With its new “Farm to Fork” strategy, the European Commission has at last presented the two final, long-awaited pillars of its Green Deal: those dealing with agricultural policy and biodiversity. On the pretext of seeking to defend “sustainable growth”, Ursula von der Leyen’s team is proposing a rather extensive project of economic degrowth, one which appears to be a carbon copy of the program put forward by the most radical wing of political ecology.
Reducing the means of production
Riding the Covid-19 wave, which is now invoked alongside global warming as the new pretext for any change, the Commission is looking to “prevent the appearance of future epidemics”. As such, it has committed to reduce agricultural land use by 10% under the guise of loss of biodiversity, despite Covid-19 having originated… in China! They have also set a goal of converting 25% of agricultural land use to organic production, a number which today stands at 7.5%. This will leave less and less arable land for essential food production for the majority of European consumers who do not frequent organic grocery stores, which are exceedingly popular in major urban centres.
And that’s not all! The Commission has also committed to drastically reducing the means of production, including a 50% reduction in “the use of pesticides and their associated risks”, at least a 20% reduction in the use of fertilizers, and a 50% reduction in the sale of antimicrobials used in animal farming and aquaculture. As it has remained silent on the role of new varietal selection tools (particularly genome editing), it is difficult to imagine how European agriculture could become more autonomous and meet the stated priorities of “European food sovereignty”.
This has not gone unnoticed by major French crop producers (AGPB, AGPM, CGB, and FOP), who, in a joint press release, declared that “this strategy may result in a 30% decrease in the average volume of cereals, oilseed crops, and sugar beets”, highlighting an even larger decrease due to loss of quality and increased health risks.
Produce less: this is the Commission’s new motto, which seems to ignore the fact that while China has stockpiled a year’s worth of grain for its population, and Russia and the United States maintain a strategic 6-month food supply, the European Union only has enough to feed its population for… 45 days! Contrary to what they would have us believe, Ursula von der Leyen’s team does not seem to have learned anything from the coronavirus crisis.
Regulating the food on our plates
With regard to its “Farm to Fork” strategy, which is meant to “ensure a transition to a sustainable food system which guarantees food security and access to a healthy diet produced on a healthy planet”, one cannot help criticize the picture it draws. Must we recall that the current European agricultural model is already among the most respectful of the environment and the planet, and that it produces the cleanest food in the history of humanity?
In reality, the Commission’s proposal errs in suggesting that store shelves are full of “junk food”, when by definition, all food products consumed in Europe must meet standards of quality and hygiene that require them to be “sound, genuine and merchantable”. And another eleven regulatory requirements are added to these standards, concerning the information displayed on labels (specifically the origin, list and quantity of certain ingredients, expiration date, operator identification, manufacturing lot number, and nutrition facts). European consumers are therefore already guaranteed all the information they need for healthy eating, if not more than they can make sense of. Expanding this list of labelling requirements will not enable consumers to better feed themselves.
A good example of this is the supposed dispute surrounding the Nutri-Score labelling system, a drama worthy of the Commedia dell’arte. Its supporters swear by organic and ‘natural’ foods, while certain major industrial groups have made a show of opposing it, despite knowing full well they stand to profit from the market segmentation it creates. A knowledge of the algorithms on which the Nutri-Score is based – algorithms which some suspect of favouring certain foods – makes it possible to swing the colour closer to green by replacing one or two ingredients… not too difficult of an exercise for the major agro-industry companies (1).
In fact, the main issue with a Nutri-Score type labelling system is that associating a colour or grade with each product does nothing to help consumers improve their overall nutrition. Professor Philippe Legrand, director of the Biochemical Human Nutrition laboratory at the Agrocampus-Inserm in Rennes and former expert for the French health agency Anses, explains this perfectly, highlighting that “there are no bad foods”. Rather, they are all more or less unbalanced: “oil is 100% fat; a fish or chicken muscle is nearly all protein; pasta is basically 100% carbohydrates in the form of starch, etc.”. He notes that “it is up to the consumer to create a balanced menu by picking and choosing from these unbalanced foods using common sense and their knowledge of nutrition.”
The most effective way of improving nutritional quality is therefore to educate consumers from a young age by implementing weekly cooking classes at school, in order for students to learn the importance of balancing their nutrition themselves. Certain EU countries, such as Denmark, have already been doing this for a number of years.
Any other labelling attempts that propose “preconceived” ideas about a product are mere illusions, with standardisation across Europe made impossible by the need to respect each country’s unique nutritional situation.
To conclude, the Commission should stay in its lane, namely harmonising “health” claims made about the safety of products. These should remain the same across every European country, per the directives of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), as it is the only legitimate source for substantiating statements about the “healthiness” of a product. This is what forced the Danone group to cease advertising the supposed “benefits” of its Actimel and Activia brands.
(1) After fervently opposing the Nutri-Score for some time, certain groups are now ardent supporters of it.
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Thank you, Gil, for a blistering takedown of these ‘band-aid’ initiatives that offer precisely nothing in the pursuit of meaningful progress. Nutri-Score is a naive approach to a complex problem and provides little beyond a false sense of comfort (although, strangely, perhaps more so to regulators than to consumers). And, as you say, it’s also wide open to manipulation. Basic principles of nutrition simply ought to be a bigger part of curriculums across Europe and North America. It should not be considered unfashionable or outdated to raise our children with this in mind. As for the head-spinning agricultural policies of the European Commission, there’s so much to be said… I certainly couldn’t do a better job of picking the logic apart though, but suffice to say, I’m firmly in agreement!