With a ‘Farm to Fork’ Strategy on the cards, is the EU finally listening to its citizens?

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

Farmers and beekeepers are protesting for a sustainable EU agricultural reform with a sign 'Food is political' in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. [EPA-EFE/PATRICK SEEGER]

The Farm to Fork strategy will reveal whether the new Commission is ready to overhaul some of the EU’s most unsustainable policies and the vested interests behind them but leaked drafts suggest that it will not be truly systemic and transformative, writes Oliver De Schutter.

Olivier De Schutter is the former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food (2008-2014). He co-chairs the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).

On December 11th, the new European Commission will unveil its signature initiative, the “Green Deal”, and with it a ‘Farm to Fork’ (F2F) Strategy for transforming food systems.

The stakes are enormous for Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and her number two and Green Deal Czar, Frans Timmermans. The F2F Strategy is the perfect litmus test of their ambition: it will reveal whether the new Commission is ready to overhaul some of the EU’s most unsustainable policies and the vested interests behind them.

The European Commission is right to put food in the spotlight. Food systems are responsible for almost one-third of man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

About 20% of the food produced is lost or wasted, representing an annual loss of 143 billion euros. Pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers are driving the rapid loss of biodiversity and the environmental services it provides, which are worth some 3% of global GDP.

Antibiotic-resistant infections — linked to overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming — cost an estimated 1.5 billion euros each year in extra healthcare costs and productivity losses. With small- and medium-sized farms rapidly disappearing, land concentration in Europe is nearly on a par with Brazil, Colombia or the Philippines.

And while mass-produced, cheap food was meant to deliver food security for all, 43 million Europeans are still at risk of food poverty. Meanwhile, the spread of unhealthy diets has led to the growth of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases, which now account for up to 80% of healthcare costs in the EU and cost us some 7% of GDP.

The shape and scope of the F2F Strategy will, therefore, help to answer some pressing questions: can Europe deliver on its commitments to halt biodiversity loss, to reduce its GHG emissions beyond its current target of a 40% reduction by 2030 in order to become climate neutral by 2050, and to maintain soil health, as it has pledged to do in its legislative proposals on the common agricultural policy (CAP) beyond 2020?

Can it achieve this transition in a way that is equitable? And can the EU’s transition to a net-zero economy trigger a global transformation whereby “growing first and cleaning up later” — in the words of the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report  — is no longer the norm?

In adopting a farm-to-fork approach, the European Commission has recognized that these problems cannot be addressed in isolation.

Farmers will not adopt sustainable practices if they are not provided with marketing opportunities, fair prices, and guarantees that they will not be undercut by imports from less regulated markets.

Consumers will not shift to healthy and sustainable diets without comprehensive actions to make those options easy and affordable for all, and without protection from misleading health claims. And food poverty will not be resolved by perpetuating the same low-cost food economy that has failed to address it and has instead generated major costs to human health and the environment.

This is why scientists, farmers’ organizations, and civil society groups  — from environmental and public health advocates to consumer protection groups and anti-poverty networks  — have come together to call for a Common Food Policy.

The Commission’s F2F Strategy is therefore very timely: it has the potential to deliver the joined-up action across the food system that is being demanded and can show that the EU is listening to its citizens.

However, leaked drafts suggest that the F2F Strategy will not be — and is not designed to be — truly systemic and transformative.

Firstly, trade policies are largely missing from the equation.  Vice-President Timmermans has been tasked with delivering on the “Carbon Border Tax”. This is an important step: without a tax on imports, Member States will struggle to impose their own carbon taxes, and EU companies will continue to outsource production to countries with less demanding environmental standards (‘carbon leakage’). The EU should go beyond that, however: it must use its trade policy to impose strong, enforceable social and environmental conditionalities. This is not protectionism: it is an expression of solidarity with unions and social movements in the global South who are urging their governments to adopt more sustainable pathways.

Secondly, the F2F Strategy is getting underway just as reform of the CAP is being brought towards a conclusion. The post-2020 CAP will have objectives covering the whole food system. However, EU Member States will be asked to meet these objectives with a largely unchanged toolbox (still based around per-hectare farm subsidies), a lower budget for Rural Development, and a continued focus on techno-fixes like precision agriculture and new genomic techniques.

Thirdly, the governance of the F2F strategy remains unclear. A Vice-President of the European Commission has been tasked with supervising the Green Deal, which is key to improve policy coherence. But we also need time-bound commitments and a set of indicators for monitoring progress, allowing a coordinated transition to take place in different sectoral policies. Most importantly, we need the EU institutions to be accountable for results, and to be better equipped to learn from the many innovations that are emerging in food systems.

A European sustainable food policy should not only work for people. It should also be co-constructed with people, involving food system actors in the design, implementation and assessment of policies.

The F2F strategy should be seen not only as a change to improve consistency across policy areas to deliver health to the Europeans. It should also be seized as a unique opportunity to strengthen democracy in the EU and rebuild trust in the EU institutions.

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