From farm to flop? Political risks choke EU’s green food plan
The EU’s flagship green plan to reshape how we farm and eat is in deep peril, an internal European Commission document seen by POLITICO reveals, with many of the most ambitious reforms delayed or entirely blocked by political battles among farmers, EU officials and national diplomats.
Proposed with fanfare by the EU executive May 2020, the Farm to Fork strategy is a major plank of the European Green Deal which lays out plans to make farming more environmentally friendly and diets healthier by the end of the decade, be it by slashing the use of agri-chemicals or nudging consumers toward more sustainable choices at the supermarket.
But nearly three years on, the green sheen is fading, as twin food and energy crises inflamed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine embolden critics, from French farm lobbies to the bloc’s own agriculture commissioner, who argue that the shift is too ambitious and will impose an uneven and unfair compliance burden across EU member countries.
Now, EU officials are racing to get as many of the food policy proposals written into legislation as possible in the coming months and prove the Green Deal was more than mere words, before a year-long quiet period descends ahead of the EU election in 2024.
According to the Commission document, dated December 12, many of the most far-reaching reforms are stuck in the mud: Governments are at odds with the Commission over its plans to reduce the spraying of chemical pesticides on Europe’s croplands; EU officials fear that revamping the bloc’s animal welfare rules will spark criticism from trade partners; and countries are “very divided” over plans to impose standardized EU food health labels, in a fight that pits Italy and France, two gastronomic heavweights, against each other.
The Farm to Fork document, entitled an “overview of the politically sensitive topics,” was written by the Commission’s Directorate General for Agriculture (DG AGRI) to give Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski a state-of-play assessment on 31 green policies that impact food and farming.
The document was considered so sensitive that in a cover note, also seen by POLITICO and written by the DG’s top civil servant Wolfgang Burtscher, officials are instructed not to read or carry it in public places, to use encrypted software to save it, and to shred physical copies.
DG AGRI’s document suggests that it is both frustrated with some reforms, for example on the promotion of red meat and wine, and wary that others, such as raising animal welfare standards, would face massive opposition from farmers if they become reality too rapidly.
Wojciechowski has made no secret of his opposition to major aspects of the Green Deal. Late last year the Polish commissioner even threatened to hold up EU farm subsidies for the Netherlands in order to question how fairly the green policy agenda is being rolled out from east to west across the bloc.
“The Green Deal is not a law,” Wojciechowski told the Polish Parliament on December 7. “It is a political program in which all sorts of objectives are included, and which, as is the case with political programs, will be implemented to a greater or lesser extent.”
For his part, Burtscher, the top civil servant at DG AGRI, has said both publicly and in closed-door meetings that Farm to Fork remains the Commission’s goal and that long-term food security depends on biodiversity and healthy soils.
Asked for comment, a Commission spokesperson did not refer directly to the document but said: “The long-term sustainability of our food system is fundamental for food security. Even in this extraordinary situation with regard to food security, we need to continue the transition to a resilient and sustainable agricultural sector in line with the Farm to Fork.”
Farm to Fork has run into lashing political headwinds, not least in Wojciechowski’s DG AGRI, traditionally a bastion of conservative farmers’ interests in the heart of the EU.
But DG AGRI’s power has weakened since 2019, when Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made the Green Deal her flagship policy and handed most responsibility for legislation on the Farm to Fork strategy to the health and food safety directorate general (DG SANTE), run by Cypriot Commissioner Stella Kyriakides.
DG AGRI has retained its role as the manager of agricultural markets, and as the disburser of billions of euros under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a farm subsidy scheme worth around a third of the EU budget.
But as the CAP comes under growing pressure to change for the sake of the climate and the environment, DG AGRI finds itself on the back foot as a defender of the status quo in farming, lacking influence over the future direction of policy.
A key example of the divergence between SANTE and AGRI crops up in the document, which explicitly states that the EU Council is bashing heads with the Commission over the Farm to Fork ambition to slash pesticide use in half by the end of the decade. The issue is “very sensitive in the Council and with stakeholders,” the DG AGRI document says, adding that the national reduction targets Brussels sent to member countries are causing a lot of debate. SANTE proposed the cuts, while Wojciechowski was against them from the start.
The European Commission’s new proposals to boost nature restoration and the circular economy are “politically sensitive” for the farming sector, according to a separate annex to the same cover letter which also criticized upcoming proposals to address greenwashing by companies as “too burdensome.” for the food and agriculture sector.
Another highly political proposal — to rethink how the EU doles out hundreds of millions in subsidies to promote EU gastronomy each year — is not just delayed but “blocked,” the document says.
Different parts of the Commission disagree over whether to ban money for promoting red meat and wine, viewed by some as hypocritical at a time when the EU is encourages its own citizens to munch with their health and the planet in mind. There is a “high political and reputational risk stemming from further delaying Commission proposals,” DG AGRI’s document argues.
“The overview this document gives is quite sobering on the state of play [of Farm to Fork],” said Faustine Bas-Defossez, director for nature, health and environment at the European Environmental Bureau, an NGO.
“Everything that is necessary on the consumption side is being challenged,” she said, adding that it’s “extremely concerning” there is no agreement in the Commission on reforming the promotion policy to nudge consumers away from eating too many animal products.
“It’s bad for health, climate and the environment full stop, yet it seems that within the services there is no consensus on the fact we should simply stop promoting processed meat with public money,” Bas-Defossez told POLITICO.
There are also concerns that other reforms, like greening the procurement of food in public canteens or legislating for higher animal welfare standards, could further push up food prices at a time of already-soaring inflation, the document argues.
Other initiatives face political resistance too. A proposal to create legal thresholds known as “nutrient profiles” for the amount of sugar or fat content a food item can contain if it wants to market itself as healthy has been delayed and is described by DG AGRI as “potentially highly sensitive.”
An upcoming move to legalize the use of gene-edited crops in agriculture is also viewed as “highly sensitive.” Worryingly, the Commission’s move to open the door to novel genetic creations could have a “possible impact” on organic farming and will raise controversial questions about who owns the newly-minted plants and how sustainable they can really be.
Meanwhile, a new food sustainability label is viewed with “high political concern by the farming community.” There’s also “high political concern” about putting mandatory health labels on alcohol, a proposal which has already been delayed. Ireland’s decision to go it alone on mandating health labels on alcohol has provoked a backlash in fellow EU countries.
The crowning Farm to Fork measure — a legal framework detailing what constitutes a sustainable food system due later this year — is also facing pushback from farmers and trade partners. There are “possible criticisms from third countries on rules applicable to imports,” the document states, adding that it “might generate concerns” for groups like farmers who are already “highly regulated.”
Policy work on the sustainable food systems framework law is being led by DG SANTE, with DG AGRI in “co-lead” along with other DGs. The DG AGRI document also color-codes it as an AGRI initiative, however, in what may be another sign of the turf struggle between the two directorates general.
Tags: EU, Farm to Fork, farming, wine, red meat, Food, green plan, European Green Deal, DG AGRI, Common Agricultural Policy
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