23rd Mar 2018


EU shuns environmental impact of food at Milan Expo

  • The Milan Expo: a great place to taste food, but the environmental impact of agriculture remains largely untouched. (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The EU will take a “more holistic approach” to its policies related to food when it presents its circular economy strategy later this year, but at the Milan Expo, where food is the main theme, the environmental impact of food appeared to be taboo.

The Milan Expo, which opened on 1 May, is the latest in a series of world fairs, the first of which took place in the United Kingdom in 1851.

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  • The EU pavilion (r), with the Tree of Life - one of the at the Milan Expo's notable structures - in the background. (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The fairs are a place for countries to showcase their technological, social, or economic development, in pavilions of sometimes extraordinary architecture. Some Expos have produced famous landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris (1889) and the Atomium in Brussels (1958).

At the event, the EU commission organised a seminar in which the acting director general of the commission's health and food safety division, Ladislav Miko, said “the circular economy approach, or framework, will be a kind of seed” of a broader EU food policy, which could include the environmental aspect.

In recent years, several reports from the Netherlands, Finland, and the UK, have called on European governments to shift from separate agricultural and environmental policies to a comprehensive sustainable food policy.

But even though this year's world fair, or Expo, in Milan has as a theme Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, many of the countries' representations, including the EU's, tiptoed around the link between the environment and food, and shied away from giving concrete consumer advice.

As both the world population and the world's middle class grow, the current food system will struggle to provide everyone with the same type of diet that Europeans and Americans are used to.

In 2011, EU citizens ate an average of 82.55 kilogrammes of meat per capita per year. Chinese citizens ate 56.85 kg, or about half of what their American counterparts eat on an annual basis.

Some estimates say that global meat consumption will increase by 60 percent in 2030, compared to 2000.

Agriculture is responsible for at least 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming, but plays a negligible part of the political debate on how to fight climate change.

“If we really want to go forward with reducing greenhouse gases in the agricultural sector, we need to talk about meat consumption”, Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout told this website in Brussels, several weeks before the Expo opened.

Eickhout added the topic "is a taboo" in political terms.

Policy-makers have shied away from targeting agriculture because food is a personal issue for many citizens; the agricultural lobby in Brussels is very well organised because it’s been around since the early days of European integration; agriculture is also seen by many with romantic eyes.

“We have a very idyllic image of agriculture, but that romantic image no longer exists in many places”, noted Eickhout.

Romantic picture of agriculture

Most of the 14 national pavilions in Milan which this website saw from the inside, had romantic touches which don’t correspond with reality.

Almost three-quarters of the world's poultry products, and half of all pork, were created by industrial sized farming. In the EU, just 5.7 percent of agricultural land in 2012 was used for organic farming.

But the Spanish pavilion, for example, showed scenic videos of a shepherd and his flock, and of families eating together, accompanied by serene music. Spain is “Europe's kitchen garden”, an explanatory text noted.

None of those 14 pavilions showed pictures of factory farming, the most common method for making animal-based food.

The Dutch, German, and French pavilions came closest to addressing the food-environment relation.

The text visitors to the Netherlands pavilion could read suggested that to meet the increasing demand in meat “we have to start looking for alternative food that is rich in protein. Algae prove to be a good alternative”.

The French representation in Milan showed an animation which said if “9.5 billion humans end up eating the same thing, there is a problem”. The German pavilion also touched on the subject.

However, even those mentioning the food-environment relation devoted most of their pavilions to promoting their own regional products, including meat and animal products.

Scientists recently compared the diets of British citizens and found that the carbon footprint of meat-eaters was approximately twice as high as that of vegans.

Those who eat more than 100 grams of meat per day, indirectly emit around 7 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per day. Vegetarians emit around 3.8 kilograms, and vegans 2.89 kilograms.

“It is likely that reductions in meat consumption would lead to reductions in dietary [greenhouse gas] emissions”, the researchers wrote.

No political will to "dictate" what to eat

Still, the UK government, like others, wants to remain “quite laisser faire” on emphasising the environmental impact of dietary choices with its population, said Stephen Pugh of the British ministry of environment, food and rural affairs.

“We wouldn't like to dictate to our population how much meat and vegetables they eat. We make recommendations because of the health effects”, Pugh told this website in Milan, where he was a speaker at a debate on food labelling, held at the EU pavilion on 8 May.

While the EU already requires that advertisements for new cars present how much carbon dioxide that type of car emits, there is no political will for mandatory labelling of food products.

Neither the member states nor the parliament has come forward with a request, according to Alexandra Nikolakopolou of the EU's directorate-general for health and food safety.

“We would promote health diets, but it will be difficult for the commission to develop a policy or a legislation that would result in consuming more of this food and not the other”, said Nikolakopolou.

Clear EU message?

The EU's pavilion was opened on 9 May by European Parliament president Martin Schulz and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

The EU's presence in Milan was meant to “communicate one clear and accessible message” and “be an occasion for discussion”, according to a text from the EU commission in 2013.

It said EU participation should “present visitors with solution-based approaches in the areas of food and sustainability, empowering citizens to make positive lifestyle changes for example by reducing food waste and making healthier food choices.”

But instead, the pavilion's exhibition focused mostly on indirectly communicating the EU's food-related policy via an animated Disney-type love story.

The website promises visitors to “experience Europe like never before”, but it’s unclear if guests will go home with “a simple EU message”.

The story is about two people falling in love and setting up a bakery together, but the moral remains open to interpretation.

The EU exhibition consists of three rooms with video screens – one of them a cinema-sized screen accompanied by physical special effects: a moving floor and sprinklers which come omn when the story involves water.

The third and final room sported three touch-screens which provide information on EU policies, but it did not invoke visitors to think about their food consumption beyond not being wasteful.

The EU pavilion, which cost €12.2 million, was one of the last to open, with work on the exhibition continuing in the first days after the Expo's official launch.

An option to send further information by e-mail appeared not to have worked properly: when this website tested it, the e-mail arrived with non-working hyperlinks and filler text. It also had to be temporarily closed just hours after the official opening due to a malfunction.

However, the EU pavilion was not the only part of the Expo to experience setbacks.

A full week after the Expo had opened, this website could still see construction workers at the site. In the months before the opening, protesters rallied against the Expo due to corruption allegations.

On the opening day, a largely peaceful protest was disturbed by violent hooligans who clashed with police.

The Milan Expo runs until 31 October.

The European Commission invited this publication and other journalists to visit the EU pavilion in Milan, and paid for accommodation, travel, and some meals. The Commission did not have any editorial control over this article

Trailer for the EU exhibition at Milan Expo
EU serves up soft proposals on food waste

In its Circular Economy strategy paper, published earlier this month, the EU Commission says nothing about a previously announced target to reduce food waste by 2025.


Finland: Time for EU to lead on environment

Europe should focus on implementation of environmental laws instead of making new ones, Finnish minister Kimmo Tiilikainen told EUobserver.

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