Future farming: Reimagining the future of food in our cities and countryside

European lawmakers will next week decide on the future of EU farming policy. With vested interests pushing hard for business as usual, it is more important than ever to remind ourselves of what is at stake and the better future for which we must fight. 

Join Asger Mindegaard and Célia Nyssens on a journey to the future of our European food system, where food is healthy and sustainable from farm to fork.

It is inherently difficult to imagine a future which is drastically different to the present, and people advocating for significantly better societies are often accused of chasing utopias. But ‘utopias’ can be powerful catalysts for action: once you know your destination, it becomes easier to plot a course to it. When it comes to food, truly environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable food systems might seem like a utopia. But the alternative is so grim, that we must act. 

We have chosen the Belgian capital of Brussels to illustrate what some features of future food systems in Europe could be like. 

Healthy eating for a healthy planet

The food we eat can have a direct and significant adverse impact on our health and certainly has a negative effect on the planet we live on. But diets that make us feel good while protecting the natural world are possible and within reach. 

“If we want true sustainability of our food systems, we need a shift in eating patterns – a shift away from the over-reliance on ultra-processed foods and the meat-heavy diets we have in Europe,” Nikolai Pushkarev, policy coordinator on food systems at the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), explains: “This means creating food environments that make it attractive to choose a healthy diversity of plant foods, whole foods and farm products. Good for you, the environment, farmers and animals too.”

For the environment, the shift from an over-reliance on food of animal origins (meat, dairy, eggs and seafood) towards a larger share of vegetables, fruits, grains, pulses (beans and lentils), seeds and nuts is key. Contrary to what is often suggested in debates, we do not propose eliminating beef or dairy to the benefit of poultry and pork but rather to reduce our overall consumption of animal products. Even though ruminants (cattle, sheep and goats) produce the greenhouse gas methane during digestion, they are able to feed exclusively on grass, and so can utilise pastures which, when managed well, can support rich biodiversity and store carbon in the ground. Cows fed on grass their whole life and reared at a low density do not compete with humans for crops the way industrial animal production, in particular of pigs and poultry, does. This is decisive for ensuring cross-fertilisation between sufficient and healthy food, climate action and biodiversity conservation.

In our agroecological Brussels, the shift to more plant-based diets with fewer but better animal products and more wholesome ingredients would reap multiple benefits beyond the environmental improvements. One study found that the average Belgian eats 145g of meat daily (with significant variations according to age and sex) while the official heatlhy eating recommendations are 75-100g. It also showed that Belgians eat mostly processed meat, which is associated with several diseases, including cancer. Another study found that the Belgian state could save almost €2 billion in healthcare costs over a 20 year period if just 10% of the population changed to a more diversified and plant-based diet. 

Furthermore, a survey comparing consumption with dietary guidelines found that more than 90% of the Belgian population eat less fruit and vegetables than official recommendations. It also showed that only 6% did not exceed the maximum intake of nutrient-poor and energy-dense foods and drinks (such as alcohol, soft drinks and snacks) and that the population on average exceeded recommendations by a factor of three. In addition, 36% of the food consumed in Belgium in 2014/2015 was ‘ultra-processed’, especially processed meat, cakes and pastries and diets dominated by processed (and thus less healthy) food are more prevalent amongst less educated households

Brussels, like most cities, has much to gain from a dietary shift. Meat, dairy, eggs and seafood would still be an optional part of European diets in the future, as long as it’s ‘less but better’. At the same time, our health will benefit greatly from moving away from the current over-consumption of highly processed and sugar-rich foods. 

In the illustration below, you can see two alternative food futures. Which one would you choose?   

Urban jungles 

More than 75% of Europeans live in cities and our urban environment has a tremendous influence on our life options and quality. Is your city designed for cars or for public transport and bikes? Do you have access to green spaces and affordable housing? Are public services and shops easily accessible from your house? Such conditions vary greatly between cities and neighbourhoods and have far-reaching impacts on our quality of life.

This is also true when it comes to food. It is difficult to purchase healthy and sustainable food if it is not available in your community. The lack of sustainable options in conventional shopping outlets is one of the main obstacles to sustainable eating, according to a recent comprehensive market study conducted by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC). Supermarkets, which already dominate the market, are continuing to grow. Moreover, their supply chains tend to be long and opaque, meaning that shoppers have little influence on what foods they are able to choose from on the shelfs. 

Most city dwellers do not enjoy access to a green space to grow their own food, while large swathes of land are occupied by vehicles and car parks.

But we can choose to have more and better options. In our vision, we see cities that bustle with life: bikes and public transport instead of cars, community gardens and allotments instead of car parks, and a diversity of independent shops and alternative food business models instead of large impersonal supermarkets. More direct and local food purchase models, such as community supported agriculture (CSA) or retail cooperatives, offer the consumer more influence on food supply and production methods. 

For people in Brussels, the implications of our vision will impact where they purchase their food and how much influence they have on crucial decisions such as where their food comes from and where it was produced. Currently, large supermarkets represent half of the annual revenue of the Belgian food retail sector and just eight international companies represent 92% of the total market share. This means that critical decisions are taken in remote boardrooms of large corporations rather than by the community and are motivated more by profit incentives rather than considerations of health, sustainability and fairness across the value chain.

Our cities can become more fine-tuned to the health and the quality of life of their inhabitants. Currently, many cities in the EU give priority to inefficient and highly polluting car transport and their food supply chains are dominated by large global retail companies. But in our better future, cleaner modes of transport would free up space for the greening of cities, with some of the space formerly allocated to cars given over to allotments, shared vegetable gardens, and public parks, etc. 

In the illustration below, you can see two alternative futures for urban environments. Which one would you choose? 

Restoring the countryside

Finally, let us have a look at the countryside. Our current system, driven by market incentives and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), is focused on producing as much food as possible as “cheaply” as possible, aided by chemical fertilisers and fossil fuels, while the ecological bill is skyrocketing. Farmers are ageing, too few young people are entering the sector, and many farms are struggling to make ends meet. 

But our vision is different. We see the future of farming in an agricultural sector that is organised around a production logic that works with nature by making use of natural processes and top-rate agroecological knowledge. In this model, farmers are not just producing commodities, they are also custodians of nature operating at the intersection between food production and ecosystem conservation. Their work is rewarded through fair food prices and public subsidies paid for their environmental services .   

And this vision is entirely feasible, as shown in the quantitative model of an agroecological Europe, developed by the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI). Agroecological farming – agricultural practices based on a deep ecological knowledge of agri-ecosystems that work with natural processes – offers a viable and comprehensive alternative to the current industrial production logic. But the imperative to promote this change must come from citizens’ consumption habits, from the farmers themselves and from public policies and political leaders (see next section).   

“To resolve the issues in the current system, a radical transition in the way that we produce, distribute and consume our food is necessary. Advancing agroecology is essential for this transition, learning from and actively supporting the many diverse examples of alternative production systems in Europe,” Stanka Becheva, food and farming campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, points out.

Although there is no data specifically on Brussels and Belgium, it is fully realistic to extrapolate the data we have and imagine feeding the city’s inhabitants a healthy, nutritious and sustainable diet. 

The IDDRI model mentioned above quantifies the implications of converting all agriculture in Europe to agroecology while shifting diets to the benefit of people and the planet. The study found that such change would not only secure a sufficient supply of high-quality food while maintaining some export capacity, but will also greatly benefit the environment at home and abroad. The study found that we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 40%, greatly benefit biodiversity and close the nitrogen cycle (avoiding harmful pollution). By reducing the consumption of animal products and shifting domestic production to grass-based systems, we can also drastically reduce our footprint outside the EU, not the least from soy-related deforestation in the Americas. More vibrant rural areas with healthier agro-ecosystems full of life is the only way to ensure long-term sustainability and food production in the EU and beyond.

In the illustration below, you can see two alternative futures for our rural areas. Which one would you choose? 

Voting for a realistic utopia

Achieving the utopian future of truly sustainable food systems in the EU will require massive and integrated policy efforts including areas such as trade policy, consumer information, public procurement, and, especially, the elephant in the dining room: reforming the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). 

Next week, the European Parliament will vote on the shape of the new CAP, determining how CAP subsidies, which amount to a third of the entire EU budget, will be distributed. Despite the Commission’s claim that the proposed new CAP is compatible with the European Green Deal, this has been contested by more than 3,600 researchers, the European Court of Auditors, think tanks and civil society

In the analysis of Eric Gall, deputy director of IFOAM organics Europe, one thing is certain: “The CAP must move away from non-targeted direct payments to a system that rewards farmers on the basis of their contribution to the preservation of natural resources and ecosystem services.” 

Hence, the importance of this vote cannot be overstated for the EU’s success in addressing climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, pollution and soil degradation. Members of the European Parliament must amend the draft proposal for the new CAP drastically to bring it in line with the European Green Deal’s Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies, thereby guaranteeing food security and a thriving environment for future generations.  

“Only a CAP that integrates the European Green Deal’s objectives is morally justifiable in the eyes of EU citizens. After the ‘green wave’ of the last EU election, MEPs are accountable for ensuring a CAP that profoundly transforms our food systems,” concludes Bérénice Dupeux, senior policy officer for agriculture at the EEB. “We can no longer ignore the negative role of European agriculture on our planet.”

The choice is between continuing the destructive status quo, or making an ambitious move towards healthier and more sustainable diets, liveable cities with better choices and agroecological farming. 

Which future do you choose? 

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 10th 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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