December 2019 saw the introduction of the European Commission’s roadmap towards a “Farm to Fork” strategy. The Strategy aimed at designing a vision and a roadmap to transitioning European food systems towards a greater level of sustainability and equity. In particular, going along with the Biodiversity Strategy, the Farm to Fork Strategy has been thought to align with the environmental ambitions of the New Green Deal fostered by the European Commission. The goal was to publish the Strategy in the early spring of 2020. However, the European executive's plans were delayed after the surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, which also implied alterations to the document's goals in order to adapt it to the new context.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further revealed the vulnerability of our dominant food system, with disruptive effects at both the global and the local level. First, it has shown how the enhanced anthropogenic impact on the environment (also through increased human-wildlife-livestock interactions as well as through land-use changes inducing agricultural intensification and biodiversity loss) contribute to epidemic outbreaks. Furthermore, at a global level, the pandemic has revealed the challenges of ensuring food security for all in times of crisis. It has raised questions on social and environmental justice, demonstrating for instance the essential role of undocumented migrants as workers in the food and agriculture sectors, workers whose mobility has been hampered by travel restrictions. At local level, emergency food initiatives have put into light the attempt to compensate for the rising levels of food insecurity, poverty and inequality affecting citizens and people, especially the most vulnerable. In short, this reality has made it more urgent to adapt food systems in Europe so we can ensure a resilient and sustainable food production while, at the same time, guaranteeing healthy and affordable food consumption for all. This crisis has shown that there is a rising number of overweight people on our continent and that there are serious nutritional deficiencies in the agri-food systems across Member States due to, partly, the lack of access to healthy food. Subsequently, if these rising figures had not been enough of a wake-up call for Europe to take care of its citizens' health before, the pandemic has shown us the actual impact of this trend.
But what does a pandemic have to do with our food?
This is where the Farm to Fork Strategy comes in. The document has been seen as a first step towards reformed food systems and an improved multi-level food systems’ governance. It has the ambition to address the food system as a whole, from production, to food processing, distribution, consumption practices and disposal. The food system has been, for a while, one of the main drivers of climate change and environmental degradation. This is one of the reasons why the EU has sought a solution to its current food system, which is responsible for about 1/3 of the total anthropogenic GHG emissions on our planet, with food production practices having major responsibility in this. Under the Horizon 2020 Programme, the Commission proposed €10 billion for research and innovation projects that would help Europe enter this transition. And rightly so. So far, the numbers are far from promising. Besides the increase of the overweight and obese population mentioned earlier, around 33 million people in Europe cannot afford a quality meal every second day (and this was before the COVID-19 hit the continent). Consecutively, if this number was not alarming enough, it must be mentioned that around 20% of the produced food goes to waste at the various stages of the food chain.
These are reasons why the Farm to Fork Strategy must be seized as an opportunity not just to improve and regulate the food systems, but also to deliver beneficial and long-lasting changes/achievements for both producers and consumers. To achieve this, the document states a series of objectives to be met by 2030:
- reducing the use of chemical and dangerous pesticides by 50%;
- reducing nutrient losses by at least 50% and maintaining the quality of soil fertility;
- reducing the sales of antimicrobials for animals by 50%;
- ensuring that agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture, as well as the food value chain contribute appropriately to reducing greenhouse emissions;
- reducing the amount of imported feed and protein according to European climate and environmental standards.
With these objectives in mind, the Strategy also presents ideas on how various European bodies but also various actors of the food system should work together in order to achieve these goals with a 27-point action plan. In its original document, the European Commission states that it will review the Strategy in 2023 to evaluate the efficiency of the taken measures. However, we argue that an active involvement of local and regional authorities in the Strategy's process should start now, without waiting an additional 3 years. Indeed, without this active consultation and engagement, the Strategy´s measures will not be effective and accountable enough, and they will fall short in guaranteeing the sustainability and resilience of the European food systems. This will be especially the case if both the Biodiversity and the Farm to Fork Strategies do not go hand in hand with a strong and ambitious Common Agriculture Policy (CAP).
The #Biodiversity and #FarmtoFork Strategies are a central element of the EU’s recovery plan. They are crucial for our health and well-being and also for creating immediate business and investment opportunities for restoring the EU’s economy #EUGreenDeal pic.twitter.com/JcoJGiKTs3
— Frans Timmermans (@TimmermansEU) May 20, 2020
Surely, we are on track towards a sustainable future, right?
This is not the case unfortunately, as the CAP does not seem to be as ambitious as the objectives set out by the European Commission a year ago in the new European Green Deal. Both the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 and the Farm to Fork one must rely on a strong CAP for the EU to attain its climate goals.
However not all hope is lost. It was only last month that Frans Timmermans, the First Vice President of the European Commission, suggested that there might be a withdrawal of the CAP proposal if the agreement was not in line with the objectives of the EU Green Deal. While a spokesperson for EU executive quickly clarified that there was no reason to withdraw for the time being, the Dutch Commissioner expressed his disapproval regarding the lack of ambition shown by the Council and the European Parliament with regards to the CAP and its alignment with the EU Green Deal's objectives. Despite not being confirmed, a potential withdrawal of the CAP proposal based on these reasons would not be the worst-case scenario. In fact, Frans Timmermans has not been the only one to raise his concerns on the lack of potential of the agreed version of the CAP. Renowned activist Greta Thunberg reiterated her criticism of the proposed reform of the EU’s farming subsidies programme and so have progressive cities and regions, who would bear the consequences of CAP´s guidelines that are not in tune with environmental and climate ambitions.
So where do cities and regions fit into all of this?
Cities and regions are the main actors in the implementation of both the CAP funds and policies and the measures that need to be put into place to achieve the objectives of the Farm to Fork Strategy. However, they are not involved in the monitoring or decision-making of these two policies. While our progressive cities and regions welcome the ambitions and proposals of the Farm to Fork Strategy, there are concerns about the role that these can have when it comes to their design, application and the evaluation of its effectiveness.
We firmly believe that the Farm to Fork Strategy needs to take local and regional authorities on board, for several reasons. First, agriculture and food production vary vastly from one region to another, which is why there must be measures put in place so that there can be a targeted approach to the objectives of the Strategy and an adequate way to monitor these measures. Indeed, it is undeniable that the farmers in the south of Spain will not encounter the same issues in this transition as those in Germany. And this is just an example. The list of differences between food production among regions is more extensive than the actual strategy itself. Furthermore, for decades, cities and regions have been active with initiatives such as local food policies and strategies, as well as food policy councils, in order to design better city-regional food systems. Among others, numerous cities and regions in Europe have been trying to incentivise forms of urban agriculture, regional food networks, farmers markets, farm-to-school initiatives, citizens' education and sensitisation programmes in order to shorten food chains and support local food systems. It is necessary that the Member States as well as the European level cooperate with and learn from these good practices. An adapted participatory governance framework should be put into place by the Strategy as to incorporate cities and regions in the governance of its implementation.
Our rapporteur for the opinion on the Farm to Fork Strategy, Guido Milana, firmly stated that: “regions have a key role in the implementation of the strategy and the regulation that stems from it. They will certainly have a strategic role, for example, in dealing with obesity problems or those linked to the lack of access to food for citizens. Regions have a direct link with the education system and have a direct link with local communities. Regions are readers of citizens’ needs and their ability to represent them cannot be replaced by anything”.
In his opinion, adopted unanimously by the CoR plenary session, some of Milana’s demands are:
- For cities and regions to be involved in the implementation and monitoring of the programme.
- The recognition of the diversity of production systems across Europe.
- More stringent measures against the environmental impact of intensive industrial livestock farming.
- Better nutritional labels and other forms of support to critical consumption and the right to food for all.
- Greater emphasis on the role of "green food procurement" as a means of supporting healthy and sustainable diets.
- Better legislation on the reduction of food waste.
- A more ambitious CAP to achieve the objectives of the Farm to Fork Strategy.
Cities and regions have a responsibility to ensure that residents of all ages and backgrounds have access to a quality type of nutrition that is affordable, healthy and environmentally friendly, and be both active players and beneficiaries of the Farm to Fork Strategy at the heart of the European Green Deal. They can better play this role if adequately supported by adapted frameworks from the EU level. This is why the Farm to Fork Strategy needs to communicate and cooperate with the city-regional levels. Cities and regions are the ones that are best suited to evaluate the impact of the policies on the ground, based on tangible objectives. For these reasons, it is vital that the Commission takes local and regional authorities on board early on in the consultation fora and governance mechanisms put in place to deliver the Strategy and ensure its optimal monitoring, assessment and implementation. Else, we will find ourselves in the same position, but this time it might be too late.
"There doesn't seem to be any intention to reform the Common Agricultural Policy in line with the objectives of the #EUFarm2Fork Strategy.
The #CAP will have to be adapted to the Strategy!"
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) December 8, 2020