How to deliver on the EU Farm to Fork’s protein transition objectives

As the EU decision-makers argue over the direction for the urgently needed transition in the livestock sector, how can they align the most relevant policies with the 'Farm to Fork' objectives?

The scientific, environmental and public health communities are coming to the consensus that livestock production and general consumption trends are not sustainable. This is summed up well by the RISE Foundation report that describes the EU's livestock production as not being "within a safe operating space".

The EU's 'Farm to Fork' strategy proposes several steps supportive of advancing a protein transition to address these – and wider – concerns.

It is essential that central policies that govern agriculture are aligned with the strategy, so as to break free from the current status quo.

It is essential that central policies that govern agriculture are aligned with the strategy, so as to break free from the current status quo. This week marks a key milestone to set the direction for an urgently needed protein transition, with the vote on the European Parliament (EP) position on Post 2020-CAP reform package, and with the publication of the general approach of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council.

Certain types of livestock production have been well documented as a key driver of pollution and natural resource depletion. It is also a key driver of climate change, being responsible for nearly 70% of the EU’s agricultural GHG emissions. EU citizens are also increasingly concerned with the welfare of animals, as seen in the recent Eurobarometers and various citizen initiatives.

While lacking a clear reduction target for livestock production and consumption, the 'Farm to Fork' strategy stresses that moving to a more plant-based diet with less red and processed meat will reduce the risk of life-threatening diseases as well as the environmental impact of the current EU food system.

The strategy proposes several tools which are promising. This requires a progressive approach in the development of related policies to ensure the success of the strategy.

First, the F2F aims at "increasing the availability and source of alternative proteins such as plant, microbial, marine and insect-based proteins and meat substitutes".

  • While the support for research efforts related to alternative proteins is welcome, current developments point to a decreased budget for agriculture R&I. In order to materialise the F2F objectives, it is important to match the ambition with the necessary financial support.
  • This week’s European Parliament plenary vote could have substantial impacts on marketing possibilities and demand for alternative proteins. COMAGRI amendments to the European Commission’s proposal for a Regulation establishing a Common Organisation of the Markets (CMOs) in agricultural products (2018/0218 COD), propose to ban the use of terms such as ‘veggie burger’ or ‘plant-based steak’, ‘yoghurt style’, ‘alternative to cheese’ or ‘butter substitute’ to describe plant-based dairy and meat alternatives.
  • Food labelling is already an issue for plant-based dairy alternatives. Purely plant-based products cannot be marketed with names such as “milk”, “cream”, “butter”, “cheese” or “yoghurt”, as these are strictly reserved by EU law for animal products (Food information to consumers, regulation n. 1169/2011). Whilst the rationale for this is clear, it does not help consumers to see the alternatives available to them if they wish to choose and pursue a low or no meat and dairy diet.

Second, the strategy aims to “strictly assess any proposal for coupled support in Strategic Plans from the perspective of the need for overall sustainability.

  • While this is a welcome suggestion, the general continuation of coupled payments in the post-2020 CAP Strategic Planning proposals hinders structural change. The conditions for the use of Voluntary Coupled Support (VCS) need to be as tight as possible, excluding the most environmentally harmful ways of raising livestock from this support, for example through stocking density limits.
  • The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and its coupled support, is a major funding source of livestock production in the EU. In the current programming period (2014 - 2020), out of the €58 billion spent annually on this policy, between 69% and 79% of the CAP direct payments is directed to producers of fodder for animals, or goes directly to livestock producers, including as coupled support.
  • 27 out of 28 Member States made use of this coupled support in the current programming period (2014-2020), which has been cited as a cause for concern, especially where they result in increased average levels of production and livestock numbers and when not tailored to support environmentally or climate beneficial farming. Currently, most coupled payments support the livestock sector and this was found to result in an overall net increase in emissions.

Third, in relation to financial support for meat production, the strategy promised a review on how the EU can use its “promotion programme to support the most sustainable, carbon-efficient methods of livestock production”.

  • Public procurement is an important tool balancing production-focused policies with a strong demand-side measure. This proposal needs to be implemented in co-decision between EU and the Member States, defining minimum green and public procurement criteria for sustainable food procurement to promote healthy and sustainable diets. As part of a science-based definition of healthy and sustainable diets, alternative protein sources could be expected.

Finally, the strategy promises that “the Commission will seek commitments from food companies and organisations to take concrete actions on health and sustainability (…). For example, marketing campaigns advertising meat at very low prices must be avoided.”

  • Having a discussion on marketing campaigns for low price meat (where a distinction can be made between price, quality and sustainability) is a welcome step. This must be complemented with other financial instruments to close the gap between the retail price of food and the true cost of sustainability, including environmental externalities. Fiscal instruments, such as VAT are a key leaver. In Germany and France, a significantly reduced VAT rate for animal products favours meat and dairy over alternatives, which are excluded from the reduction.
  • This relates to the need to pay a fair price to farmers and the need for a just transition, with a clear timetable and allocated resources to help low-income farmers as well as workers who might be affected to adapt.

While the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies send the right signals, they are only as powerful as the legislative change they will lead to. Continuing with the status quo is not an option. This week’s decisions on the post-2020-CAP reform package is a defining moment for EU and Member State policymakers to demonstrate a commitment to real change towards a sustainability transition in the EU agriculture sector.

Elisa Kollenda is a policy analyst in IEEP's Agriculture and Land Management programme