In light of new climate targets, the EU’s ‘Farm to Fork’ Strategy is ripe for a revamp

However, if decarbonization is the objective, the EU needs to do more than cap greenhouse gas emissions from energy production and transportation, but has to tackle the issue from a wider angle, where Brussels’ policy programmes, from the Climate Law to the Farm to Fork Strategy (F2F), are parts of a coherent whole.

The European Commission reassured environmentalists across the continent after inking a new deal promising to cut emissions on the bloc by 55% before 2030. The raised target is now enshrined in a novel European Climate Law, and the next challenge will be to ensure these objectives are achieved in a sustainable way across the bloc. As such, the Climate Law is another legal framework underpinning the EU’s coveted European Green Deal, which aims to make Europe’s economy and society climate neutral come 2050.

However, if decarbonization is the objective, the EU needs to do more than cap greenhouse gas emissions from energy production and transportation, but has to tackle the issue from a wider angle, where Brussels’ policy programmes, from the Climate Law to the Farm to Fork Strategy (F2F), are parts of a coherent whole.

Indeed, in light of the recent developments, policymakers would do well to take another hard look at F2F in the context of Europe’s climate goals. Ideated to provide a roadmap out of Europe’s agrifood quagmire – a sector characterized by its carbon and resource intensity, contribution to biodiversity loss and health impacts from under and overnutrition – F2F in its current form is problematic for Berlaymont’s green targets given that food production is responsible for more than one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the ways in which the F2F seeks to offset carbon emissions in the food industry is through a dietary shift, discouraging “patterns which are unsustainable from both health and environmental points of view”. To this end, F2F requires member states to choose a universal nutritional label by 2022 to help consumers make healthier choices. While several formats are currently under evaluation, a coalition of countries including France and Germany, is pushing the blanket adoption of a French label called Nutri-score, which some experts say has the opposite effect.

The Nutri-score label uses an algorithm to attribute foodstuffs with a colour – from green to red – and a grade – from A to E – depending on protein, sugar, salt and saturated fat content. While Nutri-score accelerates decision-making, the sliding scale merges different nutritional data, and thus fails to actually recommend the healthiest and most sustainable options. For example, the high-protein content of meat garners it higher and “greener” grade despite the significant environmental impact involved in its production, from water usage to methane emissions. This despite the fact that the destructive side effects of the meat industry have led Greenpeace to call for a 71% decrease in consumption over the next ten years.

There is a knock-on effect on European farmers and agricultural workers as well. Nutri-score inadvertently rewards manufacturers when they are able to reformulate processed foods according to the label’s rigid algorithm, while in the process penalizing cheesemakers, beekeepers and olive oil producers who cannot modify their single-ingredient products. One Spanish MEP highlighted that behind the products penalized by Nutri-score, “there are smallholder farmers, producers, agricultural workers and a whole industry hit hard by Covid-19.” This aspect of the Nutri-score is in violation of the F2F’s commitment to “enhance resilience of regional and local food systems” – an issue echoed by a growing coalition of  Southern European countries, dubbed the “Mediterranean uprising”

The possibility of a mandatory Nutri-score is not the only way in which the F2F is letting farmers down while harming sustainability. The policy package recognizes that a sustainable farm system requires “an increased focus on investments into green and digital technologies and practices”. But when a recent European agricultural debate escalated to a ubiquitous pronouncement of the utter lack of innovation in this sector, it became clear just how challenging the planned technological overhaul of the industry is going to be.

The grave state of modernization in the agrifood industry was lamented by MEP Mazaly Aguilar who stated that Europe risks becoming an “agricultural museum”, as well as socialist MEP Juozas Olekas, who declared that the EU is “lagging behind the rest of the world”. The problem is that, although F2F advocates “new technologies and scientific discoveries”, it lacks concrete science-based suggestions to encourage the development and usage of such tools.

Innovative approaches in the policy suggested by industry insiders include transformations in genetic engineering, plant breeding solutions, animal husbandry and the management of dwindling freshwater and soil resources as possible areas for upheaval. While the Commission might be forgiven if undercooked policies and flowery language were the only problems, lately issues with the budget dedicated to the green farming transition are also arising.

Last month, Brussels announced the earmarking of €49 million for Europe’s organic transition for “boosting consumption, increasing production, and further improving the sustainability of the sector”. But after crunching the numbers experts began to question if the cash would cover European needs. For Martin Häusling, the Green Party’s agriculture lead and an organic farmer himself, “it remains a total mystery how the aim of the Farm-to-Fork Strategy for 25% of farmland to be organic in 2030 will be met through such a feeble instrument.”

It is no mean feat to reduce emissions from the EU’s fragile farming industry, which accounts for 10% of the bloc’s carbon output, while keeping farmers profitable. The recent purse is simply too small to fund the research and development, land conversion and maintenance required for a serious organic transition. This inadequate capital commitment will make it challening to double implementation in the next decade and sends a damaging message about the EU’s organic engagement. A rethinking of the budget, taking into account industry advice, is in order.

Still, as the Climate Law milestone showed, Brussels is capable of updating policies in need of improvement. While the Commission’s ambitions to overhaul the bloc’s agricultural system as part of the Green Deal are commendable, the F2F roadmap is too poorly sketched to get member states where they need to be. The strategy’s ambitious goals must be paired with concrete tools and adequate capital as soon as possible.

This story first appeared on Sustainability Times

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