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Support a resilient food system based on fair prices for good food 

Europeans are frustrated with the status quo. Voters voiced their discontent in EU Parliamentary elections this past weekend (June 6-9), while farmers have been protesting throughout the year. 

As the dust settles on the election outcome, attention turns to setting the course for the next Parliamentary cycle. In the coming weeks, the European Council will issue its Strategic Agenda — a succinct document outlining the top policy priorities for the next five years with big implications for our food and farm system.

draft version of the Agenda leaked in April, causing outrage among environmental groups. Fighting climate change as a standalone objective — one of four priorities in the last Parliamentary term — had been dropped. 

The Agenda’s specific language on agriculture and food garnered less media attention but is equally problematic. While one-quarter of the EU budget goes to agricultural subsidies, the sector often only gets one sentence in the Agenda.

According to the April draft, the EU should “[e]nsure our food security through a vibrant agriculture sector” as part of the twin transitions to a green and digital economy. 

The language may seem innocuous, but it signals the continuation of our existing overindustrialized system. The concept of food security has many dimensions, but its original use focused on supply and the need to increase production above all else. Several actors, especially industry, continue to use it in that way. In EU policy discourse, food security is often paired with concepts of sustainability to signal broader meaning, but the tension remains. 

So, where does the agri-food sector need to go in the next five years? And how to express that goal succinctly?

Adding sustainability language into the current draft might look like an easy solution, but that will not get us beyond the status quo with which farmers and voters are clearly frustrated. The next institutional cycle must focus on addressing farmers’ core concerns while putting the EU on a path to producing food within nature’s limits. 

The need for a transition 

The current food production system is not sustainable. The need to transition our farm and food systems to ones that produce within nature’s ecological limits and pay farmers and farm workers fairly is clear.

Family farmers struggle to make a decent living, and consumers face persistently high prices in the supermarket. Meanwhile, agribusiness reaps the benefits of an unfair European subsidy regime and costly fertilizers. All the while, nature, the climate and human health suffer.

You are forgiven if you feel like you’ve seen this movie before. After all, kickstarting the transition to a “fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system” is the express goal of the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy, launched in 2020. 

It is an understatement to say that the Strategy’s implementation to date has been limited. Many of its measures are stuck in limbo, have yet to be proposed or have been withdrawn altogether. Those that did pass were significantly weakened or may even be detrimental to the transition’s desired aims. 

Policymakers and agribusiness lobbyists have also used the farmer protests to justify rolling back the small gains made in the latest Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU’s flagship policy, to transition to a more resilient food production system. 

Yet, the social and environmental need to transition remains.

Charting a new path

The Farm to Fork Strategy was heading to the right destination, with its systematic approach to food systems and target setting, but its route was missing some key elements.

The transition to healthier and more resilient food and farm systems will cost money that the average farmer does not have. The CAP budget is likely to be under pressure in the EU’s next budgeting round as the bills from the pandemic come due and defense spending ramps up. Without an option for adding funds, it becomes even more important to repurpose existing subsidies to support the public goods (healthy soils, clean water, etc.) the transition requires. 

This repurposing needs to be coupled with market reform to ensure that farmers are paid fairly for food they produce sustainably. Despite their critical role, farmers wield little power in the supply chain and are often forced to accept payment below the cost of production. Ensuring fair prices (rather than income support based on farm sizes) can improve family farm economics and allow for the repurposing of public money. 

And yes, this may also feel like another movie you’ve seen. Family farm and environmental groups have long called for using taxpayer dollars to support ecosystem services that benefit the public — often shortened to “public money for public goods.” It was a common refrain in the negotiations of the 2014-20 CAP negotiations but resulted in a “greening” of the CAP in name only. The Farm to Fork Strategy also spoke of shifting CAP investment to support the transition, which the recent rollback of any environmental conditionality will now ensure does not happen.

To deliver real change and avoid the mistakes of the past, subsidies need to be linked to a regulatory system that ensures environmental objectives are met without excessive bureaucracy. This a tall order: Whether to even attempt addressing agricultural pollution has already become an early flashpoint in the aftermath of the election. 

Why try to make a sequel when the first film flopped?

This time is different 

Calls to reform and green the CAP are not new, but Ukraine’s possible accession to the EU and climate change make this time different. Ukraine could receive up to 96 billion euros under the CAP’s current rules, given its extensive agricultural lands. The accession timeline straddles the next CAP (2028-32), making reform during the next institutional cycle all but mandatory.

Climate change threatens food production. Any genuine concern about food security, within Europe and globally, requires addressed it. Ditto for biodiversity loss. Reducing agricultural emissions is also essential to any ambitious 2040 target. 

This is not to say that reforms will be easy. Current progress on accession talks has only been possible due to well-timed coffee breaks. Cheap imports from Ukraine have been a source of farmer protests in several Eastern European countries. Ukraine’s pre-war agribusiness, dominated by oligarchs and environmental destruction, was precisely the system from which to transition away. And there is the uncertainty of the war itself.

Farmer protests did include resistance to some nature and climate measures, yet at a time when they are being squeezed by all sides, this can hardly come as a surprise (and was far from the core concern).

It is possible to design a system that delivers for farmers, consumers and the climate. It starts with ensuring that farmers are fairly paid for their goods and public money is used to support environmental measures in a just transition to more agroecological food systems.

Some of the Commission’s recent work — such as establishing an observatory to monitor production costs and trading practices — is heading in the right direction, though much more will be needed to reorient the system, including a review of the Unfair Trade Practices Directive. Other initiatives, such as an emissions trading system for agricultural emissions with questionable credits for carbon farming, are more likely to entrench industrial agriculture and further farmers’ bureaucratic burden, rather than benefit the climate and farmlands.

While the election results highlight Europeans’ frustration with their political leaders, addressing agriculture and climate change are still top issues for voters. 

Soon, European leaders will decide on their Strategic Agenda. The headlines will focus on defense and competition, but farmers and nature need a clear path to transition our agriculture and food system to a fair and ecological one.

In short, the EU’s Strategic Agenda for 2024-29 should support a resilient food system based on fair prices for good food

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