What Farm to Fork could mean for American ag
A package of ambitious environmental and agricultural reforms could have wide-reaching impacts on American and European producers if implemented before the end of the decade.
That was the warning — both sounded and heeded — by a 12-member delegation of Illinois Farm Bureau members, staff and agribusiness representatives during a Market Study Tour earlier this month.
“This is something we have a tremendous amount of concern about,” said Mark Gebhards, IFB executive director of governmental affairs and commodities. “As we were in Paris and in Brussels, we wanted to make sure that as American farmers we communicated the concerns that we had (and) why it would be very difficult to be able to adhere to those kinds of environmental policies.”
The policies in question, known as the Farm to Fork Strategy, include a comprehensive set of regulations proposed by the European Commission that “aims to accelerate (the European Union’s) transition to a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system.”
It was introduced under the European Green Deal, a set of policy initiatives approved by the commission in 2020 that ultimately strives to make the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions net zero by 2050.
In finding tangible ways to meet that goal, the commission proposed the strategy as a paradigm-shifting plan that would: boost producer income; make food cheaper, healthier and more accessible; improve the environment; mitigate climate change; reverse the loss of biodiversity; foster competition; and promote fair trade.
The strategy would apply to all 27 EU member countries, which would be subject to its core set of mandates.
They include reducing by 2030:
- the use of chemical pesticides by 50%
- the use of more hazardous pesticides by 50%
- nutrient losses by at least 50%
- fertilizer use by at least 20%
- the sales of antimicrobials for livestock by 50%
Farm to Fork also calls for making 25% of total EU farmland organic by 2030, along with other compulsory changes to traditional agricultural practices.
The strategy has yet to be enacted, as the commission is still writing a legislative framework for its implementation. Much of that work has been on pause because of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
In the meantime, there are many unknowns around the strategy, including how the commission would certify products, measure farmers’ compliance with the requirements and enforce the mandates across all EU member countries.
Would the strategy work?
The most consequential question around Farm to Fork is whether the strategy would accomplish the ambitious goals it sets out to reach.
USDA’s Economic Research Service in 2021 modeled the initiative, concluding in a striking report that the targeted reductions in ag inputs could impact food prices in at least three ways.
“First, production costs could increase as farmers substitute labor for other inputs. Second, agricultural output could decrease as a result of fewer inputs being used. Third, prices on the international market could increase because of the tightening of available supplies and inelastic food demand,” the report said.
The rising costs, the report continued, “could affect consumer budgets and ultimately reduce worldwide Gross Domestic Product, and, consequentially, increase the number of food-insecure people in the world’s most vulnerable regions.”
EU farmers opposed to strategy
Above all, doubt about the Farm to Fork Strategy has stemmed from European producers.
Many farmers and ag industry representatives told IFB members they had serious concerns about maintaining the same production and yields while reducing inputs. Others said they couldn’t afford to implement conservation practices or transition to wholly organic.
Arnold Puech D’Alissac, vice president of the National Federation of Farmers’ Unions, said European farmers face a paradox under the strategy.
“We recognize we are part of the problem, but we are the only industry that can capture carbon effectively,” D’Alissac said during a meeting at the Paris International Agricultural Show. “How to change without losing profits are all challenges in front of us.”
The same sentiment was echoed by Pekka Pesonen, the secretary general for COPA-COGECA, the European Union’s largest agricultural lobbying group, which represents over 22 million farmers and 22,000 ag cooperatives.
“The big picture is that the EU is moving toward progressive agriculture policies,” Pesonen said. “But (EU farmers) support innovation that will lead to agricultural and environmental efficiencies.”
In the United Kingdom, where farmers are no longer directly subject to the EU’s policies because it withdrew as a member country in 2020, the government has adopted Environmental Land Management Schemes as a method to introduce environmental regulations into agriculture.
Under ELMS, UK producers are paid through programs like the Sustainable Farming Incentive for conservation practices.
And like U.S. farmers, UK farmers have “found innovative ways to make profits without destroying the environment,” said Cynthia Iglesias Guven, USDA Foreign Agricultural Service Agricultural Counselor in London.
Why it matters to American farmers
Although Farm to Fork applies to countries and farmers within the European Union, the strategy’s scope is global.
One of its goals is to get commitments from other countries to follow the plan, or at least adopt their own set of comprehensive environmental and food system initiatives.
The commission, as well as individual member countries, has also signaled that it would bar from trade the products of countries whose own practices do not align with the strategy, creating a non-tariff trade barrier.
“Policies that start in Europe often find their way over to the US,” said IFB Vice President Brian Duncan. “That’s why we’re watching Farm to Fork so closely.”
Although not launched as an explicit response to the strategy, USDA in early 2021 unveiled the Agriculture Innovation Mission (AIM) for Climate, an initiative that seeks to “accelerate global agricultural innovation” through more research and create “science-based solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change.”
The program, which is on track to be funded at $8 billion by the end of 2022, is made up of 40 government partners. The European Commission joined the initiative at its first ministerial meeting in February.
Unlike Farm to Fork, however, AIM for Climate likely won’t evolve to a set of governmental mandates or de facto trading boundaries.
The initiative does align with the Biden administration’s emphasis on climate-smart agriculture and its own goal to make ag net zero by 2050. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has said increasing climate-smart ag practices would make U.S. products more competitive in export markets.
But Vilsack has regularly defended the voluntary aspect of conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
In fiscal year 2021, the Farm Service Agency enrolled 34,054 EQIP contracts totaling 1.26 billion acres, enrolled 4,495 new CSP contracts on 5.8 million acres and renewed 2,709 CSP contracts on 3.8 million acres.
Whether the Farm to Fork strategy would accept environmental and sustainability practices followed by American farmers is unclear.
Duncan said new technology is key to meeting environmental regulations while boosting food production.
“But creating a technology for that works one country’s regulatory environment might not work for another,” Duncan said. “It ripples around the globe.”