Today’s rotten food systems, a misguided CAP and the road out of crisis

Food systems shape all our lives in a very big way. But what exactly are they? Simply, they are the aggregation of everyone with a stake in food – from farmers and farm workers to agribusinesses, ecologists, lorry drivers, dieticians, supermarket workers, restaurant owners, food technologists, sanitation workers, consumers and everyone else in between – and the relationships and dynamics that link them. But in this vast constellation of interrelated actors, something is rotten. Ben Snelson reports. 

Today’s food systems do not favour the huge majority of people and corrode the very ecological foundations that uphold agricultural production, ultimately threatening food security. They account for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions and are responsible for plummeting biodiversity and collapsing ecosystems. But agri food systems don’t just impact the climate and environment, they harm our health, widen inequality and trample on human rights. The effects of our food systems on society are all-encompassing and intimately connected, with negative effects in one area spilling over into others.

For instance, the excessive application of harmful agricultural inputs such as synthetic pesticides – a practice long promoted by a powerful agribusiness lobby – is poorly monitored and regulated for its effects on ecosystems, food security, and human health (particularly farmers’). And with inadequate, badly implemented, and sometimes simply absent, regulation, the effects on all three are dire. Take another: the constant growth of an already-burgeoning animal farming industry. This is not only a moral tragedy for animal welfare, but it also embodies real and worsening risks to our health (think disease outbreaks, antimicrobial resistance, water and air pollution), the state of our climate and natural world, and fundamentally, for European democracy itself.

But despite the closely intertwined relations between every facet of our food systems, when it comes to their governance, siloed policymaking rules supreme. The right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. This regulatory incoherence means that policies designed for one area fail to recognise their impact(s) on another, leading to outcomes that are at best inadequate, and at worst seriously harmful.

A problem by design

None of this is by accident. It is by design. The EU’s current farming model is shaped by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a 60+ year-old policy that accounts for about a third of the EU’s entire budget (that’s ≈€55 billion a year).

The CAP heavily influences the prevailing mentality around EU food production, and influences the dynamics of many other interrelated actors and processes that make up Europe’s food systems beyond production. And despite all its ‘reforms’, the zeitgeist around the CAP is, and always has been, rooted in a need to maximise production – at all costs.

Unfortunately, it turns out that these costs are many and steep – with many of them also directly affecting yields, ironically.

A political farce

Under the CAP, 80% of subsidies go to the top 20% of European farms whilst many of the remaining farmers continue to be exposed to low incomes, unfair prices for their produce and mountains of debt.

It’s not only that most funding goes to the biggest and richest actors. These actors also turn out to be the ones that are most damaging, both to our planet and to our health.

And so here we are, in a perverse and self-defeating cycle whereby European tax money is swallowed up and funnelled directly to those who need it least and damage most, leaving those farmers producing more sustainably struggling to stay in business.

In 2019, the European Commission unveiled its flagship ‘European Green Deal’ (EGD), a momentous project that ushered in a period of ambition defined by real hope for a brighter future.

One of the key features of the EGD was the ‘Farm to Fork’ Strategy (F2F), an initiative that acknowledged the siloed nature of EU food and farming policies and how they’re keeping the food system entrenched in unsustainability, establishing a clear action plan for the development of an integrated approach to governing food systems across the EU. Regrettably, and following a period of intense opposition and influence-peddling by lobbying interests, many of these crucial plans – defined by one member of the EPP as being on the group’s ‘kill list’ – were picked off one by one.

What did these plans include? Regulation to reduce excessive levels of pesticide use. Shelved. A proper revision of outdated animal welfare legislation. Missing. An overarching framework law for sustainable food systems that would concretely address disconnected policy. Never seen the light of day.

When you think it can’t get worse

In the past months, a wave of farmer protests have descended on European capitals. Why? In short, many farmers rightly demand a system that respects their interests – their land, livelihoods and health – and that isn’t rooted in costly and tiring overproduction geared to maximising the profits of big agribusiness and mega retailer interests.

In response, the Commission and governments decided that it would be best to ignore what most farmers were saying, and instead use the protests as an opportunity to rapidly dismantle the architecture of environmental standards in EU farming, claiming that this is what farmers needed. Perhaps they didn’t catch the memo that sustainable agricultural production – the precondition to food security – depends entirely on healthy ecosystems. Or maybe they were just speaking behind closed doors with a limited, and unrepresentative number of private interests that throw vast sums of money at preventing any meaningful change… 

The latest instalment in this political circus is the Commission’s decision to shred the final remaining vestiges of environmental protections on Europe’s farms. Known as ‘Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions’ (GAEC), these were the primary ecological safeguards that made the delivery of CAP funding to farmers conditional to their work aligning with those environmental requirements e.g. by protecting hedgerows, maintaining land fallow for biodiversity, and supporting grasslands, peatlands and agricultural soils.

These environmental conditions, and their implementation by millions of farmers over the years, are not a ‘nice to have’ aspect of farming. They are essential for its future and its very existence. But this politically motivated wrecking ball has managed to tear down progress achieved over years of exchange between all stakeholders in developing EU agricultural policies. 

Disgraceful doesn’t cut it. This capitulation to self-interested industry actors is a cowardly act of calamitous self-harm. We expect Members of the European Parliament to reject this unilateral and unlawful move by the Commission that undermines not only the health of farmland and food security, but also fundamental principles of democracy.

Here’s how we solve this

Big change is coming, whether we like it or not. The question is what kind of change do we want to see? A chaotic and disastrous decline in environmental health that results in more inequality and heavier costs for society? Or a controlled, well-planned and holistic transition that protects people, nature, and our shared future?

To achieve the latter scenario, two fundamental changes are needed. The first is that we address the CAP head-on. That means keeping all CAP environmental requirements that support crop resilience, farmers’ livelihoods, people’s health, and future food security. Farmers’ frustration and anger that we have witnessed in recent weeks is largely caused by a system that is visibly rooted in inequality, and that claims to support all farmers’ interests, while in reality only supporting those of the most powerful. 

The CAP can be a force for good. But for that, we need a wholesale shift in what the CAP is for. Its new raison d’être must be achieving healthy ecosystems and good food for all, not overproduction to sustain the profits of a greedy few. Money must be redistributed fairly, and it must support truly sustainable food systems rooted in agroecology and farmland restoration, as well as fair incomes for all those in the food system.

The second concerns the rest of the food value chain, beyond production alone. We need a real, meaningful and just transition towards sustainable food systems. What would that look like? With proper investment, agroecology can be upscaled, eventually becoming the dominant agricultural model. Several recent studies show the real benefits it brings for the health of farmland but also yields and revenues. The positive knock-on effects of this holistic vision would also manifest themselves in the restoration of water sources and aquatic ecosystems, reversing the current crisis of water scarcity and pollution we see today. It would also bolster farm and crop resilience, and bring real benefits for soils and other assets of farmland that act as powerful carbon sinks – essential allies against a rapidly-changing climate. Finally, in ensuring decent working conditions and good pay for all workers, fewer harmful synthetic inputs, and less propping up of manifestly detrimental industries, we can support the EU’s vision for a future where human and planetary health go hand in hand, and realise a needed transition with justice at its core.

Want to read more about today’s unsustainable food systems and the concrete solutions that are already being developed on the ground to fix these crises? Check out these brand new reports from our members AirClim (in Sweden) and Ecologistas en Acción (in Spain).