What has COVID-19 changed for the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy?

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

What has COVID-19 changed for the EU's Farm to Fork Strategy? Nothing apart from underlining the urgency of transforming our food systems, write Nick Jacobs, Celia Nyssens and Nikolai Pushkarev.

What has COVID-19 changed for the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy? Nothing apart from underlining the urgency of transforming our food systems, write Nick Jacobs, Celia Nyssens and Nikolai Pushkarev.

Nick Jacobs is the Director of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food (IPES-Food), Celia Nyssens is Policy Officer for Agriculture at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), and Nikolai Pushkarev is Policy Coordinator for Food Systems & NCD Prevention at the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA)

Is COVID-19 proving the resilience of our food systems, or revealing them to be ‘broken’? With the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy only days away, and key aspects still undecided, this is proving to be one of the major battlegrounds of the post-COVID landscape.

But the question of whether food systems are ‘broken’ or not is missing the point. A house with a leaking roof and a rapidly eroding foundation is not broken, and may look fine, but it is not a safe place to live. While lockdowns and changes in demand have (briefly) disrupted supply chains, food has, by and large, continued to flow. This has allowed some to proclaim the system ‘resilient’ – the house is still standing. But is that a proof of the sustainability of the food system?

Probably not. The more fundamental question is: are food systems able to deliver healthy and sustainable diets for all, and decent livelihoods for food system workers, now and in a future context of increasing volatility and climate shocks?

On these counts, COVID-19 exposes major cracks below the surface. Food systems are not working for farmers with perennially low incomes who are now unable to sell their produce. They are not working for seasonal agricultural workers forced to live and work in unsanitary conditions in the middle of a pandemic, or for delivery drivers on zero hour contracts with no sick pay. Nor are they meeting the needs of low-income populations with little access to healthy food who are disproportionately suffering from diet-related health conditions. And food systems are certainly not working for the world’s poorest people, with the UN predicting a doubling of extreme hunger in the wake of the pandemic.

Furthermore, as noted by the Commission’s scientific advisors, food systems are fundamentally unsustainable on all counts: environmental, economic and social. “Continuing with ‘business as usual’ will significantly endanger natural resources, our health, the climate, and the economy.”

What has proven resilient, therefore, is the ability of the industrial, inequitable food system model to stay in place despite growing evidence of its shortcomings. The current crisis has been seized as an opportunity to roll back progress, i.e. to put the brake on the Farm to Fork Strategy, to shield the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) from real reform, and, under the guise of promoting ‘food security’, to refocus attention on calorie production rather than nutrition.

The Farm to Fork Strategy, and the broader European Green Deal, offer a chance to show that sustainability and food security are inextricably linked, to identify the transition to sustainable food systems as the route to resilience and food security, and to kick-start the long-term transformation of our food system that scientists, civil society and farming groups are calling for.

As we prepare for the post-coronavirus world, we need transformative policies to fix the cracks and scale up and sustain the new social innovations that have sprung up during the crisis. The Farm to Fork Strategy must therefore deliver in the following areas:

Secure livelihoods based on safe conditions and decent incomes. The Strategy offers a unique opportunity to break the cycles of low farmgate prices, insecure farming livelihoods, and reliance on CAP subsidies. COVID-19 has shown that farmers and food-workers face disproportionate risks and reap too little value, making this situation increasingly untenable.

Support social innovation and short supply chains. Like shock absorbers, citizens groups and producers have found innovative ways to sell, transport, and distribute food through the crisis. Across the EU (e.g. in France and Poland), demand has soared for community-supported agriculture (CSA) schemes and other forms of direct sales. These short supply chains are generally performing well under the strains of the crisis, and must now be scaled up.

Accelerate the shift to agroecology. Building a sustainable and resilient food system requires diversity at all levels, from the field, to the farm and regional levels, through a paradigm shift to agroecology, as recognised by the FAO, IPCC, and IPBES. This shift can build resilience by slowing the habitat destruction that drives disease outbreaks and providing secure jobs through the year, thereby reducing the reliance on temporary labour forces.

Create ‘food environments’ that enable healthy and sustainable diets. A sustainable food systems transition requires a collective shift in eating patterns towards healthy, more plant-rich diets. This is not about telling people what to eat, or ‘imposing a global diet’. It means creating enabling food environments where the healthy and sustainable food options become the default, most attractive and affordable ones.

To catalyse these changes, the EU will need to set ambitious targets underpinned by action and resources, for example on reducing pesticides and fertiliser use, but also related to nutrition, jobs, or soil protection to name but a few.

The fact that food supply chains have not collapsed does not mean that they are sustainable or fair. As we start planning for the post-coronavirus world, we must continue to be guided by scientists and experts. And their advice is unequivocal: “radical system-wide change is required, with ‘business as usual’ no longer a viable option.”

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