The ambitious targets of the F2F strategy will cause headaches for the EU’s trade policy.

The European Commission has laid out an ambitious plan with the Farm to Fork strategy, which is set to flip agriculture in Europe upside down. For the EU, agriculture is to blame for much of the lack of sustainability in Europe, forcing farmers to pick up much of the burden of the fight against climate change. To do so, it sets out two flagship targets: 25% organic farming by 2030, and a reduction of pesticides by 50% in the same timeframe.

Some experts have pointed out the adverse effects of bringing organic food production up, since a) organic food also needs pesticides, and b) it emits more carbon dioxide emissions than conventional agriculture. The same goes for pesticides: the amount of pesticides used today is incomparable to the level of substances used in the 1960s. Existing chemical substances are declared safe by EU agencies, and countless regulators in the member states. However, those facts are stories in themselves. What is often forgotten in the debate is the import of “unsustainable” food.

On the one hand, Europe’s increasing food standards worsen the effect of illicit trade. Take the example of fraudulent organic food imports. In its 2019 report titled “The control system for organic products has improved, but some challenges remain“, the European Court of Auditors found structural problems with the control system of organic food trade, despite controls being implemented in 1991.

 In a section on the communication on non-compliance, the ECA writes:

“In Bulgaria, we found that some control bodies notified the competent authority about certain types of non-compliances only through their annual reporting. The competent authority did not notice this during its supervisory activities. In Czechia, we found that on average control bodies took 33 days in 2016 and 55 days in 2017 to report a non-compliance affecting the organic status of a product to the competent authority.” 

The report also notes that non-compliance communication delays are 38 calendar days on average in the European Union, while existing regulations stipulate that reporting should happen without delay. This means that non-compliant organic products, i.e. fraudulent organic trade, continue a month on average in the legal circulation of the European single market, before being flagged to consumers. 

If the European Union and its member states are serious about quality control and consumer information and protection, they need detection and reporting mechanisms that outperform the supply chain. The ECA also notes that member states were delayed in their reporting to the European Commission by an average of 4 months and that 50% of all analysed reports were missing information. China is the largest exporter of organic food to the European Union (based on weight, 2018 figures, from ECA report, see below). With significant difficulties concerning quality control of a large range of products originating from China, it should be clear that EU institutions must prioritise the authenticity of these food imports.

Further than that, legal imports will also eventually fall under the category of unsustainable under the rules and regulations of the European Union. This is already leading to a considerable problem with the adoption of the Mercosur-EU free trade agreement, and has in the past prevented agreements like TTIP. Europe will face a difficult choice: double down on the planned standards, and thereby risking to raise protectionist barriers, or even create food insecurity, or rather re-evaluate the necessity for certain environmental goals. 

Some voices want the first option, and prevent unsustainable imports through carbon border taxes, which are import tariffs. They forget to ask themselves, if production in Europe has slowed, will prevention imports really be the solution that manages to keep farming in Europe afloat?

The targets set in the Farm to Fork strategy are set to have dire impacts. According to an impact assessment conducted by USDA, the strategy would lead to a decline in agricultural production between 7-12%. Meanwhile, the EU’s decline in GDP would represent 76% of the decline in the worldwide GDP. Adding to that, the situation of food security and food commodity prices deteriorates significantly under a worldwide adoption scenario, as USDA researchers have found.

Europe should not get ahead of itself and worsen the standards of living for consumers and farmers alike. The Farm to Fork strategy either needs a serious rethink or a long-term moratorium.

Originally published here.



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