Returning our food systems to business as usual would be a historic mistake

Amid the coronavirus crisis, some are calling for a deferral of European ecological action. Yet unsustainable food systems are one source of new human diseases, writes EEB’s EU Policy Director Patrick ten Brink.

As COVID-19 tightens its grip around the world, there is no doubt that saving lives must remain the priority of the immediate response. It is our collective responsibility to do everything we can to stop the virus spreading further and to help all those affected.

Yet a fierce struggle is going on in parallel. And, as enormous decisions are taken, the ramifications for society could be huge.

A few voices in politics and industry, notably the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, and members of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament, are already leaping on what they see as an opportunity to argue that environmental commitments by the European Union—most notably the European Green Deal – must be paused, even rolled back. Their claim is that we simply cannot afford to deal with climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse, water scarcity and ecosystem destruction right now.

Yet what we can’t afford is not to do so. To suggest dealing with one crisis but not another is not just a false choice: common solutions can help tackle both.

Returning to ‘business as usual’ would be a historic mistake. As we recover from Covid-19, we don’t just need to restart the economy – we need to rebuild it.

Loss and degradation

Research suggests that the emergence of new human diseases is closely linked to loss and degradation of ecosystems and habitats, which in turn is driven by climate change, resource extraction, urban and agricultural expansion and pollution – all problems which are meant to be addressed through the European Green Deal. Inger Andersen, director of the United Nations Environment Programme, recently drew similar conclusions.

It is vital that we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis even more devoted to the European Green Deal than before. As the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) has urged the European Commission, in a joint letter with other major environmental NGOs and in a new position paperthe EU must continue and indeed reinforce the trajectory towards a resilient and sustainable economy.

The substantial stimulus packages being launched should build on the many measures in the Green Deal, which is already a stimulus package towards sustainability. They should also be fully transparent as to where money flows and set conditions to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely and leads to progress toward a better future – for instance when it comes to bailouts for the aviation industry.

Food systems

One topic in particular lies at the heart of the environment-coronavirus nexus – our food systems. When it comes to the origins of the outbreak and its wider consequences for society, food is a central part of the equation.

Agricultural activity is a key driver of land-use change, depleting ecosystems, and its expansion is one of the main causes of biodiversity collapse. Moreover, agriculture (together with forestry) accounts for 23% of human-induced greenhouse-gas emissions contributing to climate change.

Land conversion for agriculture is a significant driver of nature destruction worldwide

Meanwhile, we see images of half-empty supermarket shelves and citizens hoarding food out of fear of a breakdown of supply chains. The EU is the world’s largest food importer and, at the same time, our highly specialised farming depends on the smooth movement of seasonal workers for the short harvest period of the monoculture farms and regions. With the sudden restrictions on border crossings – many seasonal workers come from eastern Europe and North Africa – and increasing challenges to the global shipping industry, we suddenly recognise the vulnerability of the long and intricate supply chains on which we rely for our daily bread.

Food supply unchained

The coronavirus outbreak underscores why the EU must make the transition to ‘agroecological’ food systems, which are built on shorter supply chains. Agroecology is an essentially different paradigm from the way most food is currently produced in the EU. It is an approach that relies on, and maximises, ecological processes to support production systems. It is a way of thinking holistically about agronomy, ecology and biology – to produce food in harmony with nature, not against it.

Unfortunately, the Common Agricultural Policy, which shapes our farming sector through subsidies of €60 billion per year, funds harmful intensive agriculture, rather than delivering the social and knowledge innovation necessary to ensure good food is grown on good farms. The CAP is being revised, though, and the EEB is among many civil society organisations pushing for radical change.

The European Green Deal’s upcoming Farm to Fork Strategy is another opportunity which the EU must grab to initiate the transition to agroecology. Mainstreaming agroecological food production and rebuilding short and fair supply chains is crucial to curbing the environmental impact of our food systems, while guaranteeing a safe and healthy supply for our citizens and decent livelihoods for our farmers.

We have a choice on how to farm, and fish, the food we eat. The current way of doing things has pitted much of our production against the natural world in a very risky way. This is part of a wider rift between human society and our environment which we need to mend.

After we have made it through the corona crisis, we don’t have to go back to current practices. We can choose to do things differently – and create a better future where people and nature thrive together.

A mixed landscape that makes space for nature in Italy

* with thanks to colleagues Asger Mindegaard, Célia Nyssens and Anton Lazarus for their inputs

This article was first published on Social Europe on 23 April 2020.