EU Policy. Over half of von der Leyen’s food policy promises weren’t met, analysis shows

The Farm to Fork strategy aimed to make European food more sustainable, by transforming production, distribution, and consumption.
The Farm to Fork strategy aimed to make European food more sustainable, by transforming production, distribution, and consumption. Copyright Virginia Mayo/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Gerardo Fortuna
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Repeated delays and a farmer-led green policy backlash have left the flagship “Farm to Fork” strategy in doubt.

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In 2020, the European Commission unveiled its “Farm to Fork” food strategy – yet over half of its promises are still unmet, an analysis by Euronews has found.

It’s supposedly a flagship element of the EU’s environmentally-focused green deal, but there’s been a recent high-profile backlash by protesting farmers.

Of the 31 actions promised as part of Farm to Fork, 15 have not got off the ground – and one, a contentious proposal on pesticides, was even withdrawn by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The strategy aimed to make European food more sustainable, by transforming production, distribution, and consumption. In reality, only the elements relating to agriculture – the “farm” side – have been unambiguously advanced.

An original action plan of 27 initiatives proposed in May 2020 and due before the end of the current commission's mandate has since ballooned to 31 as components developed and split.

While a timeline published by the commission ticks almost all initiatives as complete, in many cases the EU executive has done little more than work on an impact assessment – an analytical document setting out the pros and cons of different policy options.

More than two-thirds of the strategy will likely remain unfinished before a new commission takes office in November, with legislation still under discussion by lawmakers.

The starter didn’t arrive

If the elements of Farm to Fork were a meal, many of them wouldn’t yet be on the starter course.

Notable by its absence is the Sustainable Food Systems Law, supposedly the backbone of the whole strategy.

It was placed on the top of the commission’s list of actions, but after repeated delays, it’s now been pushed back indefinitely.

EU proposals to halve the use of pesticides were presented in 2022, but von der Leyen recently announced she’d ditch them. Also missing are laws on the welfare of farm animals, backed by 1.4 million signatures in a series of recent petitions.

A plan to introduce health-focused labels on the front of food packaging was also postponed indefinitely after a clamour of opposition led by Italy. Other labelling initiatives – on sustainability, indication of origin, and date marking – met the same fate.

Nothing appears to be in the pipeline on promises to stimulate demand for sustainable food, via schools, public procurement, and promotions.

A commission spokesperson told Euronews it has delivered on a promise to reformulate processed food and set maximum levels for certain nutrients, citing a recently agreed voluntary Code of Conduct for food processors, service operators and retailers, which entered into force in July 2021.

However, the 2020 plan described them as two initiatives with different timelines. A Euronews analysis of the 30-page final text of the Code shows no mention of maximum nutrient levels, while the concept of reformulation is cited only once.

Still being chewed over

A further seven initiatives the commission committed to in 2020 have been published but not yet agreed upon.

Arguably the commission has done its job here – though final sign-off is still needed by EU governments and the European Parliament before they pass into law.

Only two – marketing standards for breakfast products and the corporate due diligence rules – are due to be approved before the end of the mandate, though even the latter appears in doubt after last-minute vacillation by Germany and Italy.

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Also far advanced are new rules on certifying carbon removals on farms, where a deal between lawmakers and governments is expected before April – although not in time to be finalised before June elections.

Further behind are laws on new genomic techniques and food waste, where lawmakers have agreed on their position but member states meeting in the EU’s Council haven’t yet. A further three proposals haven’t even got that far.

Coffee and biscuits

The strategy saw some successes. Eight finalised initiatives relate to agriculture policy, suggesting a 72.7% completion rate for the “farm” prong.

In some cases, such as recommendations to each member state on Common Agricultural Policy strategic plans and proposals on farm sustainability data, these complement other major laws.

The commission also delivered reforms to pesticide statistics and marketing rules for biopesticides – albeit they were supposed to be flanked by a wider reform that now appears abandoned.

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In others, there have been major achievements, such as food supply contingency plans which address Covid-linked safety concerns. The commission adopted new antitrust guidelines on agriculture sustainability agreements last December.

The EU executive is also claiming success in some of the vaguer areas of the strategy. Reforming the organisation of the common market and a yearly best practice forum on supply chains delivered on the commitment to improve transparency, a spokesperson said.

Uncertain status

Yet recent developments raise doubts over the status of the 2020 strategy, and commission officials have started becoming more evasive about its future.

“The policy objectives of Farm to Fork remain valid,” a Commission spokesperson told Euronews, adding that “the precise modalities, timelines and legislative processes by which to achieve them remain under constant review.”

As struggling farmers took to the streets in January, von der Leyen promised to open what she called a strategic dialogue on the future of farming.

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That seems designed to conceptually replace Farm to Fork, and von der Leyen hasn’t referred to the 2020 plan by name since.

A commission spokesperson said the strategic dialogue “is not a marketing exercise” and that “there’s no need to mention every initiative the Commission has taken before.”

According to another EU official, who requested anonymity, the Farm to Fork initiatives “are now an integral part of the policy framework under which the strategic dialogue is taking place,” and the new plan embeds and maintains the “general approach” of the earlier one.

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