Is the EU stepping away from commitments to sustainable food systems and animal welfare?

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

It is not what President von der Leyen said in her State of the Union address, but what she didn't say, that has raised alarm bells for environmental advocates. GettyImages/Aneduard
It is not what President von der Leyen said in her State of the Union address, but what she didn't say, that has raised alarm bells for environmental advocates. GettyImages/Aneduard

Related tags Animal welfare European commission European parliament Sustainability

In her 2023 State of the Union address this week, EC President von der Leyen made no reference to the Sustainable Food System law nor animal welfare. With some stakeholders fearing they’ve been dropped, we asked the Commission to weigh in.

In Ursula von der Leyen’s 2023 State of the European Union address, the EC President reflected on past achievements and hopes for the future.

But it is that which was not said that has raised alarm bells amongst environmental advocates, who fear focus on sustainable food systems is being pushed to one side.

Enough focus on Green Deal objectives?

Addressing the European Parliament yesterday (13 September), the president primarily focused on the health of the European economy, global market competition, continued support for Ukraine amid the Russo-Ukrainian war, and the need to develop global standards for the ‘safe and ethical use of AI’.

The European Green Deal was also praised, and the EU’s commitment to net-zero reiterated. Focus on food however largely centred around food security and praise for the agricultural sector.

“I would like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation to our farmers, to thank them for providing us with food day after day,” ​said President von der Leyen before the Parliament.

“For us in Europe, this task of agriculture – producing healthy food – is the foundation of our agricultural policy. And self-sufficiency in food is also important for us. That is what our farmers provide.”

pea farmer Image Source
President von der Leyen praised farmers and the agricultural sector for producing healthy food. GettyImages/Image Source

Any mention of the need to transition to sustainable food systems, as per the Farm to Fork Strategy under the Green Deal, was omitted.

The exclusion has been lamented by environmental advocates, including legal campaign group ClientEarth. “While von der Leyen acknowledged the importance of addressing the climate and biodiversity crises, there was no mention of crucial outstanding laws needed to achieve the Green Deal objectives. Instead, the president focused on addressing industrial interests and competitivity,” ​said head of ClientEarth Brussels office Anaïs Berther.

“With the European elections looming, von der Leyen seems to have adopted the position of a candidate. We hope it won’t make her lose focus on the need to ensure a liveable planet for future generations.”

Spotlight on the Sustainable Food Systems Framework Law

The proposal for a legislative framework for sustainable food systems (FSFS) is considered a flagship initiative of the Farm to Fork Strategy.

According to the Commission, its goal is to accelerate and make the transition to sustainable food systems easier, and ‘mainstream’ sustainability in all food-related policies and strengthen the resilience of food systems. A sustainability labelling framework also sit within the FSFS.

With the FSFS expected to be adopted by the Commission this year, some expected the framework to get a mention. It didn’t.

Others may have been less surprised. Two days before the address, the Financial Times​reported that according to ‘three EU officials with knowledge of the matter’, the Commission had dropped the sustainable food law.

“Nothing was said on the Sustainable Food System law, which is key to ensuring long-term access to healthy and sustainable food for people across the EU,” ​responded ClientEarth’s Berther to von der Leyen’s address.

“Von der Leyen worryingly echoed growing false narratives on the risks to food security and the burden on farmers’ income that would be created by new obligations.”

Slow Food, too, was ‘highly concerned’ by the ‘complete absence’ of any mention to the transition to sustainable food systems, which it stressed is a ‘major’ contributor to climate change, as well as public health and biodiversity crises.

The grassroots organisation, which campaigns for more holistic EU and farming policy to protect traditional foods and small-scale farmers, hopes the Commission’s 2024 work program will feature sustainable farming ‘explicitly’, and that President von der Leyen ‘will not completely yield to all agro-industry’s demands’.

EC: Omitting FSFS from speech does not suggest a lack of commitment

Members of the cellular agriculture and fermentation-derived foods sector also wanted to see more focus on the FSFS, which they call a ‘linchpin’ to the Farm to Fork Strategy and the European Green Deal.

The FSFS is ‘critical’ to creating the enabling conditions – ranging from regulatory pathways for novel foods, incentives and subsidies, and measurable targets – necessary for a ‘just and profitable’ transition for both conventional and innovative agri-food sectors, noted industry organisations Cellular Agriculture Europe and Food Fermentation Europe.

“We encourage you to be wary of a vocal minority that are pushing false dichotomies around transforming food systems,” ​they advised the EC President. “The Commission doesn’t have to choose between meeting climate goals and supporting rural parts of the EU, and it certainly doesn’t have to choose between conventionally produced foods from farmers and new complementary products like ours. Both can and must coexist in a climate-resilient food system.”

cultivated meat Mindful Media
Members of Cellular Agriculture Europe are concerned the FSFS wasn't mentioned, when 'enabling conditions' are required for new and old foods to flourish together. GettyImages/Mindful Media

When asked whether the EC is halting work on the FSFS, a Commission spokesperson told FoodNavigator it was, is, and continues to be ambitious for the European Green Deal and its implementation.

“It is important to stress that the fact this legislation was not mentioned in the speech does not alter the fact that the promotion of sustainable agriculture and food systems is important for the Commission.

“As mentioned in the State of the Union, agriculture and protection of the natural world can go hand in hand and we need both for the future of our planet and our prosperity.”

Is 'end the cage age' really ending?

Another sustainability focus some expected to be mentioned in the president’s State of the Union address was animal welfare – also considered an ‘integral’ part of the Farm to Fork strategy.

One particular area of interest within the broad concept of animal welfare is caged farming. In 2021, the Commission agreed to ban cages for a number of farm animals,​ including rabbits, pullets, layer breeders, broiler breeders, quail, ducks and geese. It was expected a legislative proposal would be developed by 2023, and the Commission was assessing the feasibility of working towards the ban being enforced from 2027.

The decision came in response to the European Citizens’ initiative ‘End the Cage Age’, which was not only supported by food majors Nestlé, Unilever, and Mondelēz International, but also 1.4m citizens.

President von der Leyen made no mention to animal welfare in her address, which animal welfare charity Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) takes to mean the ban has been shelved.

The same ‘three EU officials’ told the Financial Times ​the proposal – along with others related to animal welfare – had been dropped. But one other suggested to the daily business newspaper a scaled-back version would be proposed.

animal welfare Fahroni
If the Commission drops the ban on cages, it will be going back on its word. GettyImages/Fahroni

In the EU, CIWF estimates that 300m farmed animals spend all or part of their lives in cages, pens or stalls, with some hens and rabbits confined to spaces ‘about the size of an A4 sheet of paper’.

“What happened today is scandalous,” ​said CIWF EU head Olga Kikou after the speech. “The European Commission has gone back on its word to give animals a life worth living, bowing to the demands of the Big Agri lobby and killing the new animal welfare laws by delaying.

“They have betrayed the trust of its citizens and have turned EU democracy into an empty shell. Ahead of the EU elections, this will not go unnoticed in the polls.”

When asked whether the Commission was dropping plans for stricter animal welfare measures, a Commission spokesperson again said that the fact it wasn’t mentioned in the address does not alter the fact the Commission has been working very hard over the last 40 years to improve the lives of animals.

“We have adopted welfare standards in legislation that are amongst the highest in the world. Animal welfare is an important priority for the Commission,” ​we were told. “That is why, as part of its Farm to Fork Strategy, the Commission is working on the revision of the EU’s animal welfare legislation.

“We can however not give any further details regarding timing.”

To learn more about the transition towards more sustainable food systems, register here​ for our free-to-attend Climate Smart Food​ digital event 19-21 September.

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