Carrot in the shape of a question mark.

Strategic Dialogue: Real intent or delaying tactic?

The future of Europe’s Food Systems hangs in the balance. 

Imagine a Europe where farmers receive a fair return for their produce, workers’ rights are respected, and farmed animals live a good life. A Europe where consumers are not misled, food is not wasted, fewer people die from diet-related diseases or go to bed hungry. A Europe where biodiversity is protected and even embraced by farming systems, and water and other finite resources are safeguarded.  
This Europe is well within reach.  

For the last three years, the European Commission has been preparing to publish a proposal for a Sustainable Food Systems Law which would allow Europe to initiate its transition towards a food and farming system that would ensure that healthy and sustainable food is accessible to all whilst respecting planetary boundaries. So where is it? That is a very good question.  

One step forward, two steps back 

In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, it is clear that Europe’s food systems need a radical change. But when you exit the science lab and enter the political debate there is an aggressive and vocal defence of the status quo. Who from? Large farming lobbies, influential farm ‘leaders’ and even elected officials with deep roots in agro-industry are pushing back against a much-needed transition in favour of short to medium-term profits. Sadly, in some cases, they have used populistic anti-environmental statements and misinformation to do so. More worryingly, this short-sighted outlook seems to have worked its way to the top, as the Commission has dropped ‘transitioning to a sustainable food system’ from its 2024 goals, a bad omen for a proposal that was promised for September 2023, but is still nowhere to be seen. Instead, the Commission plans to open a “Strategic Dialogue on the future of EU agriculture”. 

But haven’t we just done that?  

Following over three years of extensive stakeholder consultations designed to discuss different aspects of our agrifood system’s transition (organised and managed by the Commission using public money) this statement begs the question: haven’t we already had that strategic dialogue?  

At worst, this is a delaying tactic or tokenistic box-ticking exercise. At best, a genuine attempt at solving the clear polarisation currently defining the food systems debate? If it is the latter, then any discussions will be unsuccessful until root causes are addressed. Populistic agendas and unmovable industry views cannot be placed against sound science. The starting point of any dialogue should be a clear acknowledgment of the scientific consensus: the imperative need to move to sustainable food systems. And then the question is, how can policies support and drive this change through a just transition?

This is vital as the cost of further delays is unimaginably high. The EU’s current agri-food system is the largest driver for biodiversity loss in Europe and contributes around one fourth of the bloc’s GHG emissions. Without food system sustainability there can be no food security or real climate action. Europe must anchor its political action to science and stand by the Commission’s own Farm to Fork Strategy, ensuring all food system actors, starting from farmers and fishers, are supported in the transition. There needs to be understanding of the changes that need to take place and a drive to continue working on a pathway ahead.    

All eyes on you 

The Strategic Dialogue can contribute positively to the EU’s efforts to build a sustainable food system. But to do so, it must allow enough time and space for a real discussion to take place, supported by unbiased facilitation. Building mutual understanding and trust takes time and should not be rushed. The Dialogue must include all those directly affected by our food systems and provide sufficient financial resources to ensure the voices of the least powerful actors are heard. And finally, there must be a clear commitment to act on the outcomes of the Dialogue, as it is unfair for stakeholders to continuously commit time, effort, and resources to support a transition that is continually postponed. 

If based on sound science a ‘Strategic Dialogue on the future of EU agriculture’ can contribute to the EU’s transition to sustainable food systems. But it will require political courage and leadership to bring conflicting interests in line with the big picture: creating agri-food systems which bring the economy and society within safe and fair planetary boundaries, safeguarding food security as well as human and environmental health.