Written by Roberta Guevska

The Farm to Fork Strategy is the main stake of the EU’s Green Deal, aiming to make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly. In general, the scheme sets its sights on a grand makeover of the EU’s food systems to encourage more sustainable food production and turn the EU into a  global pioneer of a food system that is beneficial to the climate. However, there are some concerns that come to mind. Still, to this day the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) takes a considerable part of the budget (Pe’er, Birkenstock, Lakner, & Röder, 2021). Whilst this is vital for the well-being and food supply of Europeans, it remains difficult to implement the above-mentioned strategy and reach its goals with the way CAP works currently. Therefore, there is much to be done beyond 2021 if we want to ensure that our food would be sustainably produced, and this is closely related to the transformation that livestock farming shall experience in the upcoming years (Hedberg, 2021). 

 The CAP as we know it today – goals and outcomes

Agriculture has always been a crucial part of each European Financial Framework – a cause of numerous disagreements, discussions, and compromises. Introduced in 1961 and constantly changing ever since – it accounted for 73% of the European Economic Community (EEC) budget in 1985 until reaching 37% in 2017 (European Commission, DG Agriculture and Rural Development. Financial Report). Nevertheless, a lot has happened since the eighties in the area of agriculture. Efforts which have been made for optimising and developing farming activities cannot be neglected, but some major steps are still needed to be done in order to reach satisfactory food production while taking into consideration environmental and humanitarian impact (European Commission, 2018).

In 1956 the Spaak Report insisted that an agriculture policy was inevitable for the EEC to function properly and fairly to all European citizens (Pinder,  1985). The Treaty of Rome then addressed the latter with the following objectives stated in Article 39.1: “…to increase productivity through technical progress and the best use of the factors of production (such as labour); to ensure a fair standard of living for communities employed in agriculture; to stabilise markets; to secure the availability of supplies; and to enforce fair prices.” (Article 39 TFEU). Article 39.2 (TFEU) further explained some key factors that policy makers shall consider, like: the circumstances of each agricultural activity due to the social structure of agricultural communities and the inequalities between richer and poorer regions; the need to act gradually to allow agriculture sufficient time to adjust; and to remember that agriculture was heavily integrated in the wider economy. It becomes clear that in the formative years of CAP the desired outcomes were driven by an entirely different position, one that feared food deficiency, but could not consider the environmental footprint of the food production in Europe to that extent we do today. All in all, meat and dairy have been a huge part of the policy framework and have a central role in the life of Europeans to this day. Having said that, questions remain on how to reform CAP to make it compatible with the current status quo and, what’s more important, how to transform it for the purposes of the EU’s Green Deal goals (Cornall, 2021).

Indeed, in recent times there were a series of debates regarding CAP’s span and framework. Many organisations and policy makers expressed their ambition to transform the current agri-food system in the EU through the Green Deal and more specifically through the Farm to Fork strategy (Jongeneel et al. 2021). For this to happen, the whole system of livestock farming shall undergo a massive turnover towards sustainability and contribute with its actions to the objectives set by the EC. Considering the fact that European animal-sourced products are well-known all around the globe for their safety and quality, their high animal health and welfare standards, the excellence in animal breeding, including new breeding technologies, animal nutrition, and better and more efficient use of resources, there seems to be little chance that meat demands would see a downfall in the upcoming years (Halagarda & Wójciak, 2022). Although environmental rules have become more stringent resulting in companies and farmers already achieving great progress in reducing GHG emissions from the EU livestock sector below 6% of the EU’s total GHG emissions (European Environment Agency, 2021), a whole lot is expected to be done in the next financial framework, for the EU to consolidate its commitment to greater sustainability and to address societal and environmental challenges in the most effective way.

Meat and dairy production in the EU – Overview 

The role of livestock, dairy production, and consumption is constantly present when discussing the future of food. There are many challenges that feature the process concerning animal farming in the EU. Beginning with livestock, it’s well known how it brings great environmental harms that are related to air pollution and contribute to climate change (Food and Agriculture Organisation. UN. 2006). The effects of animal agriculture on air pollution can be divided into six main sectors: transport, buildings (residential, commercial, institutional), energy generation, manufacturing, agriculture, and waste. Another aspect that should be considered is the link between food systems, animal foods, and climate change, as well as the impacts of climate change on health in general.  Having said that, food systems are largely responsible for emitting three greenhouse gases: Methane (CH4), Nitrous oxide (N2O), and Carbon dioxide (CO2). In this aspect, agriculture emits over 55% of non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions (Nicolas, 2021).

− Methane is relatively short-lived in the atmosphere, breaking down after about 12 years.

− Nitrous oxide is around 265 times greater than carbon dioxide, and long-lived, though not emitted in very high quantities.

− Carbon dioxide is the ‘primary’ global greenhouse gas. Unless sequestrated, it accumulates in the atmosphere where it can stay for hundreds of years (US EPA. 2019).

When interpreting data, it is important to take into account the food systems activities that are and are not included in the estimation. When data refers to food systems emissions, all these aspects should, in principle, be included (Nicolas, 2021).

− Agricultural activities cover emissions from enteric fermentation, manure application and management, synthetic fertilizers, rice cultivation, crop residues, and biomass burning. Agricultural activities also involve energy use and transport, but emissions from these activities are often not included in statistics as part of agricultural sector emissions. Certain supply chain assessment methods do include other sources of emissions.

−  Land use and land-use change relate to how food systems activities affect the land’s status as either a source of emissions or a sink. For instance, the conversion of forests into croplands will lead to emissions, while well-managed grasslands have the ability to store carbon.

−  Supply chain and consumption, including activities such as transport, processing, packaging, retail, cooking, wastage, and so on.

According to recent calculations, food systems contribute to a relatively high percentage of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (Tubiello et al. 2021). When it comes to the EU, agriculture could be considered accountable for at least 10% of the total EU greenhouse gas emissions (European Environment Agency (EEA) (2012). It shall be mentioned that these have declined by 20% between 1990-2015, but then started to rise again between 2012 and 2015. The above-mentioned swings in emissions are due to fertiliser use and variations in farm animal quantities (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2017).  On the other hand, EU statistical accounting does not cover emissions from land-use change, such as for feed production, or energy usage, and therefore does not represent a complete view of land cultivation’s contribution to harmful gas release (Eurostat, 2021a & 2021b). Other methodologies, that do take into account land-use change and other dimensions, estimate a higher contribution to EU emissions from food, both from the food system as a whole and from agriculture alone. For example, a life-cycle assessment from 2003 estimated that food as a final consumer good was responsible for around 30% of the EU’s total contribution to global warming, with the contribution of meat products estimated at 4-12% of the total (European Commission, 2020).

Finally, the future of food systems, and the role of animal production therein, will be a significant determinant of the climate trajectory not only in the EU but globally. It has been calculated that even if all non–food system greenhouse gas emissions were immediately ended and would be net-zero from 2020 to 2100, emissions from the current food system alone would likely exceed the 1.5°C warming limit between 2051 and 2063 (Ritchie & Rover, 2021).

While a small decline in meat production of 8% by 2030 is predicted for the EU, only a 5% emissions reduction is projected compared to 2012 (European Environment Agency (EEA) (2012). Global projections are worrying, considering how meat production is projected to expand by nearly 40 Mt by 2029, reaching 366 Mt. The bulk of meat production growth is attributed to emerging economies, which will account for 80% of the additional output (Food and Agriculture Organisation. UN). Brazil, China, the EU, and the United States are projected to produce nearly 60% of global meat output by 2029 (European Commission, 2020).

Future of the EU livestock. What is to be expected? – Challenges and Opportunities

The physical and financial scale of EU livestock production means that it has far-reaching environmental, economic, and social consequences. Livestock production is an important part of the economy and vitality in many regions including some marginal rural areas. Its social importance extends beyond employment – many of the valued landscapes and cuisines of the EU have evolved along with livestock production. It also has negative impacts on the environment, through the consumption of finite resources (land, water, and energy) and the production of physical flows (such as nutrients, greenhouse gases, and toxic substances) that can impact biodiversity, human health, and ultimately the functioning of the ecosystems upon which we depend for food production. Livestock also produces a range of other goods and services (Pushkarev, 2021).

On the other hand, Europeans consume large quantities of animal products per capita. The protein of animal origin covers over 50% of the total protein intake of European diets and EU27 per capita consumption is more than twice the world average, though still less than in North America. (European Commission, 2021) In 2020, each European consumed circa 69.5 kilograms of meat, expressed in retail weight equivalent, and 236 kilograms of milk. Meat consumption is expected to decline further by 2030. The decline is accompanied by a shift in the consumer basket with a decrease in beef consumption and an ongoing replacement of pig meat by poultry meat (Ritchie H. and Roser M., 2017). EU-wide average figures mask significant national disparities, for both meat and milk, in terms of current consumption and trends over time. This heterogeneity can be illustrated by noting that the annual consumption per capita varies for meat from 34 kilograms in Bulgaria to 62 kilograms in Luxembourg, for milk from 115 kilograms in Cyprus to 353 kilograms in Finland. Since 2011, there have been significant drops in meat consumption in Italy (-8 kg), Germany (-10 kg), and Belgium (-26 kg) but smaller changes in France over the same period, although there has been a shift from red meat to poultry meat (Pushkarev, 2021).

Increasing sustainability in the livestock sector

Presented in May 2020 by the EC and part of the Green Deal, the Farm to Fork Strategy aims at making our food systems more sustainable and contributing to tackling climate change while keeping the livestock sector’s high standards. The transition we shall see in the upcoming years will eventually safeguard food security, ensure access to healthy nutrition, and reduce the environmental and climate footprint of EU food systems, while also ensuring the livelihoods of everyone engaged in the food supply chain. To achieve this, the strategy translated this goal into concrete targets for 2030: reaching 25% of agricultural land under organic farming, reducing by 50% the use and risk of pesticides, reducing by at least 20%  the use of fertilisers and by 50% the sales of antimicrobials used for farmed animals and aquaculture (European Commission, 2020). Although these objects sound promising, it remains to be seen whether the sector will be successfully transformed and how it will affect the life of Europeans (Lyons, 2021).

In conclusion, it is a fact that meat and dairy production plays a great role in the EU’s economy and its transition has a key role in accomplishing the Farm to Fork Strategy’s goals. Having said that, animal farming should evolve to provide a bigger number of goods and services, and not be completely reliant on the final production. Next, to achieve this sustainable transformation, climate, health, and livestock welfare should be placed at the heart of innovation for future animal cultivation systems. One could be sure that CAP will be closely engaged and would play a key role in this process and in achieving the presented targets. A fair starting point on improving CAP’s future design could begin with each member state explaining how they would use CAP: each one of them, as a part of their strategic plan, would have to explain how they intend to implement different policies to achieve the Farm to Fork Strategy’s goals. Moreover, CAP would offer further tools to spread awareness about sustainable agricultural practices and to ensure that European farmers are well-rewarded for their climate commitments and the implementation of the scheme, while citizens benefit from the best value for money.


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