Sustainability on the chopping block?

The European Commission’s sustainable food systems initiative is a key ingredient in its wider Farm to Fork Strategy under the Green Deal. But it will need to balance long-term environmental goals with more immediate concerns over food security and prices
Photo: Alamy

By Monica Gamba

Monica Gamba is a Dods EU Political Intelligence consultant

09 Dec 2022

The European Commission has pledged to publish its proposal for a sustainable food systems initiative and include it in its work programme for 2023. But the war in Ukraine, concerns over food security and pushback from certain corners of the farming industry have left some worried that the initiative will be shelved or scaled back.

A central pillar of the European Union’s Farm to Fork Strategy, the plan promises to make Europe’s food systems fair, healthy and environmentally friendly.

However, in March, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski suggested the implementation of the Farm to Fork Strategy might be delayed by concerns over food security.

Some expressed concern regarding Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s failure to mention the sustainable food systems initiative in her State of the Union address.

Environmental groups including Greenpeace, Fair Trade and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) have warned that failing to prioritise sustainability would undermine the Green Deal strategy to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

“The FSFS [framework for sustainable food systems] is not about imposing undue burdens on actors in the food supply chain… Pausing or postponing this initiative would be utterly misguided and short-sighted,” they wrote in a joint letter to von der Leyen in September 2022.

The framework for sustainable food systems is not about imposing undue burdens on actors in the food supply chain

Last year’s consultation on the core principles of the sustainability drive revealed concerns over food security and the livelihoods of European farmers. According to Coceral, the EU association of trade in cereals, rice, feedstuffs and oils, the initiative’s Inception Impact Assessment “clearly focuses on the environmental aspects of sustainability and to a lesser extent to the social aspects” while “the economic aspect of sustainability is not embraced”.

Copa-Cogeca, the business association representing farmers and agri-food cooperatives, called for a range of measures, including an adaptable definition of sustainable food systems, compensation for farmers facing additional costs and an appraisal of trade aspects to ensure sustainability “leakages” are avoided and to maintain the EU’s competitiveness while respecting World Trade Organization rules.

Other groups, like Brussels lobby watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory, argue that industry associations are using the disruption of food supplies caused by the war in Ukraine as a pretext to stymie efforts to improve sustainability.

Likewise, the Institute for European Environmental Policy think tank noted that pushback against the agri-food aspects of the EU Green Deal predates the Russian invasion, since “what is really at stake is the issue of competitiveness of EU agri-food players, which has been declining over the last two decades.”

The Commission’s decision last summer to temporarily pause certain rules in the next Common Agricultural Policy as a way to increase cereal production has left some wondering whether global food availability and affordability will trump long-term sustainability goals.

However, Stella Kyriakides, the Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, has indicated that urgent action is required to make food systems more resilient.

“To put it bluntly, the EU’s food system is overstretched,” she said in a speech at an EEB event in late October. “Climate and environmental challenges, unfair income distribution, poor working conditions, unhealthy diets, waste, food insecurity – these are just some of the pressures it faces.”


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