EU biomass (food, feed, fuel and fibre) consumption by far exceeds what the planet can sustainably provide and is a key driver of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Meeting the EU’s pledge to reduce the environmental and climate footprint of the EU food system requires deep changes, not only to how we produce food, but also what we eat and how we trade with the rest of the world.

Asger Mindegaard and Celia Nyssens look beyond the borders of the EU to understand the implications of our food and farming system for the rest of the world.

The EU overshoot day in 2019 fell on 10 May (several months before the global overshoot day on July 29), meaning that if everybody in the world lived like an average resident of the European Union, we would need an additional planet to provide for our consumption. In other words, the average EU resident’s ecological footprint is more than double the planet’s biocapacity and this has significant implications for global and intergenerational justice.

This is because, when we consume more than our sustainable, fair share, we are either importing goods from abroad, thus reducing how much people elsewhere can sustainably consume themselves, or using up resources that we should be holding in trust for future generations, jeopardising the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren. Our debt to the future is a common topic in sustainability debates, but in this article we will mainly focus on contemporary implications for the global community.

Sustainability: The missing ingredient

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which were to be achieved by 2030. Applicable to both developed and developing countries, these global goals seek to meet human development needs while preserving a healthy planet. This double aim is highly relevant when we talk about the transition to sustainable food systems in the EU. Such a transition, promised in the European Commission’s Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy, requires us to look at how we produce and consume food and all the steps in between, including our imports and exports of agricultural products. The F2F strategy mostly focuses on domestic production, with only vague promises on trade policy. This business-as-usual approach to trade is a threat to the strategy’s stated objective to achieve “a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system.”

The EEB and other civil society organisations are advocating tirelessly for the European Union to align its trade policy with the objectives of its European Green Deal and its SDG commitments. One example is the  #GoodFood4All campaign, which was led by the EEB and involved partners from 15 European countries. 

A trade policy alignment to the European Green Deal and SDGs would require the EU to examine the sustainability of both our imports and our exports. 

Issues of major import

When we talk about imports, there are at least two overarching problems with the current situation. Firstly, there is often significant adverse impact (greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, biodiversity loss, pollution and human rights violations) embedded in imported agri-food commodities such as soya for animal feed, avocados, cacao and coffee. In other words, we are outsourcing the negative consequences associated with our consumption and it is clear that the EU is not carrying out enough due diligence to ensure that its imports are free of such exploitation. 

Secondly, importing food produced with lower sustainability standards from other parts of the world creates unfair competition for EU farmers, thereby hindering the widespread transition we need. Congruency between production standards for domestic and imported products is necessary to ensure that the EU’s consumption is both sustainable and fair for producers here and elsewhere. This can be achieved through strong and binding social and environmental clauses in trade agreements.

A container ship at Terminal Burchardkai in Hamburg, Germany. (Image: Julius Silver / Pexels)

Farming out poverty

When it comes to exports, the current set-up has significant detrimental implications for producers outside the EU. The EU’s flagship Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) currently subsidises the export-oriented overproduction of meat, dairy and cereals. This is inundating national markets in developing countries with artificially cheap products, making it difficult for local producers to compete and make a living, as is the case, for example, of dairy farmers in Senegal and poultry farmers in Ghana. While EU exports might be needed to underwrite food security in some vulnerable places, they should not devastate the livelihoods of national producers nor undermine local food sovereignty. 

The 2018 UN Declaration of the Rights of Peasants is a good reference for understanding the many relevant aspects of small-scale food producers in third countries living in vulnerable situations and the need to protect their rights. It should become a key document guiding the paradigm shift in EU agri-food trade policy towards stimulating agroecological production and national food sovereignty. Rather than the fierce competition they currently create, EU trade policies must promote cooperation and a strong focus on livelihood improvements in developing countries.

Food sovereignty in times of pandemic

Food sovereignty, people’s right to exercise direct, democratic control over food and the resources needed to produce it, and resilient agroecological food production are even more important in the context of the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic which is exposing some fundamental challenges to food security and injustices in our global food supply chains. For example, when the crisis and resulting trade and travel restrictions caused demand for certain food products to drop, farmers in the Global South ended up with a lot of produce they could not sell and without the public bailouts provided to many European farmers.

Then there is the opposite problem. Some countries are heavily dependent on imports (Egypt, for example, imports 53% of its wheat, the country’s most important food crop, with a large share coming from the EU). When a drought causes lower yields or trade disruptions hinder timely supplies, vulnerable populations in those countries are on the frontline of food insecurity. The FAO estimates that the pandemic will add 83-132 million to the number of undernourished people in the world, not to mention the 690 million people who live with hunger and the nearly 2 billion who do not enjoy regular access to sufficient supplies of safe and nutritious food.

EU-grown wheat is a staple in many countries, and trade disruption or low yields can have a huge impact on the frontlines of food insecurity (Image: Onnye / Pexels)

Globally, a stronger focus on sustaining local and regional food supply is crucial for achieving local food security, socioeconomic development and environmental sustainability. It is not a question of abolishing world trade, but it is very clear that the current system of hyper-global food supply chains is very vulnerable to shocks. The solution advocated by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in developing countries is to promote family-run decentralised and mixed agroecological and agroforestry systems that combine subsistence farming and production for cash markets. In Europe, a more resilient, globally fair, and sustainable food system must also be based around the principles of agroecology, which means re-localising food production and better aligning it with consumption. 

“The first National Agroecology Actors Symposium 2019 (NAAS), organised by PELUM Uganda, is a good example of upscaling agroecology initiatives,” says Karin Ulmer, Senior Policy Officer for Food Security with ACT Alliance EU. “It contributes to promoting mixed or integrated participative market developments that empower smallholders and allows for combining subsistence farming with the sale of surplus or cash crops on the domestic markets. We would want this to happen regularly and in other countries, too.”

Trade’s social and environmental deficits

Trade across borders and between continents can be beneficial to all, but the current system has major flaws that work against small-scale producers and exacerbate global injustices and environmental degradation. To make global food systems socially and environmentally sustainable, it is crucial that structural injustices be tackled. Food sovereignty provides an alternative framework for fair and sustainable trade, one that places the onus on local control and democratic decision-making. In essence, it can be likened to the ‘subsidiarity principle’ enshrined in the EU treaties.

“A thorough review of EU trade policies should be guided by the ‘subsidiarity principle’,” explains Ulmer. “It means that what can be done best by local farming communities in third countries should be given preferential treatment and granted policy space (i.e. flexibility to use trade defence instruments and manage imports) to increase their production capacities. Furthermore, it can enhance local food security and resilience to shocks to the global trade system, such as pandemics or natural disasters.” 

The subsidiarity principle can help address the systemic marginalisation and exploitation of local smallholders inherent to current trade regimes and can stimulate local and regional development. This can be achieved, for example, by connecting smallholders to markets to ensure retention of value in rural areas for reinvestment and job creation. Public procurement is a powerful instrument in this regard as it can help promote local production by small-scale farmers. Another useful tool is to stimulate national supply chains for  processing cash crops such as coffee, cacao, sugar and tea, rather than only selling raw materials to large corporations. A good example of this is Choco Togo, a local brand in Togo producing organic and fairtrade chocolate in cooperation with cacao farmers. 

Many initiatives exist for strengthening the market position of smallholders in developing countries. One example is the FAO TECA platform that gathers successful agricultural technologies and practices to facilitate knowledge exchange amongst smallholders. Another is Access Agriculture that showcases agricultural training videos in local languages. 

Workers for the organic and fairtrade chocolate company Choco Togo (Image: Choco Togo)

Hunger in a world of plenty

An oft-raised objection to the principles of agroecology and food sovereignty is that they are incompatible with feeding a growing global population while reducing environmental impacts, which many corporate and public figures consider requires producing ‘more with less’. However, whether this is feasible or necessary is very much open to question. 

Let us first examine the feasibility of this proposition. Since the 1950s and 1960s, European average yields have increased dramatically for example, for wheat (69%), maize (71%) and barley (55%). These increases are largely the result of mineral fertilisers, chemical pesticides, irrigation and mechanisation. However, for all of these crops, production increases stagnated several decades ago in most European countries and yields have been stable since. While productivity can be improved in many developing countries, this must be achieved through ecological intensification and not through conventional methods, to avoid the environmental disaster caused by conventional agriculture in developed countries. In Europe, the industrial agriculture model has resulted in alarming soil deterioration and losses, heavy nutrient pollution, collapsing biodiversity and increasing vulnerability to climate change. We are eroding the very foundations for food production. 

So what about the necessity? As mentioned above, almost 700 million people suffer from hunger while two billion people live with food insecurity. But at the same time, close to 2 billion people globally are overweight or obese and roughly one third of all food produced in the world (1.3 billion tonnes) is wasted. Meat consumption increased by 41.4% from 1960 to 2015 and is projected to grow another 15% by 2027, increasing pressure on arable land, due to rocketing demand for feed. This has major implications for food security. Redirecting all crops produced for livestock feed and biofuels to direct human consumption would increase available food calories in the world by around 70%. 

A comprehensive quantitative model of an agroecological Europe, produced by Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), shows that a transition to agroecology would make Europe much less dependent on imported animal feed, which would free up huge areas of land in third countries currently producing feed crops for the European market. Moreover, an agroecological EU would continue to be capable of producing enough food for both export and for crisis reserves. While some countries outside Europe could sustainably increase their food production, it seems clear that, rather than producing more by all means, the solution to global food security is to change how land is used and food distributed globally, avoid waste and shift to more plant-based diets.

A tasty plant-based dish (Image: Pixabay)

Less and better

Food consumption in the European Union by far exceeds what is sustainable for the environment and for global food security and what is fair to the rest of the world and to the future. It is imperative that the EU transitions its domestic production methods towards agroecology, synchronise its consumption patterns with the planet’s biocapacity and adjust its trade practices to promote environmental sustainability and social justice. 

“The CAP is a major part of the issue, and if Europe wants to be more supportive of sustainable development and global food security, it must engage in sharing, reduce its external land use driven by demand for feed imports, improve crop rotation, and close the nutrient-cycles in its farming systems,” observes Ulmer. 

At the end of the day, most of these questions come back to transitioning our EU livestock sector from resource-intensive industrial production towards much smaller-scale production of extensive livestock according to the principle of ‘less and better’. As explained above, this would alleviate the huge EU demand for feed claiming vast areas in the Americas, including cleared rainforest, and end the dumping of cheap meat and dairy on African markets, allowing for greater food sovereignty and security there. Agricultural subsidies under the CAP incentivising and rewarding intensive livestock production must be replaced with measures supporting livestock farmers adopting more sustainable practices. 

‘Less and better’ should also guide changes in EU trade policies: from ever increasing international trade volumes, to lower volumes of higher-value trade. This means repurposing agricultural production to first and foremost support local food security and the rural economy; while international trade is scaled down and focuses on the exchange of specific regional products with high added value for producers and small businesses both in the EU and in third countries. All remaining trade should follow fair trade principles. To ensure this, social justice and environmental sustainability must become key parameters when negotiating trade deals, creating incentives for cooperation on public interests and responsible supply chains, fair pricing and improved livelihoods within the EU and its partner countries. 

“EU trade deals currently follow the wrong objective: each new trade agreement is about boosting trade volumes. We want to buy more soy from Latin America, to open the door for more palm oil from Indonesia and we are pushing more meat and dairy to Japan,” says Patrizia Heidegger, EEB Director for Global Policies and Sustainability. “What we need is not more but better trade in favour of more localised, sustainable food supply chains.”

Only in this way can the EU truly pursue the ambitions of the European Green Deal and live up to its commitments under the Paris Agreement and the SDGs.

This article was written in collaboration with Karin Ulmer, Senior Policy Officer for Food Security with ACT Alliance EU

EU trade deals could be vastly improved to support food systems based on sustainability and fair trade principles. (Image: artjazz / Adobe Stock)

Inspiration for an agroecological Europe

As Europe battles COVID-19 the EEB is committed to continuing our work towards a better future where people and nature thrive together. Getting the future of our food and farming system right is a crucial part of it.

This article is the eighth in a series telling the story of agroecological farms throughout Europe and beyond. We hope to show what an agroecological future for Europe could look like, and why it’s a desirable path. 

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