Photo credits: Paul ELLIS / AFP
The European Union (EU) has, for decades, supported the development of a food system that is bad for the economy, society, the climate, the environment, and people’s health. The European Commission’s Farm to Fork strategy, published on 20 May 2020, is a long-awaited effort to address this inherently inconsistent approach.
This is a complex challenge. The food we produce and consume has economic, societal and environmental ramifications, in the EU and beyond. When certain food production or patterns of consumption are subsidised, this public money is taken away from other priorities. What we eat affects our health. As food is grown, stored, processed, packaged, transported, prepared, served, eaten – or not eaten but thrown away –, this impacts climate and the environment.
While the EU takes great pride in its agriculture, its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – with a focus on production – has failed to deliver a sustainable food system. While changes will not happen overnight, the Union needs a system that benefits farmers and citizens; society and the economy as a whole.
The Farm to Fork strategy gets a lot of things right. It calls for improving the food chain’s environmental impact, providing access to sufficient, healthy, nutritious, and sustainable food, as well as generating fairer economic returns. It recognises the importance of carbon sequestration. It pushes to reduce pesticide use and excess fertilisation. It aims to promote animal welfare. It cherishes the potential and prospects of organic farming. It notes the need to address food waste. It stresses the importance of global action.
The devil, as always, is in the detail. The strategy’s biggest weakness is its failure to spell out an inconvenient truth: the EU’s problem is its excessive livestock production and over-consumption of meat and dairy, which come at an enormous cost.
Cost for economy
In its new proposal for the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), presented on 27 May 2020, the Commission proposes spending over €348 billion on agriculture. It also suggests providing an additional €15 billion for farmers and rural areas under the new recovery instrument, Next Generation EU.
Money does not grow on trees. As the Union’s immediate priority is to recover from the corona crisis, its leaders must act responsibly. Since the EU uses public money to support the agricultural sector, the aim should be to make the sector both more competitive and resilient, and to increase people’s welfare while also protecting the planet.
Currently, taxpayers’ money is used to support farming practices that are neither competitive nor economically viable, for the producers or for society. According to Commission data, up to 90% of cattle farmers’ income comes from subsidies. While the production of dairy and feed for animals are less dependent on public money, many of these farms are also on permanent life support. When one adds the costs of livestock production and consumption for the climate, the environment and people’s health, and thus for society and the economy at large, the current European agricultural policy makes no economic sense.
The CAP is often portrayed as an instrument for supporting small European farmers, but this is highly misleading. The main beneficiaries are the big agri-businesses, those engaged in intensive livestock farming, oligarchs and other wealthy landowners.
Simultaneously, there is a great – often neglected – potential to produce nutritious, sustainable and economically viable food for humans in the EU. European vegetable and fruit farmers already operate, compete and earn a living on the market, with little to no income support from the EU. The market for meat and dairy alternatives is seeing double-digit growth, and there is untapped potential in cultivating plant proteins for humans. Consumers’ interest in organic plant-based food is booming, in Europe and beyond.
If the EU is serious about using taxpayers’ money to increase the competitiveness of its economy and that of its agricultural sector, keeping unsustainable livestock farming on permanent life support is not the answer. The EU has a solid basis for developing competitive and sustainable agricultural production that can provide higher returns on investment, secure a livelihood for farmers and deliver environmental and societal benefits – this is what the EU should focus on.
Cost for climate and the environment
The strategy rightly recognises that food systems are one of the key drivers of climate change and environmental degradation. However, while it starts by listing the need to reduce dependency on pesticides and antimicrobials, reduce excess fertilisation, increase organic farming, and reverse biodiversity loss, the role of animal farming is downplayed and only mentioned much later. Even then, the full scale of the problem is left untold.
The livestock sector accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As a major producer – and consumer – of meat and dairy, the EU is a big part of the problem. Increasing consumption of animal products, converting land to feed livestock, fertiliser usage and direct emissions from animal farming are driving these emissions.
In the EU, agriculture accounts for 10.3% of the GHG emissions, of which around 70% is produced by livestock farming. As 68% of all agricultural land is used for animal production, what happens on this land has an enormous impact on the climate and the environment.
The nutrients and pesticides used in the sector pollute land and water. Ammonia emissions from livestock waste are a significant source of air pollution. Agriculture also contributes to growing water scarcity: it uses more than 40% of freshwater in the EU, with a significant share used for livestock production. Animal farming is a major driver for biodiversity loss.
Simultaneously, agriculture can be a strong ally for climate action and environmental protection. Healthy soils are important carbon sinks. Moreover, CO2 emissions per hectare of organic farming are 48-66% lower compared to conventional farming methods.
Cost for health
The strategy highlights poor diets as a major cause of diseases and healthcare-related costs in the EU. Indeed, preventable chronic diseases, greatly driven by unhealthy diets, account for around 86% of deaths and 77% of disease burden in the EU. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies processed meat as a carcinogen, known to cause cancer, and red meat as a possible cause of cancer. Scientific research links the consumption of animal products to an elevated risk of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and numerous other diseases. No wonder, the WHO guidelines for a healthy diet are built on a plant-based diet.
Another dimension that the Commission overlooks altogether is the impact of mainly livestock-related air pollution on people’s health. In the EU, air pollution, greatly driven by agricultural emissions, causes 400,000 to 790,000 premature deaths and leads to significant economic costs annually.
This matters also in the corona crisis context. Europeans’ current state of health and the prevalence of chronic diseases make us especially vulnerable in the face of COVID-19. Studies also suggest that regions with higher levels of air pollution seem to have higher mortality rates. As the EU hopes to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, there is way too little discussion about the importance of healthy populations as our first defence against the virus. This is the time to boost efforts to promote people’s health and healthier diets.
Towards the food system we want
The EU needs a competitive, resilient and sustainable agricultural sector that results in greater health for Europeans. We already know what to do. The science is clear on what makes a food system sustainable and what makes a diet beneficial for human health, the climate and the environment. We should aim to double the consumption of plant-based foods and substantially limit foods from animal sources.
While the Commission’s strategy recognises the need to move to a more plant-based diet, with less red and processed meat, it fails to take the bull by the horns. It does not call for reducing the production and consumption of all meat products and dairy, and shifting towards more plant-based food systems.
Achieving a sustainable system is more important than ever and bringing about change is a shared responsibility. Farmers themselves should have a strong interest in being part of the solution and actively participate in the transition, as a way to secure their livelihoods for the future. It requires retailers and consumers to play their part. Moreover, the EU and national policymakers must create a framework for action.
The transition to a sustainable food system will not happen without a shift in people’s diets. The EU must use the tools available to steer consumers. In addition to providing information and helping make sustainable and healthy options the default option, what the EU subsidises impacts prices and thus, consumer choices. Rather than offering Europeans cheap meat and dairy, people need affordable healthy food.
The money is with the CAP, and it can do good or continue to do a lot of harm. It can either deliver or sabotage the goals of the Farm to Fork strategy. If in 2021-27, taxpayers’ money is still spent to sponsor mainly unhealthy and unsustainable meat and dairy production and consumption, it would make the Farm to Fork strategy just an empty shell.
It is time for a radical rethink. While farmers should be supported in the transition, the EU must end subsidies to uncompetitive farming practices that are harmful to people’s health, the climate and the environment. In addition to extravagant subsidies for livestock production, using taxpayers’ money to advertise meat-eating and offer dairy products to school kids – worth €100 million again this year – is unacceptable. These decisions are not science-based and undermine the EU’s objectives for sustainable prosperity.
The time for unconditional support for meat and dairy must be over. In the new multiannual budget, each euro invested should provide added value for the EU and its citizens and help to address rather than exacerbate the EU’s challenges.
Simultaneously, it is in the Union’s interest to become a global standard setter for sustainable and healthy food, and ensure that the imports of food and feedstock for animals meet those standards. It must use its trade agreements to raise standards globally and avoid shifting the environmental and climate footprint of the food it consumes beyond its borders.
The current food system is failing the EU, the Europeans and the planet, in a big way. If the EU and its member states are serious about sowing the seeds for a competitive agricultural sector that contributes to climate action, supports environmental protection and provides nutritious, healthy food for people, the transition to a more plant-based food system must start now.
Annika Hedberg is Head of the Sustainable Prosperity for Europe programme and Senior Policy Analyst