When the European Commission (the EU’s executive arm) unveiled the “Farm to Fork” (often referred to as F2F) strategy in May 2020, the repercussions of the years to come were unknown. Brussels laid out an ambitious roadmap for agricultural reform: reducing land use, severe cuts in synthetic crop protection, reduction in synthetic fertilizers and boosting organic production.
Three years later, the strategy at the heart of the European Green Deal faces stark opposition, even from within. The commission’s agriculture commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, has said he thinks F2F unfairly disadvantages Eastern European member states. And farm lobbies oppose the plans based on feasibility. In arguing for pausing the F2F, President Emmanuel Macron of France said, “Europe cannot afford to produce less.”
Arguably, the commission has been surprised by two events that will continue to shake Europe: the COVID-19 pandemic and the incurred recovery spending, and the war in Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia are large food exporters to the European Union, which relies on them for everything from fertilizers to non-GMO animal feed. However, the commission also failed to deliver on impact assessments. While a U.S. Department of Agriculture study found the Farm-to-Fork strategy would shrink Europe’s food trade and even GDP, Brussels faced criticism from European Parliament lawmakers who claimed its impact assessments were delayed and overly optimistic.
The flagship legislative cornerstones of F2F are stuck in inter-governmental dispute: the reduction of chemical pesticides pins farm-heavy member countries against the commission; Italy rejects the EU’s approach on food labeling, which it believes discriminates against the Mediterranean diet; and EU trade partners take issue with the planned animal welfare rules.
On trade, Europe is opening itself up to battles at the level of the World Trade Organization because it also requires trade partners to start imposing agricultural regulation that mirrors its own. African nations have pointed out that EU food rules unjustly discriminate against foreign imports.
The baseline for F2F is the precautionary principle, a legal doctrine that has imposed the strictest food standards on European farming. While this system appears cautious on its surface, it has also prevented European farmers from using modern technological advances in their work. Take gene editing: as CRISPR-Cas9 technology revolutionizes foodstuffs in the United States, Canada and Brazil, it remains banned in the EU under precautionary rules. Producers would have to disprove all eventual negative side-effects before getting market access.
Contrary to risk-based analyses, this is what scientists refer to as hazard-based risk assessments. Hazard, in this context, refers to the possibility of doing harm, while risk refers to the probability that it will. This approach has led to the ban of many chemical pesticides authorized for use in the United States.
EU rules on greenhouse gas emissions have also angered farmers across the continent. Last summer, Dutch farmers descended on the cities to protest nitrous oxide reduction targets. Nitrous oxide and methane emissions are byproducts of livestock, for instance, when manure decomposes — an effect Dutch authorities are trying to avoid by buying farmers out of their livestock business.
Agricultural expos these days flaunt high-tech solutions: smart sprayers, drones, and AI-powered data analysis. New breeding technologies allow plant breeders to create efficient and resource-saving crops, meaning that we produce more with less, effectively surpassing peak agricultural land use.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Innovation Agenda has made innovation a prime target for biodiversity and sustainability gains. Meanwhile, Europe feels the weight of an agricultural policy that essentially asks farmers to cease their professions to protect the environment — an approach that is coming to haunt it as international trade and losses in purchasing power lay bare the vulnerabilities of our food systems.