The EU’s commitment to build a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system for all is on increasingly shaky ground. By failing to transform our food system, we risk continuing down the ruinous path of nature loss, devastating climate extremes, economic vulnerability, and human misery. So why is the Farm to Fork Strategy still under threat? Samantha Ibbott and Ben Snelson report.
Against the backdrop of ballooning climate and biodiversity crises, in 2019 the European Commission unveiled the European Green Deal as the centrepiece of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s policy agenda. A clear acknowledgement of the severity of the environmental challenges we face, the Green Deal spans an extensive scope of related issues, and serves as the guiding blueprint to enable a truly green transition for European economies that will not only protect the natural world we all rely on, but also support societies and create jobs through a “just transition”.
Sustainable systemic change from farm to fork
At the heart of the Green Deal sits the Farm to Fork Strategy, which aims to create a “fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system” in the EU. Supported by parallel initiatives (a.o. the Biodiversity Strategy and the Forest Strategy) the Farm to Fork Strategy offers a chance to holistically address the way Europe approaches the production, distribution and consumption of food, whilst also protecting biodiversity and natural ecosystems which find themselves under increasing threat.
The Farm to Fork Strategy is a unique opportunity to support millions of farmers and food workers across our food systems to continue with sustainable practices or shift towards them as part of a just transition. In doing so, it will protect people’s health, cease and reverse ecological breakdown, and safeguard future food security. A sensible and responsible approach, right? We agree… but three years in, there are still many loud, influential voices declaring it overly ambitious, unprofitable and detrimental to the interests of EU food producers and global trade. Largely emanating from the agricultural industry lobby, and those in their pay, these calls to dilute and weaken the Farm to Fork Strategy are misinformed, ill-conceived and self-serving. If successful, they will ensure that agricultural prosperity, food security, and environmental and human health remain at risk.
Dinosaurs campaigning for their own extinction
This resistance comes from many sides, but particularly vocal opponents are big agri-businesses, such as large-scale livestock and pesticide industry players. One such player even met with the Commission’s department for health and food safety (known as DG SANTE in EU jargon), which is responsible for the Farm to Fork Strategy, back in 2019 to express their “concerns” with the Strategy. While unfortunately this external corporate opposition is to be expected, what is perhaps more disappointing – and indeed concerning – is that much of the substance of the Commission’s green plans are being opposed, even sabotaged, by officials within the Commission itself.
On 7 December 2022, Janusz Wojciechowski, the European Commissioner for agriculture, insisted to the Polish Parliament that “the Green Deal is not law”. Such narratives confirm accounts that the Commission’s department leading on EU farming policy (known as DG AGRI) is working alongside industry interests to ensure that many of the most vital components of the Farm to Fork Strategy do not become enforceable.
This internal opposition is nothing new. Industry-leaning policymakers may be using the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (and the following shock to delicate global food supply chains) to justify calls to uphold ‘business as usual’ – and even ramp up the use of unsustainable agricultural practices – on the pretence of supporting ‘food security’.
However, this stance is nothing new; they were opposing an ambitious Farm to Fork Strategy back in February 2020. On top of this, DG AGRI’s objections undermine their own food security argument. ‘Business as usual’ – including extensive pesticide use, propping up the fertiliser industry, subsidising processed meat megafactories, etc. – is dragging us toward an emphatically insecure food future, given the heavy and indiscriminate toll these industrial activities are taking on the natural environment we rely on to produce our food.
It’s all about the money, money, money
The effective rollout of an ambitious series of policies is not possible without the cooperation of every Commission department involved, and Mr Wojciechowski’s department controls the disbursement farming subsidies – accounting for nearly a third of the EU budget, or approximately €54 billion per year. Responsible, targeted allocation of these funds will be pivotal to ensuring a truly sustainable food system.
The vast majority of the EU farming budget goes directly to farmers, and could therefore play a crucial role in shaping day-to-day farming decisions. A smaller sum of this enormous budget is used to promote agricultural products, within the EU and abroad. Such public funding has been heavily criticised for supporting marketing campaigns for meat and dairy products, which health and sustainability experts unanimously agree Europeans should eat less of. Indeed, European citizens themselves increasingly support the need for more sustainable food systems, and have demonstrated a willingness to be part of this shift through adjusting to more sustainable and healthy diets.
But there is a worrying lack of consensus within the Commission on supporting consumers in accessing these healthy and sustainable diets. In fact, they appear to be intent on maintaining the status-quo, despite previous promises to align funding with the Farm to Fork Strategy’s objectives.
We’re all in the same boat
We know the facts. The science surrounding climate change and biodiversity loss is clear, and the exacerbation of these crises through continued unsustainable agricultural practices is not up for debate. What is needed is for policymakers to heed the demands of EU citizens, backed overwhelmingly by the scientific community.
Our agricultural systems are in serious trouble. Continuation along this course spells disaster for the natural world and our food production, all so that we can satisfy the financial appetites of a few. We urgently need to divert from this self-destructive path, and instead embrace a farming system that puts people at its heart and works within planetary boundaries. And the sooner we do so, the smoother the transition will be, ensuring no one is left behind.
How can we achieve this? Fully implementing every action promised in the Farm to Fork Strategy would be a good start, as it offers a clear roadmap to a truly sustainable, healthy and fair EU food system. By switching to environmentally friendly food production (such as mixed and agroecological farming), encouraging healthy and sustainable consumption, and creating fair and sustainable food supply chains which don’t undermine global climate targets, we would be working with, not against, natural ecological and biological processes.
In doing so we can create a Europe where people – governments, citizens and industry – work together to not only ensure benefits for climate and biodiversity, but also for people’s health, wellbeing, and food security for future generations, all while building a strong green economy. What’s not to like?
What future do you want to see? Discover more about the Farm to Fork Strategy and a future worth fighting.