How much longer will we continue to feed a broken food system?

#CriticalThinking

Climate, Energy & Sustainability

Picture of Faustine Bas-Defossez
Faustine Bas-Defossez

Director of External Impact at the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP)

After experiencing the worst summer drought in 500 years and an unusually warm October, EU policymakers should be determined to make the Green Deal a success. The only way to make this happen is to tackle – once and for all – our food system, which is economically, socially and environmentally unsustainable, from the sowing of the plants we eat or feed, to the animals we farm, to our consumption patterns. And indeed, even if the world stopped burning fossil fuels today, dietary changes would still be necessary to meet the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement.

Yet, only 9% of sustainability experts responding to the European Green Deal Barometer believe that progress on the transition to sustainable food systems has been made since the start of the Green Deal, according to the Institute for European Environmental Policy’s annual ‘European Green Deal Barometer’ report. The majority of those experts call for the European Commission to prioritise its efforts around the food chapter of the Green Deal: the Farm to Fork Strategy. There is no time to waste. The EU should double down on its efforts and turn the Farm to Fork Strategy into reality.

However, despite evidence and urgency, progress meets strong pushback and a tendency to favour quick technological fixes over systemic change. Still, technological fixes won’t be enough to solve the unsustainability of our entire food system. Moreover, technological ‘solutions’ to complex problems may lead to unintended consequences when scaled up at the system level.

Many farmers […] have no room to pass on the sharp increase in production costs to consumers

Let’s take the overconsumption of animal proteins as an example. In Europe, it’s a fact that we consume too much animal proteins and this is bad for the climate, environment, human health and animal welfare. Instead of looking at solutions leading to a reduction in the number of animals that we farm, feed and eat, decision-makers keep stubbornly betting on new technologies to reduce the amount of methane coming from animals. This might reduce emissions, but it won’t solve the problem.

This mismatch between the need for systemic change and recurrent attempts to look for quick fixes that simply maintain the system in place or worse – continue to feed it – became obvious in a recent Friends of Europe debate on a European Green Deal-compatible food system. The need to tackle food systems was indisputable, but cognitive dissonance prevented proposals of systemic change all the way from production to consumption.

Exacerbating existing cracks in the system, the Russia-Ukraine War and its consequences were unsurprisingly central to the debate. Most actors in the food chain are suffering from an increase in prices. Many farmers, who were already squeezed between high production costs and low fixed prices before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are now squeezed even further and have no room to pass on the sharp increase in production costs to consumers. Affordable food for consumers can’t come at the cost of farmers, natural resources, climate and health. The sustainable food option should become the norm – and not the exception.

The Legislative Framework for Sustainable Food Systems has the potential to be a game-changer

The ongoing war is also putting the EU’s overdependence on nitrogen fertilisers, manufactured from gas, and cereal imports for animal feed under the spotlight. As over 600 scientists highlighted in a joint statement in response to the war, global food insecurity is not caused by a shortage of food supply, but by unequal distribution. They identify a shift towards healthier diets with less animal products as an important lever to change European food systems. The climate and biodiversity crises are the real danger to food security in the EU – not the war in Ukraine – and the Farm to Fork Strategy is the solution. It is time for policymakers and stakeholders to start building the food systems of the future together.

Two weeks ago, the European Commission took an important step forward by including a cornerstone of the Farm to Fork Strategy in its 2023 Work Programme. Meant to promote policy coherence, mainstream sustainability in all food-related policies and boost the resilience of food systems, the Legislative Framework for Sustainable Food Systems has the potential to be a game-changer. It can help policymakers create a positive story on the future of food and bring coherence to a field that is characterised by entrenched interests. To do that, the framework will need to be bold. Crucially, the framework should act as an umbrella law, under which the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will become a law that governs specific subject matter (lex specialis). Agriculture and the food chain are inseparable and spending under the CAP needs to align with the objectives of the Green Deal to generate real change in the sector.

When developing the proposal, policymakers and stakeholders should keep in mind that the world is running out of options. The current climate might be scary, but it will only worsen in the future – no amount of cognitive dissonance can change that. The Legislative Framework for Sustainable Food Systems can be the backbone of coherent EU food and agriculture policy. It is now up to decision-makers to move from cognitive dissonance to consonance.


The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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