What does the farm-to-fork strategy mean for the future of food in Europe?

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/richterfoto
Image: Getty/richterfoto

Related tags Farm to fork

After a two-month delay, the EU Commission unveiled its Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategy this week with the aim of creating a more ‘robust, secure, and sustainable food system’.

According to the Commission this is the “first time in the history of EU food policy that we propose a comprehensive agenda for all stages of food production”.

It lists 27 measures (many still subject to further studies, consultations, and other impact assessments) which it says will pave the way for greener food production, healthier and more sustainable diets, and less food waste.

These include:

  • A proposal for harmonised mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling to enable consumers to make health conscious food choices (by Q4 2022)
  • A proposal to require origin indication for certain products (by Q4 2022)
  • Nutrient profiles to restrict the use of nutrition and health claims on food that is high in salt, sugar and/or fat (by Q4 2022)
  • Initiatives to stimulate reformulation of processed food, including the setting of maximum levels for certain nutrients (by Q4 2021)
  • A revised EU legislation on Food Contact Materials to improve food safety, ensure consumers’ health and reduce the environmental footprint of the sector (by Q4 2022)
  • A proposal for a sustainable food labelling framework to empower consumers to make sustainable food choices (by 2024).

The strategy sets concrete targets to reach by 2030, including a 50% cut in the use and risk of pesticides, a 20% cut in the use of fertilizers, a 50% reduction in sales of antimicrobials used for farmed animals and aquaculture, and a target to increase the size of EU's agricultural land dedicated to organic farming to at least 25%.

In terms of food waste, the Commission is considering options to simplify date marking on foodstuffs and to promote better understanding and use of date marking among manufactures and consumers. The revised Waste Framework Directive​ adopted on 30 May 2018, for example, calls on the EU countries to reduce food waste at each stage of the food supply chain, monitor food waste levels and report back regarding progress made. It also requires EU countries to prepare food waste prevention programmes (as a part of general waste prevention programmes) and encourage food donation.

Concrete plans in line with the EU's biodiversity and climate neutrality ambitions include targets for planting at least 3 billion additional trees in the EU by 2030.

The Commission said that in order “to provide space for wild animals, plants, pollinators and natural pest regulators, there is an urgent need to bring back at least 10% of agricultural area under high-diversity landscape features”.

GettyImages JoaBal
Farm to Fork strategy supports biodiversity in agriculture ©GettyImages/JoaBal

Supporting jobs and biodiversity 

FoodDrinkEurope, which represents the European food and drink industry, said it supported the Commission’s ambition for ‘our food systems to become the gold standard for sustainability’.

Director General Mella Frewen said: “While the food supply chain has shown resilience throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by providing consumers with continued access to safe, nutritious and affordable food and drink products, this resilience must be further enhanced to prepare for other significant challenges on our doorstep, notably climate change.”

On diversity, FDE’s Environment Director Laura Degallaix said: “We are committed, more than ever, to working closely with our supply chain partners to enhance biodiversity and contribute to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. We are also fully committed to eliminating deforestation and to ensuring that food raw materials are sustainably sourced within and beyond European borders. Crucially, we call on EU lawmakers to develop a policy environment that can support both biodiversity and jobs – leaving no one behind.”

Farmers warn on organic cost squeeze 

GettyImages-dmaroscar farm labourer agricultural worker
Farmers worry the push for organic - and higher costs associated - won't be reflected in food prices / ©GettyImages-dmaroscar

Farmers, however, warned it was unrealistic to want organic food produced at conventional prices.  

Tim Cullinan, President of the Irish Farmers’ Association, said: “It is not credible for the EU to drive up production costs for European farmers while at the same time looking for low food prices. They want food produced to organic standards, but available at conventional prices.

“It is likely that farmers will end up paying through higher costs and low prices while retailers will continue to make billions.”

He added: “The EU wants ever-increasing standards imposed on European farmers, but will do trade deals to import food from other countries which have much lower standards and do not meet EU rules

“These EU strategies could be counterproductive as they we will drive European farmers out of business, leaving the EU dependent on these imports and threatening food security​,” he said.

Plant-based push proves controversial 

Cullinan also took aim at the Commission’s focus on plant-based based diets which he claimed risked ignoring farmers’ efforts in supporting biodiversity.

The review of how the EU can use its promotion programme to support the most sustainable, carbon-efficient methods of livestock production is something that should favour our grass-based system if it’s assessed fairly,”​ he said.

“One positive is an acknowledgment that farmers deserve credit for carbon they are already storing and sequestering on their farms. Farmers do this through their grassland, crops and hedges which also contribute hugely to biodiversity.”

Flora plant-based butter alternative Pic - Upfield
Upfield is expanding its range of plant-based products ©Upfield

Dutch-based plant-based consumer product company Upfield, meanwhile, which makes the likes of Flora, Rama, Blue Band, ProActiv, Becel, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and Country Crock, complained that Commission’s move to encourage a shift towards healthier, more sustainable diets was still undermined by regulatory barriers.

The Farm to Fork Strategy’s commendable focus on supporting heathy, sustainable consumer choice highlights that we must end the senseless ban on terms like “soya milk,” “plant butter” or “veggie burgers” for foods that are better for the planet and for human health,” ​said Dr Jeanette Fielding, Chief Corporate Affairs and Communications Officer.

Front-of-pack labelling but no Nutri-Score commitment 

One surprise in the announcement was the Commission’s failure to commit to Nutri-Score.

“We are proposing a mandatory front of pack nutrition label,” said ​European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides. She added: “We will not be recommending any specific type of front-of-pack scheme… going forward we will be launching an impact assessment on the different types of front-of-pack labelling.”

FDE’s Deputy Director General Dirk Jacobs urged the Commission to formulate a single labelling system across member states.

“Today's report demonstrates that a variety of approaches to FOP nutrition labelling continue to exist across the EU​,” he said. “Acknowledging the possible co-existence of schemes on the EU market for the time being, we strongly appeal to the Commission and Member States to avoid further proliferation of national schemes while working towards a single, harmonised, voluntary FOP nutrition labelling system in the EU."

Large food brands – including Danone and Nestlé – alongside supermarket retailers have previously rallied behind the mandatory adoption of Nutri-Score across the bloc​. 

However, not everyone agrees that Nutri-Score is the best approach to FOP labelling. Prof Frederic Leroy, Professor of Food Science and biotechnology at Vrije Universiteit, Brussels, and a long opponent of Nutri-Score on the grounds that it discriminates against ostensibly ‘healthy’ foods with a high saturated fat content, such as canned fish and olive oil, welcome the fact that Nutri-Score will not be imposed as a ‘mandatory top-down fop label throughout the EU’.

Instead of an 'impact assessment', he called for ‘a robust evaluation of how such labels reflect true nutritional value’.

“Reducing complex nutritional information to an ‘almost puerile coloured-letter scheme, based on a couple of cherry-picked criteria, is not only based on shaky scientific premises,” ​he told FoodNavigator, “it can also cause confusion and harm”.

Among the many ‘absurd outcomes of Nutri-Score’, he said, include “depicting such foods as canned sardines and traditional cheeses as mostly unhealthy, whereas some of the ultra-processed foods come out as winners, as long as they are made with sugar and fat replacers or have added fibre, etc. Nutriscore can thus serve as tool for healthwashing by multinational companies, but I don't see how this would ever benefit the public. Or lead to healthier diets for that matter.”

Nesquik Nutri-Score Pic - Nestle
Nestlé and other food giants back Nutri-Score / Pic: ©Nestlé

Italy’s food industry association Federalimentare has been another long critic of Nutri-Score, which it believes victimises its famous food delicacies such as Parma ham and Parmiagiano cheese. Its president, Ivano Vacondio, called the move not to yet roll out Nutri-Score: "Double success for Italy and for Federalimentare which has fought in several locations, Germany included, to promote a balanced lifestyle and a labeling system based on a balanced diet without demonizing any product.”

But the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), the Brussels-based consumers' group, made up of 45 European consumer organisations from 32 countries, and backer of Nutri-Score, criticised the move.

“We are glad the EU Commission has made it clear that it plans to propose a mandatory front-of-pack nutritional label. But why wait until the end of 2022 to kick off talks for an EU-wide label? Numerous studies have proven Nutri-Score is the label consumers understand best and six EU countries have already endorsed it,”​ said Monique Goyens, BEUC’s Director General.

She said that relying on individual consumer choice alone will not be enough to change food habits if the healthy and sustainable option is insufficiently available or the most expensive one.

“It is encouraging that the Strategy pinpoints measures to improve product recipes and foster more responsible marketing and advertising, but we need them to be binding. Codes of conduct, pledges and other self-regulation tools have proven toothless in making the healthy and sustainable choice the easy one for consumers​.

“Consumers should no longer be misled by claims which disguise sugar-laden snacks or yoghurts as healthy options. It was high time the Commission finally committed to preventing claims – such as ‘boosts your immune system’ and ‘high in fibre’ – from appearing on unhealthy foods.1 It is all the more relevant today when overweight or obese people run higher risks to develop diseases such as diabetes and cancer, but also complications from diseases such as COVID-19.”

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