Henrik Larsen discusses the climate shortcomings of the industrial food system, and how the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy’s potential ‘fit and conform’ approach to food systems and incumbent actors may not sufficiently transform the food regime.
The European Green Deal (EGD) calls for the transformation of the food system as a core goal to achieve climate-neutrality by 2050. The Farm to Fork strategy (F2F) is the EU’s primary policy to deliver this objective. The F2F embraces a comprehensive policy response to deliver sustainability transitions, requiring the engagement of all actors in the food value chain from production, processing, and distribution to consumption and waste. It proposes a new policy mix of actions and initiatives, from rewarding the efforts of farmers that adopt more sustainable agricultural practices, reformulating food products in line with guidelines for healthy diets, promoting energy efficiency solutions, adapting marketing strategies to provide for the uptake of sustainable food products, ensuring that food prices do not undermine citizens perception of the value of food, and reducing food packaging and waste in line with circular economy principles. The systemic and integrated F2F approach, extending beyond the supply-side to include demand-side considerations, provide a basis for designing consistent and coherent policy mixes to manage and coordinate the transformation of European food systems. This change in policy style and focus is much needed!
Europe has over the past decades created an industrial food and farming model that is highly unsustainable, generating negative externalities across environmental, social, and economic dimensions. The EU Joint Research Centre EDGAR-FOOD database estimates that 30% of EU greenhouse gas emissions arise from food systems. As reported in recent environmental assessment reports, including those of the European Environment Agency, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, y Grupo Intergubernamental de Expertos sobre el Cambio Climático, increasing levels of intensive agriculture based on high-input, chemical-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots, reliant on fertilisers, pesticides, and preventable use of antibiotics, systemically lead to negative environmental outcomes. Besides, a rapid consolidation has created structural power imbalances, shifting power from primary producers to actors downstream in the food value chain. This concentration results in contract farming arrangements where food processors and retailers pressure primary producers to scale up and adopt industrial monoculture and input-intensive farming methods.
To achieve sustainable food systems, the F2F programme seeks to promote a wide range of niche innovations, including precision agriculture, innovative feed additives, and new genomic techniques. These are underpinned by satellite technologies, fast broadband internet, and artificial intelligence intended to accelerate the green and digital transformation. What is the potential of these technological solutions to transform European food systems? Transitions theory suggests different niche-derived transition pathways which either ‘fit and conform’ to the established socio-technical regime or ‘stretch and transform’ it. Hence, ‘fit and conform’ pathways focus on innovation which offer competitiveness for the dominant incumbent players. In contrast, ‘stretch and transform’ pathways attempt to change the selection pressures and sustainability criteria in the socio-technical regime to favour new entrants and challenge the traditional power balance. This is illustrated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations contrast of alternative food transition pathways – one which emphasises technology-driven efficient monoculture; another that promotes practitioner-led resilient diverse agroecology.
Although the F2F has the potential to ‘stretch and transform’ the existing agri-food regime, it largely falls back on a ‘fit and conform’ pathway, supporting incumbent actors such as large-scale industrial farmers, agri-food corporations, and retailers. Many solutions are adopted without questioning the underlying logic of the food system and, thereby, risk conforming to rather than transforming the current chemical- and energy-intensive industrial monoculture production model at the expense of natural ecosystems and biodiversity. For instance, input-substitution solutions such as biopesticides, climate-resilient seeds, and other bio-based products are increasingly commoditised and patented by agro-chemical companies that normally sell agro-chemical inputs; thus, continuing farmers’ dependence on large-scale monoculture systems and external-input markets. Friends of the Earth warns: ‘it is a classic technological fix that seeks to address a problem created by biotech’s failed technology (herbicide tolerant crops), and a new way of commodifying and appropriating nature. If realised, it will entrench chemical-intensive industrial and corporate farming and reinforce peasants’ dependence on toxic agrochemicals and other industrial inputs’. Similarly, F2F-promoted bio-based economy solutions, such as advanced bio-refineries, rely on intensive livestock farming and risk locking farmers further into unsustainable production models or increasing pressure on land and biomass use. These stabilising lock-in processes leading to path dependencies and entrapment need to be carefully considered and managed, as called for by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.
Agroecology is gaining increasing interest from European farmers, civil society organisations, and policy experts who seek to reclaim decision-making processes from powerful lobbies and corporate interests and promote an alternative to the established agri-food regime. If supported by appropriate research and advisory services, agroecology including organic farming could set the standard for sustainable farming practices in Europe and empower small-scale farmers, enhance agroecosystem resilience, and promote nature-based solutions, all within a broader perspective on food security and sovereignty. Such path-breaking niche innovations must be prioritised by the Horizon Europe mission on soil health and food, supported by Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reforms, and linked to policy measures aimed at drastically reducing livestock farming to a ‘safe operating space’, changing consumption patterns towards healthy, sustainable, and plant-based diets. Similarly, many social innovations are emerging across Europe, from alternative food networks, community-supported agriculture schemes to the creation of local food policy councils. Although often ineligible for CAP funding, these ‘stretch and transform’ niches are highly promising in terms of addressing power imbalances and path dependencies, reclaiming value for small-scale farmers, and reconnecting food businesses in ways that restore democracy, accountability, and trust in food systems.
A transformation of European food systems that ‘opens up’ a plurality of transition pathways, fuelled by participative agroecological and social innovations in addition to purely techno-scientific solutions, presents a more balanced approach to transition an industrial food and farming system that systemically generates negative externalities, from the environmental impacts of intensive agriculture to increased levels of concentration across the food value chain.
Henrik Larsen is a visiting researcher at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources.
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