Farm to Fork Differences for EU and U.S.

Columns - International Perspectives

The quiet clash over EU’s Farm to Fork strategy could have implications for trade between the U.S. and Europe.

April 4, 2022

Andrea Tolu is an International Food/Restaurant/Hospitality Writer in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

Food policies can be quite controversial. While everyone agrees that we need to feed 10 billion people (the predicted population by 2050) sustainably, there can be opposing views on how to do that and what “sustainable” actually means. The perfect example is the quiet clash that’s been unfolding over the past two years between the United States and the European Union.

In May 2020, the EU launched its Farm to Fork strategy, with the goal of making food production less dependent on chemical inputs. In numbers, that means using 50% less pesticides and antimicrobials, 20% less fertilizers, and having 25% of farmland under organic practices by 2030.

The strategy is strongly opposed by the U.S. government, which believes that pushing for this shift through an EU-wide policy, rather than voluntary schemes, will have disastrous consequences on food production. “The world has got to get fed, and it’s got to get fed in a sustainable way, and we can’t sacrifice one for the other,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at the Future of Food and Farming Summit last year.

EU Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Czeslaw Wojciechowski — interviewed at the same event — rejected this idea. If anything, he said, organic farming will increase productivity: “Many farmers in the European Union are too small to compete with large-scale farms, but if they decide to become organic, not only can they keep existing, but also produce more.”

Tomaso Ferrando, research professor at the University of Antwerp, has a more nuanced view.

“The plan of the EU is not to sacrifice production in favor of non-industrialized and agricultural schemes, but to shift towards ‘sustainable intensification,’ where farming practices are less dependent on fossil fuels and more on organic inputs.”

Whether such a policy will have an impact on productivity is still up for debate. In March 2021, a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) concluded that the Farm to Fork strategy will increase food prices and create more food insecurity in the world’s most vulnerable regions.

More significantly, a few months later, a study published by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission contradicted its own commissioner for agriculture, concluding that it may lead to a production decrease of 15% of cereals and oilseeds, 12% of vegetables and permanent crops, 14% of meat and 10% of raw milk.

The quiet clash over EU’s Farm to Fork strategy could have implications for trade between the U.S. and Europe.

For Ferrando, the studies on the strategy published so far don’t account for all variables of a global food supply chain, such as consumption patterns, inflation and the rising price of fuels.

“I wonder if a new study that considers the current cost of fossil fuel-dependent agriculture would reach different conclusions about the cost of more organic production,” he said.

The issue, however, is much more than an academic debate. What’s really at stake are the implications for trade.

When it comes to sustainability, said Vilsack, “we have the same destination, but different paths. The challenge is to make sure that whatever path we choose, we don’t use it as a way to create additional difficulties for our trading relationships.”

Said Ferrando, “If the EU starts adopting its higher production standards as trade restrictions, it will inevitably impact the capacity of U.S. producers to export their over-production of soy, corn, wheat and livestock.”

This doesn’t mean that the two blocs are headed for a trade war. Policies of this magnitude are slow to implement, and the EU may have to solve the concerns of its own farming and livestock sectors. And both agree that farming technology and genetic engineering will help reduce the use of chemicals without affecting yield.

At the same time, the Farm to Fork strategy is here to stay. Its goals are in line with the EU’s idea of “strategic autonomy,” which sees trading policy as a tool to achieve “domestic and external policy objectives and promote greater sustainability.” For food, that means producing more agricultural products inside the EU, especially protein sources.

The U.S. has a different view. In the words of Vilsack: “The whole point of a trading system is to make sure that goods are able to flow across country borders without friction. If you try to be too self-contained, you may stifle innovation, choice and competition, and consumers may end up paying more.”