Learning from Covid-19? The European Commission’s Farm-to-Fork Policy sends a Positive Signal even though many Crucial Points are still Missing

URGENCI Press Release, 20 May 2020

Has the Commission succeeded in learning some lessons from the Coronavirus crisis? With the publication of its Farm-to-Fork Strategy and its Biodiversity Strategy today, the European Commission is sending a signal that shows greater awareness of the importance of resilient food systems and of the interconnections between human health, sustainable diets and the ecosystems win which we live. Sadly, however, many crucial points required for initiating true systemic change are still missing.

The targets set by the European Green Deal are confirmed. 25% of agricultural land should be under organic farming management by 2030 (instead of 7% in 2017). The increase of agro-ecological practices is also mentioned as a key sector for development. Furthermore, the reduction by 50% of the overall use of chemical pesticides and more hazardous chemical inputs by 2030 can be perceived as a defensive victory, as the goal has been preserved despite the action of the lobbies. It is still far from satisfactory however. The European Commission should face its responsibility to building healthy ecosystems and human health and go beyond this target. One should recall, on this #WorldBeeDay, that hundreds of thousands of European citizens have demanded an 80% reduction of chemical pesticide use by 2030 and a full phasing out in 2035. Two further commitments are the reduction of use of fertilisers by at least 20% in 2030, and to secure at least 10% of the agricultural area as “high-diversity landscapes”.

A key positive aspect is the reinforced coherence between the on-going Common Agricultural Policy Reform and the EU Commission’s strategy: the latter contains a new requirement for Member States to set comparable targets when drafting Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) strategic plans. This requirement is combined with the announcement of new EU legislation for a sustainable food system for 2023. This legal frame could have the potential to be a game changer in terms of driving the European food systems away from the high dependence of chemical inputs.

Despite these reasons for hope, the EU Commission’s blueprint on European food policies falls short in addressing some of the key challenges.

First, nothing precise, no target at all is set concerning animal welfare, despite insistant calls from civil society (including URGENCI) for a ban on meat promotion for example.

Second, in the section called “Building the food chain that works for consumers, producers, climate change and the environment”, many interesting general statements have been included. When it comes to actions foreseen, all focus on labelling: the setting of maximum levels for certain nutrients (end of 2021); a proposal for harmonised mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling to enable consumers to make health-conscious food choices (end of 2022); a proposal to require indication of origin for certain products (end of 2022); nutrient profiles to restrict the use of nutrition and health claims on food that is high in salt, sugar and/or fat (end of 2022); a proposal for a sustainable food labelling framework to empower consumers to make sustainable food choices (end of 2024). All these actions are seen as new battlefronts for URGENCI, rather than as gains: their specifics will be designed in the course of time based on the power relationship between the different stakeholders. Moreover, the Commission has failed to recognize the need for more short supply chains and direct partnerships between producers and consumers.

Third, the EC is putting the issue of agro-biodiversity on the table: “Sustainable food systems also rely on seed security and diversity. Farmers need to have access to a range of quality seeds for plant varieties adapted to the pressures of climate change. The Commission will take measures to facilitate the registration of seed varieties, including for organic farming, and to ensure easier market access for traditional and locally-adapted varieties”. Nevertheless, URGENCI, together with its allies, will be cautious and will keep track of how this theoretical principle translates into reality. The confidence in this statement in favour of cultivated biodiversity is eroded by the neighbouring sentence stating that “ the European Commission is carrying out a study which will look at the potential of new genomic techniques to improve sustainability along the food supply chain “.

As Judith Hitchman, President of the International Committee of URGENCI, stated: “The European Commission’s Farm-to-Fork Strategy will certainly not change the everyday reality of Community Supported Agriculture farmers and consumers in Europe per se. But it may have given some direction and a positive signal to lift some challenges and to reinforce our initiatives for more sustainable food systems in Europe”.