Farm-to-fork, to protestors with pitchforks: the death of EU’s sustainable food policy

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The European Commission’s Farm-to-Fork Strategy was originally hailed as a highly-ambitious initiative that would transform European agriculture. Four years on, weeks out from the next European Parliament elections, little is left of this ambition, as farmers' protests and industry pressures have forced the commission to drop most of the proposals.

Critics and environmentalists have warned that this failure will dupe both nature and farmers, as they caution against agri-industry lobbying and far-right capture of MEPs.

The strategy, a major component of the Green Deal, promised to be a transformative push towards a more sustainable food system. Instead of a sectoral focus, the strategy took an unprecedented holistic view of the entire food chain, integrating environmental, agricultural and health policy into an overarching framework, with several directorate-generals working together. Moreover, it was coupled with ambitious and specific targets, like a 50-percent reduction in pesticide use. 

The holistic approach was crucial for Farm-to-Fork’s ambition, according to experts. “Normally, agricultural policy gets made by special institutions in close collaboration between farming interests and the policymakers, because food is such a sensitive geopolitical and cultural question for countries” said Nathalie Bolduc, senior research fellow at think-tank Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI). 

“It’s undeniable that political polarisation has made things more difficult"

However, with Farm to Fork, the commission put the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE) in the lead, which is further removed from the agricultural sector. “DG AGRI (the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development) was involved, but wasn't holding the pen. That's a key difference, as stakeholders who are close to DG AGRI may have felt that they weren't being heard as much,” Bolduc observed. 

And agricultural interests have now come back to haunt the strategy. After the war in Ukraine ignited concerns over food security and a general backlash against climate policy has swept Europe, the combined pressure from food industry groups, intensifying farmers’ protests and opposition by centre-right politicians has effectively derailed nearly all of Farm to Fork’s proposals. With fears mounting of far-right parties capitalising on farmers’ discontent during the European elections, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) has been loath to antagonise the agricultural sector, trying to burnish its image as the farmers party by opposing environmental legislation. 

In response, the commission omitted various flagship proposals from the legislative agenda, like the Framework For Sustainable Food Systems (FSFS), and more stringent animal welfare protection. But the most painful defeat came with the defeat of the centrepiece pesticide reduction regulation (SUR). After being voted down in the European Parliament at the end of 2023, Commission president Ursula von der Leyen moved to scrap the proposal altogether in February 2024, appeasing angry farmers protesting in the streets of Brussels. 

Not ‘dead’, just ‘depolarising’

While disputing that Farm to Fork was dead, a commission spokesperson acknowledged the challenges faced by the strategy. “It’s undeniable that political polarisation has made things more difficult, so in that respect, we’ve had to slow down and restart a dialogue with all the stakeholders,” the spokesperson told EUobserver. According to a Council diplomat, EU officials have become more realistic about Farm-to-Fork. “There’s an increased awareness of the importance of ambitious regulation, but also that they must be achievable”, the diplomat said, adding that maybe the agricultural sector hadn’t been involved enough. 

The commission has shifted efforts to a “Strategic Dialogue” on agriculture involving stakeholders from across the food system, to “depolarise” the debate. But the move sparked concern, with major environmental NGOs protesting the return to a ‘narrow focus’ on agricultural policy, as opposed to Farm-to-Fork’s holistic approach. 

Moreover, critics are contesting the narrative that pits farmers against environmental legislation, blaming lobby groups and the far-right for exploiting farmers’ genuine grievances. Morgan Ody, farmer and general coordinator of the peasant organisation La Via Campesina, insisted that dropping environmental legislation only met the demands of the largest, richest farmers.

“For most farmers, the main issue is a fair livelihood”, she said, arguing that the continued protest proved her point. “After the environmental stuff was dropped, Arnaud Rousseau [the head of the Copa-Cogeca agriculture lobby group] told us to go home. Farmers did not go home,” Ody told the EUobserver on the side of a farmers’ protest in Brussels.

MEP’s involved with the legislation expressed similar sentiments. Sarah Wiener, Green MEP and rapporteur for the SUR, argued that farmers could have benefited from the pesticide law. “With a little goodwill, farmers could have been motivated and helped to understand that the SUR is necessary and can even support them in their independence,” she said. But resistance was driven by conservative politicians and lobbyists opposing change, according to Wiener: “The pesticide lobby had a business model to lose.”

With momentum for climate policy waning and the far-right gaining in the polls, it seems unlikely that Farm-to-Fork’s transformative potential will soon materialise

Michal Wiezik, MEP for Renew Europe and member of the environment committee, also felt that resistance against Farm-to-Fork did not originate from most farmers themselves, and lambasted the outsized influence of the large agri-businesses on EU policy-making. “The MEPs in the AGRI committee never dare to do anything that upsets farmer’s lobbies,” Wiezik lamented. 

'Overlooked for years'

Reports by Corporate Observatory Europe and investigative platform DeSmog have highlighted the ties between the agri-food industry and EU policymakers, documenting the intense efforts of lobby groups like Copa-Cogeca and CorpLife to derail the SUR, and constant meetings between various MEPs on the AGRI committee and industry representatives. 

Consequently, many farmers end up acting against their own interests, observed Natalia Mamonova, a political sociologist specialising in rural populism. “They demand to be less burdened by environmental regulations, but that results in a further deterioration of the soil of which they will themselves be the major victims.”

Being locked into an unsustainable system of competition and intensification, makes farmers susceptible to the far-right, said Mamonova. “They feel they’re a group that has been overlooked for years, in favour of urban elites and transnational corporations, so there’s overlap in the narrative.”

In the end, Farm-to-Fork’s flaw might have been that it still wasn’t holistic enough. With many farmers pushed to the brink by shrinking margins, lowering prices, and increased competition compounded by imports from Ukraine, the crisis in agriculture exposed the strategy’s lack of measures for economic support.

Though emphasising that environmental protection would benefit farmers in the long run, Wiener acknowledged that Farm-to-Fork was light on economic support. “There were too few proposals to combat price pressure on the market or the supermarkets' monopoly on trade,” she said. 

Supporters of Farm-to-Fork have now no choice but to put their hopes on the strategic dialogues delivering a breakthrough. But even if the commission manages to get all the different stakeholders on board without watering down all its proposals, implementation will be left to the new commission.

With momentum for climate policy waning and the far-right gaining in the polls, it seems unlikely that Farm-to-Fork’s transformative potential will soon materialise.