EU must provide new direction for bloc’s farmers amid collapsing Farm to Fork

Two weeks after new EU Green Deal chief Maroš Šefčovič swerved questions from MEPs on the timeline for Brussels’s pending sustainable food policy proposals, a leaked Commission agenda has provided the feared answer.

Exposed on 16 October, the EU executive’s 2024 work programme reveals that none of the remaining files under the ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy – the Green Deal’s agri-food pillar – have made the cut, confirming growing doubts over whether proposals would emerge before next June’s European elections. While just one of four animal welfare proposals – concerning  protection during transport – is set to see the light of day by year-end, the Commission’s long-awaited food labelling proposal is completely omitted.

Moreover, a potential rightward shift at the 2024 poll could mark the final nail in Farm to Fork’s coffin. The Commission should thus capitalise on November’s much-touted “strategic dialogue” on the future of EU agriculture to launch a new direction, using flexible policymaking and locally-driven alliances to help consumers improve their dietary choices while supporting farmers’ competitiveness.

Food origin label stalling

One of three components of the stalled harmonised food labelling proposal, the EU-wide country of origin label is among the Farm to Fork policies facing an uncertain future.

In early October, Austrian farming associations sent a joint open letter to the Commission calling for a mandatory origin label, stressing that “the consumer deserves clarity and freedom of choice just as much as the farmer deserves fairer competition.” Along with Germany – which recently adopted a national origin label for its meat products – Austria has actively pushed for the origin label in recent years, joining a group of other countries including France, Spain and Greece, which have already introduced their own schemes for certain dairy, meat and wheat products.

Proponents have posited that the label would help confirm food quality, boost transparency and support producers’ competitiveness, notably through enhancing marketing efforts and balancing the competition costs of meeting high environmental standards. What’s more, the Eat Original citizens’ initiative has highlighted that origin labelling helps protect food systems from fraud and safety issues that undermine the single market and damage national economies, while French farmer and member Arnold Peuch d’Alissac asserts that it creates “value and trust for the consumer.”

As the transport component of the animal welfare proposal has shown, Brussels can put forward individual policies from broader packages, so the Commission should progress the origin label to meet the diverse needs of EU farmers and consumers.

Nutrition label blocking progress

Indeed, the Commission’s stagnating, misguided proposal for a bloc-wide, front-of-package (FOP) nutrition label – another pillar of the EU’s wider labelling proposal – should be separated from the much-needed origin label. While the FOP label aims to tackle the continent’s worryingly deteriorating obesity epidemic, which now affects one in three children according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), this polarising debate shows no signs of providing a viable solution.

France’s controversial Nutri-Score label – also backed by countries including Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands – has been the main point of contention, with its range of shortcomings drawing strong opposition in Romania, Poland, Greece and Spain, amongst others. Criticism of Nutri-Score has targeted its unbalanced algorithm, which disproportionately weighs “negative” contents of salt, sugar and sodium per 100g/ml serving in grading products on an A-to-E scale – notably without factoring in realistic portion sizes, wider macro-nutritional benefits or their place within a broader diet.

These flaws not only threaten the competitiveness of protected designation of origin (PDO) cheese and cured ham producers, but even growers of French prunes, whose natural sugar is penalised while artificial sweetener-filled Coca-Cola Light is rewarded, as Dr. Hab. Mariusz Panczyk of the Medical University of Warsaw (MUW) has pointed out. Last year, Dr. Panczyk and MUW colleagues published a report involving 75 nutritional science experts which concludes that Nutri-Score fails to support consumers in maintaining a healthy, balanced diet.

What’s more, in early October, local Polish media reported that a petition had been addressed to the President of the Office of Competition and Consumer Protection to intervene against the system’s implementation. National competition authorities in Romania and Italy have already banned Nutri-Score to safeguard consumers, reflecting a growing trend of rejection in EU countries, as Dr. Daniel Śliż, president of the Polish Society of Lifestyle Medicine, has recently noted. Even in Nutri-Score’s home country, Dr. Pascal Goncalves has written that making the label mandatory “would risk creating confusion and the false impression that nutritional education is neither necessary nor a priority.”

Locally-driven partnerships the way forward

Both the origin and nutrition label debates underscore Europeans’ growing desire for a more direct connection with their food system, as well as the need to place education at the heart of efforts to guide societies back towards a more organic relationship with food – particularly given the worrying picture in younger generations.

Even Spain – long hailed as a bastion of healthy eating and the Mediterranean Diet – now features among the hardest hit by childhood obesity, as highlighted at a Spanish EU Council Presidency-hosted meeting in Palma on 16-17 October. This high-level conference crucially highlighted obesity’s complex nature, with former NBA start and President of the Gasol Foundation, Pau Gasol, using his spot on the closing panel to call for cross-sector alliances and preventative action.

Guided by a mission to end childhood obesity, the Gasol Foundation offers a promising way forward, with its collaborative, multi-dimensional and community empowerment-based approach highly scalable across the EU. By collaborating with all levels of government, the private sector and voluntary sectors and local community facilities – particularly in low-income areas – the bloc’s public health NGOs can maximise local impact, from delivering nutritional and cooking classes for young people and families to introducing healthy food markets with local products in food deserts and improving access to physical activity spaces within communities.

Combining a more flexible policy-making approach with stronger support for multi-faceted, place-based food system interventions would enable Brussels to transcend its current agri-food impasse. With farmers increasingly threatened by climate change and economic pressures, consumers facing rising obesity and highly-consequential elections just months away, the EU must start laying the foundations for a new, future-fit vision.

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