Beware the false dichotomy: The EU need not choose between food security and sustainability

Astanor Ventures
5 min readJun 20, 2022

By Eric Archambeau and Kathleen Merrigan for Astanor Ventures

The invasion of Ukraine has unsettled the European Union, which is facing a migration crisis, massive energy disruptions, rising food costs, increasing public debt, and real security concerns. Policymakers are under huge pressure to address emerging and complex crises which are already having a profound impact on Ukranian, European and Russian people. Forging a path forward will require revisiting all EU strategies to ensure a fit with stark new realities.

Already underway is a rethinking of the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy (F2F). Disquieting headlines with phrases such as “not a halt, but a loss of momentum,” “on pause but not forgotten,” “takes some blows but remains standing,” and “in need of a new political consensus” suggest waning support for F2F, the heart of the European Green Deal.

As a refresher, F2F was adopted by the European Commission in May 2020 as part of the Green Deal strategy and strengthened in October 2021. Here’s a quick reminder of some key F2F targets below:

Unquestionably, these goals will be tough to meet, but they are necessary. The way we produce food is highly extractive of natural resources, reliant on cheap energy and free water, and produces unacceptable pollution. Put in business terms, our food system is being run like a business in liquidation. Time is running out to reverse our destructive behaviors.

What’s happening to F2F today?

Even champions of the Paris Agreement say that the invasion of Ukraine and resulting disruptions to the global food system call for a refocus of priorities, backpedaling towards a model focused primarily on optimizing production. Pointing to soaring prices for fertilizer, feed, and fuel, EU farm lobby Copa-Cogeca President Lambert says, “Since the Russian Government is using food security as a weapon, we must counter it with a food shield.” In the wake of the war, Copa-Cogeca is advocating for increased fertilizer imports, pesticide use, crops for animal feed, and elimination of F2F provisions related to land set-asides and animal welfare.

But not everyone agrees.

Environmentalists denounce food shortage claims as fearmongering designed to erode public support for F2F environmental restrictions. Green Deal Executive Vice President Timmermans tweeted as much: “some people pretend we have a risk of food shortages in Europe, which is not the case…. It’s a logistics and financial problem. Not a problem of availability of food.”

So, there we have it — the classic, age-old false dichotomy between food security and sustainability.

During our careers, we’ve seen this choice presented repeatedly and counter it with evidence that sustainability is not optional but rather essential to achieving food security.

Perennial food challenges predate the Ukraine war and have existed during times of unwavering attention to agricultural productivity. The current agrifood system does not and will not ensure food security for the long term. Consider that

Within the EU:

- 20% of food is lost or wasted every year

- more than 36 million food insecure people are unable to afford a quality meal every second day

Globally, consider analyses by the World Bank and FAO that show empowering women farmers in the global south could feed as many as 150 million more people a day.

There are so many solutions to food security challenges that can and should be implemented that do not jeopardize the health of natural resources upon which food production depends. The number of food insecure people across the globe is increasing due to the reality of the current agrifood system which is depleting our soils and over-dependent on fragile global supply chains.

The current economic slowdown is creating a challenging environment for everyone, including the start-ups we support, and it may persist for years. The danger is that it is elevating another false choice, pitting those who care about the environment and the lives of their grandchildren against those focused on solving current day dilemmas faced by average citizens. We cannot fall into this trap as we must find a way to do both.

The agrifood system must transition. It is not a choice, but a matter of fact. The cheap fuel, consistent weather and free water that have bolstered the current productivity-focused agrifood system will not last. The impact of today’s crisis is simply a preview of the future — an agrifood system under pressure from a superstorm that tips the system out of its precarious balancing act. Rolling back on the ambitious transition plan laid out by the Farm to Fork strategy will only ensure that our food system remains fragile and vulnerable to future disruptions.

The good news

Shortly following the Russian invasion, EU Leaders called for increased EU production of plant-based proteins and invited the European Commission to present options to address rising food prices and global food security. The resulting report from the Commission concluded, quite rightly, that there is no risk of food shortages in the EU.

The bad news

Despite many statements supporting F2F, the Commission recommended the first roll back of F2F: a derogation allowing production of grass and crops for food and feed on fallow land in Ecological Focus Areas where production had been prohibited. This measure, only approved for 2022 so far, was adopted by the European Parliament just hours after release of the Commission Communication.

What’s next for F2F?

As reported in the press, there are many other F2F-related proposals floating around that would erode F2F, including delaying crop rotation requirements and biodiversity targets, postponing binding action on pesticide reduction, adjusting nitrogen and fertilizer directives and more. Additionally, some anticipated F2F provisions are absent, such as a specific reference to the F2F 25% of land goal in the European Parliament’s Resolution on an Organic Action Plan.

Another telling sign of a potential shift in F2F thinking is the Commission decision to join the US-designed Coalition for Sustainable Productivity Growth. This Coalition was formed ahead of the September 2021 UN Food Systems Summit and months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The US established the Coalition as a direct counter to F2F. It is difficult to escape the irony of the EU participation.

So, what does this mean for agrifood tech?

F2F goals have helped pave the way for the increased funding and innovation in agrifood tech across Europe. And agrifood tech companies are addressing many of the problems that F2F was built to solve. From biological crop inputs and advanced biomonitoring for crops, to alternative proteins and creative financing solutions for farmers — agrifood tech entrepreneurs have risen to the challenge, driving major advancements to make food system transformation technologically possible and economically viable.

Private impact investors have filled gaps in public funding to achieve the lofty goals set forward by F2F. European agrifood tech entrepreneurs raised 3.8B EUR in 2020 and close to 9B EUR in 2021. EU backing of F2F certainly helped in raising these funds, as it signaled alignment of values and goals. A comprehensive F2F policy that prioritizes food system transformation is critical to bolstering these young companies; we urge the EU to continue to implement strong and timely F2F actions.

Regardless, we predict that impact investors and agrifood tech companies will not back down. Private investment and private entrepreneurship become even more essential when the government shies away from what must be done.

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Astanor Ventures

Astanor invests where tech meets nature to build a sustainable, nutritious and delicious future of food for all.