Let me begin with a positive stocktaking. Never before have so many people – both in absolute and relative terms – had access to sufficient and high-quality nutrition. Never before has life expectancy been so high. Malnutrition and undernourishment remain an issue in parts of the world, but they are no doubt on the decline and we are making substantial progress in ending hunger in the world.
In today’s Europe, we are privileged.
Food supply is secure. Not even a serious interruption of the single market like the early days of the Corona-crisis has in any serious way threatened supplies.
Such unprecedented food security allows us to shift our focus from increasing productivity towards increasing sustainability. It allows us for the first time to worry about negative external effects such as the emission of greenhouse gases and negative impacts on the environment and biodiversity.
Green Deal and Farm-to-Fork leave crucial questions unanswered
Make no mistake, our food production must become more sustainable to ensure food security over time. The effects of climate change put agriculture under pressure, just as a productive agriculture depends on a healthy environment. With the world’s population expected to continue to grow over the next decades, productivity will have to keep up as well. These challenges are interconnected, and so should be our respective policies. We need to step away from the silo mentality and get to better-integrated policies. In other words: we need an integrated food policy that is well-coordinated with other high-level targets. This is what the Farm-to-Fork strategy and its following initiatives should deliver.
With the Green Deal and its Farm-to-Fork communication, the Commission acknowledges the need for more integrated policy-making and offers a welcome starting point. However, the communication leaves some central problems and contradictions unresolved, dodging the painful questions we must answer.
Quantifiable targets focus on production
The Commission’s strategy aims to address all steps of the food chain: from agricultural production, food processing and retail to the consumer.
Its priorities are ensuring healthy, affordable and sustainable food, reducing the climate- and environmental footprint of food production and ensuring fair economic return in the supply chain.
Measures can roughly be divided into production side (farm-level) on the one hand and consumption side (consumers, but also processing and marketing) on the other.
We encounter almost all quantifiable targets on the production side: the reduction of input such as plant protection products, fertilizers and antimicrobials, as well as increased areas destined to organic farming. While not linked to a clear target, we have to count reducing the greenhouse gas emissions as well. Achieving these targets comes with a price tag. The Commission recognises that this will “require human and financial investment” and that we need to ensure a “sustainable livelihood for primary producers, who still lag behind in terms of income”. However, the Commission fails to provide answers as to how to finance such a transition beyond simply relying on the CAP.
Give small farmers better answers!
While the CAP is a large budget, its ability to fulfil ever more requirements is limited. The three quantitative input reduction targets cannot be achieved by simply turning to organic farming. We need to address trade-offs between Farm to Fork policy goals, notably increasing sustainability of food production and maintaining or increasing food availability and affordability. This will require conventional farming to innovate. This means substantial investments in new technologies such as precision agriculture and digital tools.
Big agricultural companies can shoulder these investments; thousands of small-scale and family farms cannot. They need more support than just the income stabilisation the CAP can provide.
Clearly, balancing the costs of achieving climate and environmental protection goals with the economic viability for farmers calls for better answers. Besides subsidies, farmers need a fair return on their investments. As a society, we must come up with solutions beyond the CAP to make this happen.
A more sustainable food system will come with a price for consumers as well. With 33 million people in the EU unable to afford a quality meal every second day, food affordability remains an issue. This has to be borne in mind not only when discussing the Commission’s target to make the healthy choice the most affordable one, but also when discussing further mandatory labelling requirements.
Make information available, accessible and understandable!
Speaking of consumers: their choice will ultimately decide about the fate of our food system. I therefore strongly welcome the target of empowering the consumer by making information available, accessible and easily understandable. However, how people use this information and which products they ultimately desire must remain their individual choice.
The empowered consumer should remain the leading principle of our consumer protection policy. A sound nutrition education cannot be replaced by legal limits on certain nutrients.
The Farm-to-Fork Strategy should not be a vessel for additional requirements for farmers and food businesses. It must answer how we as a society want to get towards a sustainable food system as well. The strategy certainly is an important first step towards better-integrated policies and includes some valuable initial approaches. But it can only serve as a starting point to kick off the debates.