EU mulling trade barriers for unsustainable food imports: ‘The EU alone will not save the planet’

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImages/Oleg Elkov
GettyImages/Oleg Elkov

Related tags Farm to fork European commission

The EU is working to clean up its own food supply chain, from farm to fork. But is this enough? MEPs raise concerns that accepting imports of unsustainable agri-food products is ‘inconsistent’ and ‘unethical’.

The European Union has pledged to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.  To get there, the Commission is implementing a handful of strategies under its Green Deal.

These cover biodiversity, industry, the circular economy, and the most relevant for those in the agri-food sector: The Farm to Fork (F2F) Strategy.

MEPs have raised concerns that even if the EU achieves a sustainable food system, accepting imports from third countries that do not have their houses in order, would ‘undermine sustainability’. Is realizing a sustainable food system across the bloc enough?

Does the Farm to Fork Strategy go far enough?

The F2F Strategy sets concrete targets to reach by 2030. These include a 50% reduction in the use and risk of pesticides, a 20% cut in the use of fertilizers, and a 50% reduction in sales of antimicrobials used for farmed animals and aquaculture.

The strategy also challenges the agricultural sector to increase the size of land dedicated to organic farming by at least 25%. Combatting food waste is also on the agenda.

However, according to MEP Anja Hazekamp, a member of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) and F2F Rapporteur, the strategy could go further.

“I was very happy when the F2F Strategy was published by the European Commission last year. Finally, a much needed first step to create a sustainable food system that is brought in line with planetary boundaries and that produces, at the same time, healthy and nutritious food,” ​she told delegates at a European Food Forum (EFF) event last week.

“But we still have a long way to go,” ​she said, stressing that the “targets in the F2F Strategy could go even further”.

Globally, food and farming systems are thought to contribute up to 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In the EU, agriculture is responsible for at least 90% of all ammonia emissions – which has been associated with biodiversity loss and air pollution.

The use of pesticides and fertilizers by the agricultural sector is also a known threat to biodiversity and pollinator populations.

“The environmental impact of the European food system is not only limited to Europe, it’s visible all over the world,” ​stressed Hazekamp.

“More than 30% of the lands that we require to meet our EU food demands is located outside of Europe.”

The EU is a major importer of soy, for example. According to the Commission, the EU imports about 14 million tonnes of soybeans annually to feed chicken, pigs and cattle, as well as for milk production.

“These [imports] are not even to feed humans,” ​said the MEP, adding that soy production is one of the ‘main drivers of deforestation in South America’. “It’s not for human consumption, but used to feed the seven billion farm animals that we keep and slaughter every year in the EU.”

soy Oleksandr Yuchynskyi
The EU imports about 14 million tonnes of soybeans per year. GettyImages/Oleksandr Yuchynskyi

Such high level of soy imports does not sit well with Hazekamp, who suggested reducing animal breeding could be one solution to reducing the EU’s direct and indirect carbon footprint. “Since the EU imports almost a quarter of globally produced soy, I think it is high time that we take responsibility and stop breeding more animals than we can feed.”

Trade agreements and ‘deterrent measures’

Ultimately, for Hazekamp, if EU citizens want to support their farmers, they “have to say no to trade agreements that allow food produced at lower standards…to be imported”.

MEP and EFF co-founder Irene Tolleret agrees. While acknowledging that the F2F Strategy’s targets on pesticides, fertilizers, antimicrobials, and organic products present a ‘very important challenge’, Tolleret is pushing for a ‘more coherent’ approach between the EU’s environmental and food safety legislation and a trade policy.

“We cannot prolong for too [long] the import into the EU of products from third countries treated which pesticides which are banned from the EU,” ​she told delegates at the EFF event. “And we cannot ban the use of certain [substances] while allowing their export to third countries.

“We need to be consistent. And this is not only inconsistent, it’s also unethical.”

It is also hoped that trade bans could play a key role in encouraging ecological transition.

The UK is currently considering legislation that would see larger businesses fined for using forest-risk commodities – such as palm oil, soy, and beef – that have not been produced according to relevant local laws.

deforestation brazil Phototreat
Germany plans to pass a supply chain act this year that would require companies to adhere to human rights and environmental protections. GettyImages/Phototreat

Germany is another country looking to take the lead on such commitments. In August last year, the German Federal Government said it plans to pass a supply chain act in 2021 that will create binding regulations requiring companies to adhere to human rights and environmental protections.

MEP Tolleret is supportive of such legislation. “I would like to stress that the EU alone will not save the planet.

“Therefore, we should promote the ecological transition of third countries by [leading by] example and introducing certain deterrent measures, such as the ban of agricultural products imported to the EU from deforested areas.”

Are deterrent trade measures on the EU’s agenda? According to Humberto Delgado Rosa, Director for Natural Capital, DG ENVI, imports are being considered by the Commission.

“There is a commitment in the Green Deal that we will strive coherently with the World Trade Organization to make trade policy [that] also delivers for sustainability.

“We can understand that if we had standards in Europe that are undermined by imports with no consideration [for sustainability], that will be a problem. So just watch what we may bring [in] on deforestation that may, hopefully, pave the way for a process…which tackles our imports [without undermining] sustainability.”

EC: ‘A global transition is needed’

In response to MEPs’ comments on helping to clean up third countries’ food supply chains, the Director of Food Sustainability, International Relations, at DG SANTE, Nathalie Chaze, said the Commission is looking beyond the bloc’s borders.

“Of course, the F2F Strategy does not only set a vision of how we change how we produce in Europe and consume food in Europe. It also recognises that a global transition is needed.

“This cannot be achieved if the EU acts alone, we are fully aware,” ​she reassured delegates.

However, Chaze stressed it is important not to associate the global transition to a sustainable food system with the configuration of imports alone. “I think the objective and the challenge we are facing is global. It’s one planet [and] we all have to contribute to the efforts.”

Indeed, this is what the Commission is currently working on, she revealed. “We are trying to forge partnerships to respond to different challenges in different parts of the world.

“We will also seek international cooperation on research and innovation, because innovation is a key and central element of the F2F Strategy. This is part of [our outreach] vis-à-vis third countries, to convince [them] of the importance of a global transition to sustainable food systems.”

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