EU’s unfolding ‘Farm to Fork’ overhaul must go all the way

EU’s unfolding ‘Farm to Fork’ overhaul must go all the way

16 Feb    Finance News, In Business

Facing a bloc-wide farmers’ uprising, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has boldly taken a major ‘Farm to Fork’ policy off the table.

Addressing the EU Parliament on 6 February, von der Leyen announced that she would withdraw the Sustainable Use of Pesticide Regulation (SUR) – a flagship Green Deal file that aimed to halve pesticide use by 2030 – quipping that this “proposal has become a symbol of polarisation.”

In an uncharacteristically generous mood that day, the Commission offered EU farmers another major olive branch, removing the target to cut 30% of the agriculture sector’s  greenhouse gas emissions in its 2040 climate plan. With the Commission’s ‘Strategic Dialogue,’ farmers’ protests and EU electoral maneuvering intersecting in recent weeks, Brussels’s leaders are finally taking on farmers’ demands.

While cautiously encouraging, the Commission must ensure that its emerging overhaul of ‘Farm to Fork’ avoids easy solutions and overcorrection in favour of a middle road where technological innovation and genuine engagement fuel a just ecological transition while bolstering farmers’ productivity and competitiveness.

The slow death of SUR

The drawn-out demise of the SUR file reflects the recent mood music in Brussels concerning ‘Farm to Fork.”

Initially adopted by the Commission in June 2022, this ever-divisive proposal was shot down by the European Parliament last November after having been gutted by the right-wing, anti-green faction, with MEPs equally voting to discontinue work on the issue. In the ensuing months, the Spanish and Belgian EU Council Presidencies have attempted to pick up the pieces, including by scrapping national pesticide reduction targets and focusing on accelerating biocontrol alternatives to chemical pesticides, yet to no avail.

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Von der Leyen’s EPP party has hailed the SUR proposal withdrawal, with MEP Alexander Bernhuber describing the move as “a first good sign that the Commission will work with farmers to tackle climate change rather than against them,” embodying the EPP’s rightward swing that notably included trying to kill off the Nature Restoration Law last summer. Facing a far-right surge in the bloc’s rural areas, the EPP is frantically attempting to project its understanding of EU farmers’ challenges.

As Sebastien Abis, director of Club Demeter, recently highlighted, farmers’ anger has largely resulted from Brussels’s unfair imposition of costly environmental regulations without the appropriate financial and technical support. Rural sociologist Natalia Mamonova has similarly posited that the Green Deal’s introduction of “environmental objectives” using “market logic” has left farmers to “carry the heaviest burden for the ecological transition” – a sentiment echoed by Catalonian young farmers’ representative Ricard Huguet.

Nutrition label clinging on

Yet, as Brussels shifts away from ‘Farm to Fork’s original sustainability agenda, the strategy’s healthy food pillar continues to pose a similar threat to EU farmers. Like SUR, the Commission’s harmonised nutrition label proposal has been deeply contentious, underlining an admirable objective – in this case, tackling the bloc’s obesity epidemic– with misguided policies.

Indeed, the controversy surrounding France’s Nutri-Score reached such a point that the Commission’s deputy director-general of food sustainability Claire Bury shelved the label in late 2022 for “polarising the debate.” Over a year later, the Belgian EU Presidency has announced its intention to revive the bloc’s nutrition label and push for Nutri-Score’s EU-level adoption. With its scientific symposium on Nutri-Score slated for 25 April, the Belgian Presidency mistakenly believes that it will be able to overcome the label’s strong opposition.

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Nutri-Score has long faced criticism for unjustly penalising local EU farmers of heritage products including PDO cheeses and cured hams, with its algorithm’s outdated, narrow focus on “bad” components such as salt and fat greatly underestimating the dietary importance of vitamins and minerals, “leading to nutritional paradoxes and fundamental errors,” as medical researcher Raphael Sirtoli has noted.

While Nutri-Score’s new algorithm has downgraded breakfast cereals from ‘A’ to ‘C,’  this partially-redressed misfire reminds how the label’s previous version failed to guide consumers towards healthier choices. Moreover, the demotion of natural products including whole milk and French prunes to ‘C’ while Diet Coke retains a ‘B’ further underscores how the system’s core deficiencies have survived a cosmetic update designed, unsuccessfully, to silence critics.

With the political divide between EU member-states as wide as ever and scientific consensus remaining evasive, the time has come for the Commission to withdraw its nutrition label proposal and focus efforts on helping farmers build a healthy, green and competitive food system.

The middle road less traveled

In this undertaking, Brussels should remember, as Sebastien Abis has asserted, that “farmers who refuse to commit…to ecological transitions” remain “the minority in Europe,” as “more and more farmers are looking for ways” to adopt sustainable agricultural innovations “without losing economically.”

EU investment support for digital tech-enabled Agriculture 4.0 techniques, such as AI-powered drones and IoT-based smart sensors, would play a vital role in boosting farmers’ yields while optimising fertilizer and pesticide usage, thereby lashing their environmental impact and production costs. What’s more, the EU’s 2040 climate plan rightly identifies biomethane from manure as a promising, “relatively low cost” fertilizer alternative for farmers to help reduce GHG emissions and maintain food security.

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The EU Parliament’s 7 February vote approving its amendments on new regulations for new genomic technologies (NGTs) – gene-edited crops – will also help transcend the sustainability-productivity dilemma, particularly as MEPs intent to spur NGT investment while protecting farmers from being priced out by corporate patents.

Beyond the technological front, the EU must get the trade question right, as the bloc’s free trade agreements have been one of the major bones of contention expressed in recent farmers’ protests. While brute isolationism is not the answer, Brussels must recognise that its farmers cannot compete with large inflows of agri-food products made with lower labour and environmental standards. Moving forward, the Commission must ensure all trade deals incorporate adequate mechanisms to shield farmers from unfair competition and avoid undermining their sustainability efforts.

As French MEP Pascal Cafin has aptly concluded, seeking out “a scapegoat, be it “ecology” or “free trade,” will inevitably lead to the failure of the bloc’s agri-food vision. While removing ill-conceived green and nutritional health policies constitutes a good start, the next stage for Brussels’s decision-makers must involve meaningful engagement with EU farmers to develop and progress a nuanced, future-fit food agenda.

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