.

“The promised revolution will certainly not be the one promoted, and when we get there, there will be no turning back. Our farms and their know-how will be gone,” the association warned at the time.

However, the move was welcomed by environmental campaigners, including Greenpeace, who have long been campaigning against the use of EU funds to support the meat sector.

“Using public money to fund promotional campaigns aiming at increasing the consumption of European animal products contradicts science and opposes the Green Deal,”  Marco Contiero, policy director on agriculture at Greenpeace Europe, told EURACTIV.

He added that, even if welcomed, next year’s promotion policy still allows such campaigns with only a few restrictions.

‘Urgent’ need to stimulate plant-based innovation

Meanwhile, others quickly pointed out that innovative plant-based proteins can play an essential role in reaching the F2F goals.

“It’s about looking at more in producing more diverse and sustainable raw materials,” Jeroen Knol, managing director of the European Federation of Food Science and Technology (EFFoST) said during a recent EURACTIV event.

Knol pointed out that novel processing of alternative proteins can help reduce water and energy consumption and eliminate waste in the production, distribution, and consumption of the total value chain.

However, highlighting the vital role that the food science and technology community plays in ensuring safe, nutritious, and sustainable foods on the market, Knol stressed an urgent need to stimulate innovation in the sector to achieve its full potential.

“There’s a lot of innovation needed to make more safe, more sustainable and more healthy foods, but at the same time, also tasty, diverse and accessible to the European consumers,” he pointed out.

Meanwhile, Acacia Smith, policy manager at the NGO Good Food Institute Europe, which campaigns to promote plant-based and cellular agriculture, pointed to the role of innovation in making the sustainable option affordable and accessible to the point that they become the “default choice”.

“Lots of developments are happening, but there is so much more potential,” she said, adding that the pace of change is “nowhere near fast enough, in order to kind of unleash the environmental benefits that are possible through a greater shift to sustainable proteins”. 

The speed of this progress depends largely on whether the EU “really chooses to invest in a big way in sustainable proteins in open access research,” much in the same way as they have for other climate change innovations like renewable energy, she added.

Cultured meat could be on the EU market 'as early as 2022'

After environmentalist George Monbiot’s controversial “Apocalypse Cow” documentary recently suggested that we may soon see the end of all farming, EURACTIV took a look at cultured meat to see what it is and where we’re at.

A question of balance

However, while MEP Herbert Dorfmann acknowledged the problems associated with the overconsumption of meat, he called for balance in the discussion on plant-based diets. 

Stressing the need to look at the “whole aspect” of sustainability, the MEP pointed out that a large amount of agricultural land in Europe is permanent grassland which is only useful with the help of grazing animals.

“Otherwise, we lose this permanent grassland for food production, or we transform this grassland, which would be the worst choice when it comes to climate change,” he said.

“So also here, we need to find an intelligent way because it’s clear we have a very high consumption of meat in Europe,” Dorfmann added.

According to him, moving to an entirely plant-based diet does not imply a self-acting improvement in the sustainability of European food systems.

“This is not true because you have to look at the whole chain,” he concluded.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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