Can the Green Deal deliver on food, climate and biodiversity?

Event summary

Sunday, Nov 28, 2021

Our panel event on November 23, 2021 tackled the thorny question of whether the European Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategies are on track to address the complex interconnected needs of food, climate and biodiversity.

Moderated by Rose O’ Donovan, Editor-in-Chief AGRA FACTS, the event was both lively and timely, coming on the day that the European Parliament voted to approve the Common Agricultural Policy Reform proposed by the European Commission.

Can the goals create a paradigm shift?

Are the targets and goals of the Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategies the right targets and the right goals? And do they represent the integrated approach needed to bring about a paradigm shift? These were the questions addressed by Professor Erik Mathijs, KU Leuven, in his opening remarks as he reflected on the first 18 months of the Farm to Fork strategy.

Professor Mathijs catchily talked about ‘BHAGs’, or ‘big, hairy, audacious goals.’ But a major critique of the Common Agricultural Policy, Farm to Fork and biodiversity strategies is that they do not sufficiently take outcomes into account, he said.

The goals were “not about greenhouse gases or human health impacts or biodiversity impacts of pesticide use or nitrogen access… rather, the focus is on inputs, use of pesticides and fertilizers, and one specific production method, organic,” he said.

Professor Mathijs touched on a vast range of issues that could impact the goals – from lack of data to trade-offs that must be made – he concluded: “The Green Deal strategies do represent a possible paradigm shift and integrated approach that acknowledges that for change to happen, the whole system is needed, including consumption and trade. But this approach is not well reflected in the chosen targets, nor maybe even in the proposed actions, particularly in the area of consumption and trade.”

He urged attendees to read the forthcoming reflection paper coming out of participatory sessions with 44 stakeholders – “a tremendous effort to grasp the full complexity of the food system”.

“What’s important is the direction of change”

Ambitious goals are not a problem: this was the perspective of Tassos Haniotis, Director & Acting Deputy Director-General DG AGRI, European Commission. The Farm to Fork strategy “raises the bar very high, raises the bar in many areas where you can raise valid concerns and questions.”

What is important is not so much the initial speed of change but the direction of that change, he said. “If you start on a path where you cannot turn back, acceleration of change will come.”

Mr Haniotis highlighted the limitations of studies and scenarios which underpin the targets and goals. While they are based on existing information, there is always a part of the picture missing. He said it has been a particular struggle to understand what happens with consumer behaviour, and it is a case of taking what information is available and making certain assumptions.

“You can’t really negotiate with science”

Coming back to the targets, Sébastien Treyer, Director, IDDRI- Institute for Sustainable Development & International Relations, pointed out that they are set by science, and are based on what is needed on climate and biodiversity to ensure a safe operating space for humanity. “You can’t really negotiate with science,” he commented.

But what you can negotiate is the timeline and pathways to get to those targets. Within the timeline set, he felt that 2030 would be the right moment to assess whether goals and actions have triggered the structural changes that are necessary to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Some of those structural changes will be “heavy” – such as certain sectors having to decrease volumes and look for value growth rather than volume growth. He gave examples of how this has been tackled in France – but also mentioned lack of data such as on jobs, incomes and economic processes in the processing industry.

Who bears the burden of change?

Turning to who will make change happen, Nathalie Chaze said that the burden of change is not only on farmers. Ms Chaze, Director, Food Sustainability, International Relations, Directorate General for Health and Food Safety, European Commission, emphasized: “The success of the challenge really depends on challenge at every step of the food chain.” She noted that Farm to Fork puts a lot of emphasis on changing demand – and this can be done “because we know that consumers want to contribute to the transition”.

The main goal is to successfully nudge consumers towards sustainable diets. There are a number of initiatives under way, such as nutrient profiles, mandatory original indication and labelling. The strongest influence on consumers comes from retailers, manufacturers and traders – and the EU will nudge them as well, she said.

Success depends on a combination of voluntary regulatory activity at EU, national and local level, because regulation alone cannot change behavior and habits, and “we really want to flag this is a shared responsibility”.

View from a sustainable farm

Amidst the discussion by policy experts, a change of pace gave our guests a real-time view from the farm. Novifarm in the Netherlands is a partnership of arable farmers cultivating 800 hectares. Sustainable agriculture practices are used to grow important export crops like potatoes for the French fries market and onions, as well as winter wheat and winter barley.

Dik Kruijthoff, Chairman of the supervisory board, CZVA, joined by live video link to demonstrate how sustainability works the field. Novifarm was an early adopter of precision farming, back in 2010. And it is proven to work – after almost 12 years of precision agriculture, combined with practices like sustainable crop rotation, the farm has achieved a 10% decrease in fertilizer use.

Mr Kruijthoff also voiced one of the many concerns of European farmers. What will be the impact of pesticide reduction targets? Will rising costs mean that US farmers can grow potatoes more efficiently and so take a larger share of the market?

Germany’s way forward

To close the event, attendees were given insights into how Germany sees the future. Dr. Peter Strohschneider, Chairman of the German Commission on the Future of Agriculture, introduced Germany’s commitments, laid out in a recent report. The conclusion: it is possible to balance diverging interests sensibly and fairly, even in particularly difficult areas.

The goal is to aim for a market-based greening of the agro food system – but it is essential to make the risks of the transformation manageable, provide planning certainties and increase farmers’ acceptance of the transformation, he said.

Ecologically responsible practices need to be economically attractive and economically successful. And while the measures envisaged would exceed currently available public finances, the transformation would cost much less than keeping the status quo.

Have you enjoyed this taster of the discussion? Then watch the full event here

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