June 2, 2020

Strategies for more sustainable food systems: the European Union adopts a Biodiversity Strategy and a Farm to Fork Strategy

By Emile Frison,  International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and Chair, Board of EcoAgriculture Partners

On 20 May 2020, the European Commission published two important strategies that are key components of the European Green Deal and that will guide the European Union towards more sustainable food systems over the next 10 years. This evolving policy framework could provide valuable impetus and support for more integrated agricultural landscapes.

The Biodiversity Strategy aims to put the EU in a leading position in the world in addressing the global biodiversity crisis and to restore degraded ecosystems at land and sea across the whole of Europe among others by: 

  • Significantly increasing the uptake of agroecological practices and increasing organic farming and biodiversity-rich landscape features on agricultural land with a target of 25% of agricultural area under organic farming by 2030;
  • Halting and reversing the decline of pollinators;
  • Restoring at least 25 000 km of EU rivers to a free-flowing state;
  • Reducing the use and risk of pesticides by 50% by 2030; and 
  • Planting 3 billion trees by 2030.

In addition, the strategy aims to establish protected areas for at least 30% of the land and 30% of sea in Europe, with stricter protection of remaining EU primary and old-growth forests legally binding nature restoration targets in 2021.

The Strategy recognizes that agroecology can provide healthy food while maintaining productivity, increase soil fertility and biodiversity, and reduce the footprint of food production. The Biodiversity strategy plans to unlock 20 billion EUR/year for biodiversity funding through various sources, including EU funds, national and private funding and should put Europe’s biodiversity on the path to recovery by 2030, for the benefit of people, climate and the planet and thereby contribute to making our food systems more sustainable. Integrated landscape management offers the potential to directly connect these on-farm and off-farm components of biodiversity. 

The second strategy, linked to the sustainability of our food systems and agricultural landscapes, is the “Farm to Fork Strategy.” This aims to build food systems that work for consumers, producers, climate and the environment, reduce the environmental and climate footprint,  strengthen the resilience of the EU food systems, and have a neutral or positive environmental impact, preserving and restoring the land.

The strategy recognizes the urgent need to reduce dependency on pesticides and antimicrobials, reduce excess fertilization, increase organic farming, improve animal welfare, and reverse biodiversity loss. The proposals include:

  • Scale up agroecological approaches in primary production through a dedicated partnership on agroecology living laboratories; 
  • Reduce the overall use and risk of chemical pesticides by 50% by 2030;
  • Develop a proposal for a legislative framework for sustainable food systems by 2023 to promote policy coherence at EU & national level;
  • Develop a proposal for a sustainable food labeling framework to empower consumers to make sustainable food choices by 2024;
  • Establish an EU carbon farming initiative 2021;
  • Stimulate sustainable food processing, wholesale, retail, hospitality and food services practices;
  • Promote sustainable food consumption and facilitating the shift to healthy, sustainable diets;
  • Reduce food loss and waste.

These two strategies are core elements of the European Green Deal. They represent important steps in the right direction, not only for Europe but also as an inspiration for other countries and regions.  They incorporate many aspects that have been recommended by IPES-Food and EcoAgriculture Partners,  even if not with the level of ambition and comprehensiveness that we would have wanted to see.  For example, there is still a lack of policy coherence by not properly addressing the impact of trade policy and Free Trade Agreements on the sustainability of our food systems. The strategies do not address the issue of access to land for young farmers, nor do they include a dedicated action plan to reduce the production and consumption of industrial meat and other animal-sourced foods produced in an unsustainable manner.

The recent COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the underlying risks, fragilities, and inequities in our global food systems and the need for a food system transformation that builds resilience at all levels. This will require a more fundamental redesign of our production and consumption systems and the way we design our landscapes. As major recent reports including the TEEB for Agriculture & Food report (2018), the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2019), the IPCC report on Climate Change and Land Use (2019) and the Global Sustainable Development Report 2019 have concluded, incremental changes will not allow us to reach the goals set by the Paris agreement on climate nor the Sustainable Development Goals and a real food system transformation is required. 

While we should applaud the European Commission for these significant steps, we should at the same time continue to exhort the European Union, its members states and other countries to recognize the urgency and the amplitude of the needed changes and ask for further bold steps to be taken towards transforming our food systems so that they deliver, at the same time, on the economic, environment, social and health fronts.

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