There is just over one week to go before the European Commission unveils its much-awaited landmark initiative to design a fair, healthy, and environmentally friendly food system for the EU. One week. But make no mistake: one week is a long time in policymaking, where last-minute lobby pressure can nip public interest legislation in the bud. As the European Commission is putting the final touches to its Farm to Fork Strategy for Sustainable Food, attempts to water it down are intensifying. Here is why the Commission must stick to its guns.
COVID-19: the convenient excuse for maintaining status quo
COVID-19 has brought about major disruptions to the EU food system, shaking supply and demand, and disorganising trade flows. The agri-food sector undeniably needs help to deal with the crisis. Yet, using COVID-19 to call for pushing back the shift to a more sustainable and resilient food system is sheer nonsense.
While the food system has luckily not collapsed because of COVID-19, thanks to the sustained efforts of all those working in food and farming, its weaknesses have been laid bare. As 700,000 Italian kids who were relying on school for a decent meal go hungry, Belgians are being urged to eat ‘frites’ twice a week and the French more cheese to help deplete the surpluses created by COVID-19.
Over-supply in the meat, milk and wine sectors has forced the European Commission to adopt exceptional market support measures. Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable prices are on the rise due to labour shortages caused by border closures and increased consumer demand at a time when people are trying to eat more healthily. One of the many lessons from COVID-19 is probably that over-specialisation of agricultural production leaves countries more vulnerable to trade restrictions and sudden shifts in demand.
Food security vs. sustainability: the false dilemma
Despite the scenes of empty shelves – largely due to consumer panic buying – food scarcity has not been the problem so far, unlike logistics and distribution. But it might soon become an issue if the EU fails to transition towards more sustainable food production and consumption.
As Europeans were staying home, the month of April 2020 has been among warmest on record, starkly reminding us that the climate crisis – with its heat waves, droughts, floods and other extreme weather events threatening food supplies – will still be there after COVID-19 is gone. A more sustainable food system where greenhouse gas emissions from farming are lowered, pesticide use is cut to preserve biodiversity and where antibiotics are needed less thanks to improved animal husbandry is a prerequisite for securing supply of safe and healthy food in the long term.
No time to waste
Another learning from COVID-19 is that our health status – partly determined by what and how much food we put on our plate – has a big impact on how sick we get from the virus if we are contaminated. Overweight and obesity, in particular, have been shown to affect how ill people get from COVID-19. But overweight and obesity are risk factors for many more diseases – from diabetes to stroke through several types of cancers – and also put great strain on healthcare systems.
With 1 in 2 European adults overweight or obese (1 in 3 children), it is high time the EU made the healthy food choice easier for its consumers.
As part of the Farm to Fork Strategy, the European Commission is expected to announce it will work towards an EU-wide simplified nutritional label to help consumers compare at-a-glance the nutritional value of foodstuffs.
Sadly, a concrete proposal for such label may not see the light of day until… 2023 – based on some media reports.
And it might take another 5 to 8 years until it delivers on the ground, taking account of the EU law-making process, the EU elections in 2024 and the transition period granted to industry to adapt its labels.
When 6 EU countries have already opted for Nutri-Score and as the scheme is gaining momentum among retailers and food companies, it beggars belief that consumers may have to wait until 2030 before Nutri-Score appears on all food packages across the EU.
Relying on individual consumer choice alone will not be enough
Together with improved nutrition labelling, the Farm to Fork Strategy is expected to pave the way for better consumer information on food origin and sustainability. However welcome and necessary, such labelling initiatives must be accompanied by bolder measures to steer EU food consumption in a more sustainable direction.
Top scientific advisors to the European Commission have said loud and clear that focussing on choice and individual responsibility alone will be insufficient to change food habits to the extent science tells us is required.
The Farm to Fork Strategy will miss the point if it fails to also tackle the food environment – i.e. all factors that shape our food choices such as pricing, availability, and marketing – in a way that makes healthy and sustainable diets the easy option.
Seizing upon the positive trends emerging from COVID
To look on the bright side of things, the good news is that some of our food habits have changed for the better ‘thanks’ to COVID-19. A recent survey by Belgian consumer group Test-Achats/Test-Aankoop found that 34% of Belgians have started cooking more often and that 28% pay more attention to food waste.
In COVID times, food shopping has become more digital, with many consumers purchasing groceries online from supermarket chains (when online order sites were not overwhelmed) but also from small farmers who have turned to the Internet and social media to sell their produce.
With lockdowns, many consumers have looked to bring the farm closer to their fork, leading to a surge in demand for food from local, short chains. Sales of organic food also got a boost from COVID-19.
Whether these trends will continue is hard to tell. Yet, the Farm to Fork Strategy must seek to capitalise on them where they can contribute to making the EU’s food system more sustainable. More than ever, the EU must heed the message from its citizens and ensure that the food and farming system of tomorrow gives each European consumer access to sufficient, healthy, and sustainable food at a fair price. There is just one week to go before we know whether this ambition made it to the finish line. In truth, the Strategy is only the beginning of a long process to transition away from our current unsustainable food system, so better get off on the right foot.
 France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.