Towards a sustainable and resilient food system in Europe – the key role of the Common Agricultural Policy

The Covid-19 crisis and the related lockdown measures reminded us all of the crucial importance of food security, a given for the past decades in the EU. The European Commission worked alongside Member States and the agri-food sector to find quick and efficient solutions, and ensured that food was available across the EU. The agri-food sector proved its resilience. Nonetheless, this crisis has highlighted the necessity to make our food systems more sustainable, which will lead to further resilience on the medium and long term.

Presented in May 2020 by the European Commission, the Farm to fork strategy aims at making our food system more sustainable. This transition will safeguard food security, ensure access to healthy diets, reduce the environmental and climate footprint of the EU food system, while also ensuring the livelihoods of all the operators of our food supply chain. It is important to remember the three dimensions of sustainability – environmental, social and economic. If we want to achieve this transition, we will have to take all three into account, leaving no one behind.

The strategy sets concrete targets to transform the EU’s food system, including a reduction by 50% of the use and risk of pesticides, a reduction by at least 20% of the use of fertilizers, a reduction by 50% in sales of antimicrobials used for farmed animals and aquaculture, and reaching 25% of agricultural land under organic farming.

To reach these targets, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will play a crucial role.

The future CAP aims to shift the policy’s emphasis towards results and performance, rather than compliance and rules. In addition, the proposals are built around key priorities: simplifying and modernising the CAP and better responding to European agriculture’s emerging challenges at an economic, environmental and social level, which are only reinforced by the current crisis arising from the coronavirus outbreak.

The CAP’s nine common objectives, set at EU level, tackle economic, environmental and social challenges. Ensuring fair income for farmers, preserving landscapes and biodiversity, rebalancing power in the food suppl

y chain, climate change action – these are just a few examples. They are all fundamental in ensuring that the policy continues to deliver and helps the sector to achieve the transition towards sustainable food systems.

Furthermore, the future CAP includes CAP national strategic plans that will allow for more flexibility in the implementation of the CAP while being better adapted to the local conditions and needs of each Member State. Each Member State will have to produce a national strategic plan to explain how they will achieve the CAP objectives.

The idea is for member states to analyse their situation and territory in terms of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT analysis) and link it to their needs.

Based on this analysis, member states will explain how they will implement CAP instruments to achieve these objectives. For the first time, member states will have to develop a single strategic approach in the use of all CAP instruments and ensure their synergies.

To ensure that these plans are in line with the Farm to fork strategy, the European Commission has put in place a structured dialogue with Member States who are already in the preparatory phase of the CAP strategic plans. The Commission will provide recommendations to Member states based on an analysis of each Member State’s situation, taking into account the strategy’s targets.

Furthermore, the future CAP includes several tools that aim to increase the overall environmental performance of EU agriculture and contribute to the transition towards sustainable food systems.

Among those, conditionality replaces the current CAP’s cross-compliance and greening with a more ambitious approach. Area and animal-based CAP payments will be linked to a range of obligations, including good environmental farming practices and standards already enshrined in EU legislation.

In addition, the future CAP introduces a new system, the so-called eco-schemes, available under the direct payments framework. The eco-schemes aim to reward farmers for going even further in the implementation of sustainable agricultural practices, beyond the mandatory requirements set by conditionality.

These practices could include the implementation of environmentally friendly production systems such as agroecology, precision farming and organic farming. Mandatory for Member States to propose, the eco-schemes will be voluntary for farmers to join.

Member states will design and choose to offer one or more eco-schemes based on local conditions and needs.

The rural development framework includes environmental and climate management commitments. Similarly, they aim to restore, preserve and enhance ecosystems, promote resource efficiency, and move towards a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy by compensating farmers and other beneficiaries for voluntarily committing themselves to implement sustainable practices.

Technology and innovation will also have key a role to play in this transition. Both have already started to change the agricultural landscape: from publically available satellite data to precision farming tools, a more efficient use of natural resources is possible while improving production. However, innovation does not only include digital and technological advances. By improving our understanding of how nature and ecosystems work, of how plants, animals and trees interact, we can design more innovative, sustainable farming systems. The European Commission will support the sector and its actors, by making the right tools available but also by investing heavily in research and innovation to continue and further develop sustainable agricultural systems. Finally, the key step will be to make this knowledge widely available and accessible to all.