By Mary Hearty

In an inaugural effort to address Europe’s food system sustainability and resilience in a comprehensive manner, the European Union (EU) intends to use a new policy framework known as “the Farm to Fork Strategy (F2F)” that ensures food security while having a reduced environmental and climate footprint.

The F2F aims to achieve this by promoting sustainable food production, consumption, processing and distribution, and a reduction in food loss and waste.

The aim of F2F is also supported by other Green Deal strategies, such as the Circular Economy Action Plan which targets food waste reduction and packaging; and the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 which targets pesticides and land use.

The Biodiversity Strategy is the most closely linked to the F2F as they share some specific targets. These include reducing fertilizer by 20%; halving the use and risk of chemical pesticides and antimicrobial drugs; bringing back at least 10% of land under high-diversity landscape features; halving food waste; and placing 25% of agricultural land under organic farming.

“In promoting the transition to a more sustainable European food system, the F2F and Biodiversity Strategy could unintentionally and indirectly generate negative impacts on food systems outside Europe, especially in Africa and Asia including greater food insecurity, higher greenhouse gas emissions and increased biodiversity loss,” policy experts say.

Koen Dekeyser, Junior Policy Officer, and Sean Woolfrey, Senior Policy Officer in the Economic and Agricultural Transformation programme at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) said in a policy brief titled: A greener Europe at the expense of Africa? Why the EU must address the external implications of the Farm to Fork Strategy?

Furthermore, the EU aims to ensure all food placed in the European market adhere to high standards and to accompany European requirements with efforts to raise sustainability standards globally.

With reference to recent studies, achieving those targets could deliver significant environmental benefits for the EU’s food system, including reduced greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions at the expense of reducing European agricultural production by 12%. These commodities include: cereals, oilseeds, dairy cows, beef, pork and poultry.

With regards to food insecurity,  Dekeyser and Woolfrey explained that since most of the benefits of the F2F arise from reduced production, the EU will be forced to export fewer commodities and increase imports if their demands do not decline in Europe.

Following such shifts, the authors explained that it could contribute to higher global food prices because the EU is the largest exporter and second largest importer of agricultural products.

“These higher prices would occur for products that experience a significant decline in EU exports, but also for other products that experience declining production as producers globally shift their production to fill the European supply gap,” the authors stated.

Although, they further described that higher food prices would be beneficial to the rural producers who are mostly necessitous as it can reduce poverty but the consumers would face food insecurity.

Additionally, countries which heavily depend on food imports might become food insecure due to the higher food prices resulting from European’s low production especially in Africa and Asia.

In Africa, while the world will demand much more food by 2050, this demand is expected to rise as it already suffers from high levels of food insecurity and hunger.

With its high level of poverty, a rapidly growing population and an increasing resilience on food imports, Africa remains vulnerable to global food price increases.

Regarding increased greenhouse gas emissions, the authors noted that studies predict that decreased agricultural production in the EU would lead to increased production in place like Africa, Asia and Latin America.

For Africa in particular, this means that most of the uncultivated arable land, largely under forest cover would be utilized to improve agricultural productivity as it holds great potential to expand agricultural production.

Consequently, many of the environmental benefits of the F2F and Biodiversity Strategy would be undermined including higher greenhouse gas emissions from increasing agricultural production outside the EU.

Evidence shows that the emission intensities of agricultural products vary strongly across the world. Food produced in Africa, Asia and Latin America generally has a higher greenhouse gas emissions footprints than the equivalent product produced in Europe.

For instance, producing one kilogram of chicken emits 1.14kg of greenhouse gas in Africa, 0.8kg in Asia, 0.4kg in South America and only 0.3kg in Europe.

Yet the F2F and Biodiversity Strategy are poised to reduce European production of food for which Europe has a lower emissions footprint than Africa, Asia and Latin America

Regarding biodiversity loss, the authors stated that expansion of agriculture in biodiversity hotspots around the equator could far outweigh the potential biodiversity gains in Europe achieved by the F2F and Biodiversity Strategy such as reducing pesticide use and promoting more high diversity landscape features.

Already, agricultural expansion is the greatest threat to biodiversity globally, and this dynamic is projected to particularly impact sub-Saharan Africa.

“Meeting Africa’s food demand with more African agricultural production is likely to require agricultural expansion, with consequences for biodiversity conservation,” the authors wrote.

This is because there is more biodiversity richness around the equator and less in temperate zones like Europe and around the poles. For instance, Europe has fewer endemic mammal, bird and amphibian species compared to Africa, Asia or Latin America.

And already these species are being driven to extinction. Agricultural expansion will further drive extinction as well. Therefore, they should be higher priority for conservation and restoration efforts more than Europe.

With these reasons, the authors called for the need to focus on underlying threats to biodiversity by supporting regional and international trade to meet increasing food demand and enabling sufficient non-farm livelihoods too.

Additionally, they suggested that the EU to invest more in research and technologies that would boost productivity sustainably thereby counteracting declining production resulting from S2S and Biodiversity Strategy.

Nevertheless, the authors noted that following historical trends, such investments can take decades to materialize in productivity improvements.

Beyond trying to limit negative indirect impacts, they encouraged the EU to take steps to assess and monitor the global impact of the two policy frameworks.

To mitigate potential negative impacts outside Europe, they advised the EU to adopt policies and promote investments that encourage and support other countries to transition to more resilient and sustainable food systems, noting that the EU has many tools at its disposal to do that.

In addition, they encouraged the EU to promote more private and public investments in sustainable food systems around the world through the use of blended finance instruments to encourage private investments in partner countries that are likely to improve the sustainability of the food systems in those countries.

In seeking to ensure coherence between the F2F’s European and global sustainability ambitions, the EU need to dedicate special efforts to support African countries to improve the resilience and sustainability of their food systems.

Although comprehensive policy frameworks like the F2F and Biodiversity Strategy that support more sustainable food systems are urgently needed to safeguard planetary and human health, the EU also need to take into account how the European food system interacts with other food systems when designing a comprehensive food policy, in order to mitigate unintended negative impacts outside its borders and achieve real sustainability gains worldwide.