It’s been two years since the European Commission presented its Farm to Fork Strategy, an ambitious signature initiative under the European Green Deal. Considerable progress has been made on the overall transformation project, underlined also by Europe’s subsequent climate commitments in 2021, and the food system-specific strategy. However, much has changed with the war in Ukraine and its immediate implications for European energy and food security.
Farm to Fork (abbreviated as F2F) was declared “on hold” in May and on the eve of the SDSN-organized policy workshop on June 8th, as was the broader EU Green Deal. The workshop topic and discussion thus was timely, convened in partnership with the European Economic and Social Council with the FELD Action Tracker Team at the SDSN Food/Land Team on the occasion of the 10th FABLE Consortium meetings in Brussels.
Transforming food and land use WITHIN: Pathways for Farm to Fork
The European Union carries substantial responsibility for its more than 400million citizens, from the production of food on farms and along the value chain all the way to dinner tables across its 27 members states. The Commission’s recognition of the social, health and environmental impacts of the current food and land use system had triggered an ambitious plan for its transformation as part of the European Green Deal, proposed by the newly appointed Commission in May 2020. At the core of its ambition lies the Farm to Fork Strategy, coordinated by the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE).
In the wake of the growing regional and global food crisis amplified by the war in Ukraine, participants discussed shifting priorities and the decision to put F2F “on hold” – but still described its need and broader relevance of addressing systemic weaknesses. In fact, interregional dependencies and the increasing share of commodities being grown not for human consumption but fuel and other uses underline the need for systemic changes toward more sustainability.
They emphasized the renewed focus on the alignment with the new context of food insecurity, and the importance of improved coherence of food systems, environmental and climate objectives with agriculture subsidies and trade policies. At present, it was argued, the signals were mixed and undermined the achievement of any of them.
That said: Farm to fork, while on hold, was still the right way to go forward – but now with urgent need to adjust and realign, including to explain and clarify its long term objectives for much needed transformation, ecological restoration and economic competition for Europe’s future.
The impact of EU (in)action BEYOND: Is Europe feeding or eating the world?
The EU Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy are not only about changing things in and for Europe: Its ambition extends from decarbonising European productive sectors to supporting a global transition to more sustainable food and land use systems. Because of its share in global agricultural trade, the EU has significant influence and affects production and decisions in other countries. The EU is the number one exporter of food and agricultural products (and number three for importing).
Our panelists reviewed recent developments around agri-food trade and food (in)security, especially since the war in Ukraine amplified pre-existing pressures on global commodity prices and supply chains. They also had a closer look at the notion of ‘Europe feeding the world’, as major farmer organizations have recently claimed – as well as a recent study by the World Wildlife Fund documenting the opposite: that Europe’s effectively taking more than its giving.
The EU’s internal consumption has a major impact on the sustainability of food systems all over the world. The EU is a net exporter in terms of monetary values, but a net importer in terms of calories, nutrients and protein. As such, the EU relies heavily on food imports, mostly raw products, often linked to tropical deforestation and the loss of natural ecosystems.
Nonetheless, EU agri-food producers have warned against a trade-off between environmentally sustainable practices and the ability to ensure adequate food production levels and food security. Producers argue that sustainability requirements should be carefully designed to not disrupt agricultural production. In this context, innovation, legislative and financial support are critical to help farmers produce food in a sustainable manner.
In the wake of the pandemic, war and other global crises: Is food security an issue in the EU?
While a big concern worldwide, the panel confirmed that food security is not a threat within the EU itself. However, food accessibility and affordability are major challenges the EU currently faces, and that are already driving consumer choices. As prices increase, consumers are shifting to cheaper foods with a more negative impact on people’s health and the environment.
But why do cheaper foods have the biggest negative impact? This question led to the discussion on the true cost and true value of food. Currently, the price of food does not account for the environmental and social externalities it produces. However, while introducing fairer “true prices” is widely seen as a positive measure, its feasibility is now discussed given that raising food prices are already causing food accessibility and affordability concerns.
This also depends on the fact that the EU is not self-sufficient when it comes to agricultural inputs, relying on imported gas to produce pesticides and on fertilizers coming from Ukraine and Russia. The Farm to Fork strategy has a target on reduced fertilizer use, which could have an impact on stabilizing prices.
(Sustainable) consumption or production: What should be at the center of Farm to Fork in future?
Farmers and producers in Europe are facing a difficult situation and often rely on the EU’s subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy to be able to stay in business. Given world wide concerns on food security and accessibility, it is important that European farmers are able to keep up, it is argued. A decline in EU production could also have negative environmental consequences, as it would lead to increased imports from outside the EU, where agricultural practices are not efficient and where it is strongly tied to deforestation.
At the same time, the EU is overconsuming food under almost every metric: calories, fat, salt, animal protein, and seafood. Many of the grains produced and imported are used to feed livestock in the EU and produce biofuels. In doing so, the EU relies heavily on imports from the rest of the world. Evidence shows that sufficient food is produced in the world, and that the focus should be on curbing overconsumption and on the efficient use of what is produced.
The workshop concluded by emphazising the continued need for ambitious, system-focused action in Europe. The F2F strategy remains very timely but needed to realigned and adjusted to a new context of rising food prices as a result of the war in Ukraine. These developments, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated for everyone that the current food systems, in Europe and globally, are not sustainable.
Specific assessment tools such as the ones developed by the FABLE Consortium and the FELD Action Tracker can support policymakers in assessing the resilience of food and land-use systems, explore concrete policy options to adapt existing frameworks and improve the flexibility as part of a broader transition to a sustainable food and land use systems, in Europe and globally.
Funding support for the work of the SDSN Food and Land team was received from the UK Government (FCDO) and Norway's International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI), through the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU).