The European Union urgently needs a common food policy to build sustainable food systems, says a recent report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). This shared policy would provide a common direction for food and farming systems in the Union, which suffer at all levels under the current model of production and agriculture.
“The Common Food Policy is about establishing an umbrella, bringing together agriculture, environment, health, employment, trade, etc. All the policies that, together, shape our food environment,” says Olivier De Schutter, IPES-Food co-chair, and lead author, to Food Tank.
The EU continues to employ policies that often clash with and undermine reaching its sustainability goals as it confronts biodiversity and land loss, climate change impacts, obesity epidemics, and disappearing farms, highlights the report. Shifting the focus from ‘agriculture’ to ‘food’ could help EU officials rethink those incompatible policies to complement and support each other, aligning to a common plan for the block’s food systems.
The vision for building the EU’s sustainable food future presents a growing consensus, from scientists, EU institutions, farmers, food entrepreneurs, activists, and policymakers sharing their expertise with the report’s authors over three years of research.
With a decades-old EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) still hanging on to area-based subsidies—the report shows 20 percent of farms now receiving 80 percent of payments—many small farmers lack support, either because they lack the expertise to cut through the red tape or their farm doesn’t meet the minimum size required for direct payments (of the EU’s 10.3 million farms, two thirds have less than 5 hectares, according to Eurostat, 2018).
The report also echoes recent calls from European MEPs to reduce subsidies for intensive farming under CAP, which so far have encouraged farmers to produce more cash crops with intensive methods but over large surfaces. In the meantime, more than 11 percent of the EU’s soils face moderate to high soil erosion.
Reforming the CAP cannot alone address all the factors influencing the farm-to-fork system, and given the substantial subsidies it delivers to European farmers—about US$66 billion annually—it “generally can only be changed at the margins,” De Schutter told Food Tank.
“We need to move to a food democracy,” De Schutter told Food Tank, and smaller actors a bigger say. Creating an EU-level food policy council is already on the books of the European Economic and Social Committee; its fruition would boost the transparency and accountability of decisions in the Union.
But the report argues that the EU should also increase its support for local food systems, often hubs for green, innovative projects. There aren’t enough experiments that encourage scaling-up local food systems, as few EU decision-makers don’t look closely enough at their benefits. Promoting local food projects such as food councils and urban food systems requires not only direct funding but also support at every government level.
With dissonant policies around food, the EU now depends on “a highly specialized, industrialized, financialized, standardized, export-oriented model of agriculture and food production,” reads the report. Changing consumption habits is also part of the solution, but individual actions “can only carry us so far,” according to De Schutter. “At this point, we need to politicize the debate. It’s the system that needs to change,” he warns Food Tank.
The Common Food Policy, highlights the report, would map out how shifts needed in food production, processing, distribution, and consumption can focus on five key objectives:
1. Access to land for sustainable food production
2. Rebuild “low-input, agro-ecological systems”
3. Build food environments where “the healthiest option is the easiest”
4. Backing local innovation to build fairer, shorter, cleaner supply chains
5. Replace free trade with sustainable trade agreements.
These are not overnight tasks. They require planning over multiple years and support from all those involved, from production to consumption, De Schutter explains to Food Tank. “This means not focusing on the short-term obstacles only, but asking how we can move, step by step, towards the long-term vision.”
The timing fits, with upcoming EU elections and the EU Commission calling for a comprehensive approach for sustainable food systems. In the run-up to May 2019, the Common Food Policy should be in the spotlight, backed by positive responses from MEPs, several EU committees, and high-level officials. “This is a change Europe should be able to seize,” adds De Schutter to Food Tank. “The real test, however, is still to come: shall a food policy worthy of the name be part of the project of the next legislature?”