The moment for a future-proof EU agriculture and food policy is now

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.


The next reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) should bring agricultural and food policies out of their respective silos and align actions across different areas in support of building sustainable food systems, write Sirpa Pietikainen and Bart Staes.

provide answers to EU citizens and farmers alike, who demand high quality food while responding to the environmental, societal and economic challenges of farming

Sirpa Pietikainen is a Finnish Member of the European Parliament for the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP). Bart Staes is a Belgian MEP for the Greens/EFA group. They both co-chair the European Parliament’s cross-party group on Sustainable Food Systems.

The next CAP reform should provide answers to the EU citizens and farmers alike, who demand high quality, nutritious and diverse diets. It should respond to the environmental, societal and economic challenges the EU food and farming sector is facing. Farmers want a respectful and livable way of farming.  In order to do that, the discussion should shift from reforming agricultural policies to putting in place a comprehensive Common Food Policy.

This is the essence of the letter the European Parliament’s cross-party Sustainable Food Systems Group, sends this week to European Commissioners and the Ministers of Agriculture. We address them at the occasion of the upcoming legislative proposals on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the sense of urgency we see concerning this process. Indeed, the debate on the next reform of the CAP, will finally kick off on the first of June and the importance of the outcome of this debate cannot be exaggerated. It will shape the European Union (EU) food systems for many years to come. In our view a successful CAP reform is one in which this policy is reframed, rebalanced, and rebranded to meet the changing expectations of European citizens as well as clear ecological limits and environmental requirements.

We, therefore, echo the view of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) which is organising an EU Food and Farming Forum (EU3F) on May 29th and 30th in Brussels. To nourish the CAP-reform debate, we expect this EU3F conference to be of great added value. This forum will provide concrete answers on how to design a Common Food Policy using the collective intelligence of farmers, food entrepreneurs, civil society activists, scientists, and policymakers. More than 200 food system actors from around Europe are coming together to design an urgently needed Common Food Policy. Participants at EU3F will co-develop a comprehensive set of policy proposals – a ‘Sustainable Food Scoreboard’ – for reforming European food and farming systems.

It is clear that current policies are failing to put food systems on a sustainable footing – and therefore a Common Food Policy offers a Plan B for Europe. Such a Plan B could spark a transition to sustainability in a way that agricultural policies alone cannot. CAP reform cannot work in isolation. All policies affecting food systems, and all actors along the food chain, need to work together in order to transition to sustainability.

However, the leaked CAP reform legislative proposals enhance a long-standing trend at the European Commission to withdraw from its key role in shaping and regulating one of the most integrated European projects: namely the CAP. The proposals lack a European political spirit and ambition to reform the CAP in a way that meets and solves the challenges of farming in Europe today.

The Commission fails to respond to the key environmental, climate, social and economic problems which farmers, workers, people living in rural and urban areas and consumers face across Europe today. In short, we simply do not see how based on the leaked proposals the CAP reform could deal with the serious policy problems, which Europe is facing and which translate into the following figures:

  • From 1961 to 1990, CO2 emissions caused by agriculture in the European Union (EU) had grown by 26.4%. Today, agricultural activities in the EU-28 generate about 10% of the Union’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
  • About 80% of farm aid goes to about a quarter of EU farmers; those with better revenues. But between 2003 and 2013, Europe lost 1 out of 4 farms and in 2010, nearly half of all EU farm holders (48%) were over 55 years old.
  • 44% of total water extraction in Europe is used for agriculture.
  • 75% of the world’s food production is generated from only 8 crops and 5 animal species.
  • Europe loses 970 million tonnes of soil every year, due to the clearing of natural habitats for intensive monoculture.
  • The consumption of highly processed industrial food products largely explains the explosion of obesity rates (51.6% of the EU population), and therefore non-communicable diseases (diabetes, cardio-related gastrointestinal cancers), which account for 80% of healthcare costs in the EU.
  • Roughly 20% of the food produced is wasted every year.

To create sustainable food systems, the food needs to be safe, nutritious, ethical, ecological and affordable. The future CAP should support locally produced high-quality food. It should guarantee high animal welfare standards and promote the transition towards more organic production.

We see the Common Food Policy as a solution, as an umbrella policy that gets agricultural and food policy out of the silos and aligns actions across different policy areas and different levels of governance in support of building sustainable food systems.

In order to be implemented, it requires bold and coordinated shifts at all segments of the food chains: in food production, processing, retail, and consumption. Only an umbrella policy with a mandate to address the whole system can sequence these wide-ranging actions and set a clear direction of travel.

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