A ‘Common Food Policy’ Offers a Guide to a More Sustainable Food System in Europe. Could It Be a Model for the U.S.?

Although the EU and U.S. are oceans apart on some food policy issues, they face similar challenges. IPES-Food's new proposal hopes to shift the discussion—in both regions.



Globally, food and farming systems contribute up to 30 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Europe loses 970 million tons of soil every year to erosion. Loss of biodiversity in the European Union (EU) jeopardizes the pollination of many food crops and threatens future crop yields and GDP. 

Meanwhile, agriculture is responsible for some 90 percent of EU ammonia emissions—a major contributor to the air pollution that kills 400,000 people each year. Over 50 percent of the European population is overweight and more than 20 percent are obese. And, thanks to factors like agribusiness consolidation and massive farmland loss, more than one in four farms disappeared from the European landscape between 2003 to 2013.

These are just a handful of the long list of pressing problems that the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (iPES-Food) is looking to address with a 11-page, five-pronged “blueprint” released today. Dubbed “Europe’s Plan B,” the ambitious, sweeping policy recommendations map how the EU can begin reforming food production, processing, distribution, and consumption, all with an eye toward establishing an equitable, sustainable food system.

The report, “Towards a Common Food Policy for the EU,” aims to re-set the direction of these massive, interrelated sectors by building “a new governance architecture for food systems [that] puts forward a concrete vision of…[necessary] policy reform and realignment.”

The Common Food Policy is in part a response to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU’s version of the U.S. farm bill. In a 2017 op-ed, Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, and an advocate for the Common Food Policy, wrote a response to the CAP that set the stage for this effort: “What we need are not new agricultural policies, but something much more wide, inclusive, in one word: holistic. Agriculture has and will play a decisive role in the future of humanity: in its capacity to address the challenges of the years to come and ensure life—worthy or otherwise—to all its members, and in its prospects of either living in harmony with the environment or of destroying our common home.”

The report is the result of three years’ worth of interdisciplinary “labs” in which more than 400 farmers, scientists, activists, and policymakers hashed out the actions necessary to achieve a carbon-neutral EU. It calls for integration across policy areas—starting with the establishment of a European Commission vice presidency for sustainable food systems; a revival of public participation in food systems decision-making; and a “harnessing of grassroots experimentation.”

The Common Food Policy defines five objectives: ensuring farmer access to land, water, and healthy soils; rebuilding climate-resilient agro-ecosystems; promoting sufficient, healthy diets; cleaning up and shortening supply chains; and tilting trade towards sustainable development. Central to its overarching goal: “[R]eclaiming decision-making processes from powerful lobbies, bringing new actors around the table, shaping policies in more democratic ways, and allowing new priorities and new coalitions of interest to emerge.”

chart about a new governance architecture for sustainable food systems from the IPES-Food report

Click image for a larger version.

“The center of gravity of political imagination is at the municipal, county level, where local food systems are emerging and food chains established,” says Olivier De Schutter, iPES-Food’s co-chair. “It’s at this local level”—in both the EU and the U.S., he maintains—“where the big agricultural food companies are least capable of obstructing change.”

De Schutter adds that he wants to see the report’s recommendations and findings “be part of discussions in the weeks preceding the EU parliamentary elections” in late May, which could advance the adoption of a common food policy and make rapid change more possible.

Along with the Common Food Policy, De Schutter says a reflection paper published by the European Commission on January 30, about how sustainability challenges might be met, offers some promise that critical mass—in the right places—is building for change. It’s an “encouraging sign” that the paper makes reference to a “food systems approach” to reforms throughout the EU, he says. “Gradually, we’ve been making more people convinced that this is the way forward.”

An Ocean Apart, Facing Similar Challenges

Although the EU and the U.S. are an ocean apart when it comes to many policy issues, the Common Food Policy highlights some striking similarities between the two regions. For instance, both show the societal effects of living under an industrialized global food system for decades: obesity, food insecurity, and expensive and degraded farmland among them—as well as the power imbalances that reward large corporations over the needs and wants of consumers and small producers. All of which begs the question: Is there a place for a similar plan here in the U.S.?

As it happens, this particular idea for a common food policy for Europe had its beginnings in Berkeley, during the Obama administration. De Schutter hunkered down with Ricardo Salvador, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food & Environment Program, and food journalists Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman to “figure out what the next steps in reforming the food system might be,” says Salvador.

They published an op-ed about it in the Washington Post in 2014, highlighting the necessity for a national policy to pull together the disparate threads of what Salvador calls an “incoherent system” in which interrelated areas—food safety, labor, immigration, support for farmers among them—are overseen, as the piece points out, “by eight different agencies.” Before Salvador and his co-authors could convince the White House of the viability of their suggested policy, the debates leading up to the 2016 election happened, and momentum stopped cold. De Schutter picked up the ball and ran with it to the EU, where he co-founded iPES-Food.

In the U.S. and the EU alike, Salvador argues, the public cynicism his cohort is trying to override about the current system plays into the hands of its beneficiaries. “Large industrial agriculture and chemical [interests want] for nothing to change, and for the rest of us…to believe there’s no choice” in how we grow, source, or eat food, he says.

While local food systems have been criticized by some as insufficient to meet global food needs as climate change plays havoc with growing conditions, Salvador points out that “local food systems are not about feeding the world, but benefiting farmers and eaters in [smaller] regions,” and to suggest otherwise is a “very clever way to mismatch a potential policy solution with an unrealistic goal.”

Many cities, counties, and states are already embracing local. Helping some of them along is the Good Food Purchasing Program, says Salvador, who sits on the program’s board (Salvador is also on the Civil Eats Advisory Board). Its aim is to help cities and public institutions source food in ways that support the health of local businesses, workforces, eaters, animals, and land.

The program has been adopted by school districts in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles; Cook County, Illinois, has embraced it, and campaigns are currently active in several other major cities. And “it doesn’t require one dollar of federal funding,” Salvador says. This aligns with developments in the EU, called out by the Common Food Policy, such as establishment of local and urban food policies and councils.

Although the current U.S. administration has halted any opportunity to advance the conversation around sustainable food and ag systems, Salvador is heartened by the chorus of voices calling for a Green New Deal. What’s needed here, he says, is adding a food and agriculture component to it.

In both the EU and the U.S., De Schutter believes that a critical step to success for a national food plan is getting people to realize their own power and start holding governments accountable for reforming the system. “People are mature enough to decide for themselves—rather than just voting and asking politicians to decide for them.”

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