Ahead of enlargement, European Union must embrace reform, innovation to future-proof food system

Ahead of enlargement, European Union must embrace reform, innovation to future-proof food system

Since the onset of the war in Ukraine, the EU enlargement agenda has experienced a dramatic revival, with momentum picking up as Spain enters the heart of its Brussels presidency. On 28-29 September, the General Affairs Council of the EU hosted an informal ministerial meeting in Murcia to discuss the next wave of enlargement, setting up a high-profile heads of state summit in Granada on 6 October, where EU leaders will attempt to reconcile opposing visions over institutional changes needed to integrate new members.

This dilemma was on display at POLITICO’s Future of Food & Farming Summit, held in Paris on 28 September, where EU market and subsidy competition from Ukraine featured prominently alongside hotly-contested debates on the direction of travel for agri-food health and sustainability. Moving forward, Brussels will need to embrace reform and innovation to resolve policy disputes impeding the establishment of a future-proof food system.

Managing Ukrainian competition

Wide-ranging treaty reform as a precondition for enlargement to the EU’s former Soviet and Yugoslavian neighbourhoods remains highly controversial, with a Franco-Germany commission leading the charge and Poland emerging as the “biggest obstacle.” Yet considerably more consensus exists over the need to overhaul the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies before incorporating agricultural behemoth Ukraine.

At the Future of Food & Farming Summit, Romanian MEP Dacian Cioloș stressed the urgent need for CAP reform, citing the Commission’s woefully inadequate response to the immediate challenge of Ukrainian grain exports and its lack of a long-term vision. The current CAP, which accounts for one-third of the EU budget, remains based on farm area size, meaning that Ukraine – home to 25% of Europe’s farmland – could take up one-third of CAP payments should Brussels fail to reform the existing system, resulting in drastic funding cuts for other farming member-states that would severely undermine the bloc’s farming system and broader cohesion.

As former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt has rightly posited, the Commission should look to the past, namely to when Brussels created a separate budget to cover the enlargement costs associated with the 2004 accession of central and eastern European (CEE) countries, while advocating for “lengthy transition periods…to fully join” EU programs, as was the case with Spain. By scrapping area-based payments and easing Ukraine into the bloc’s policies, the EU can avoid a massive, sudden shock to the CAP system and existing member-states’ competitiveness while helping Kyiv’s farmers contribute to a stronger agri-food sector.

Bringing anti-obesity efforts into 21st century

Beyond concerns over integrating Ukraine’s massive agricultural sector, building a healthy food system – one of two pillars of the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy – remains at the top of the future-proof food agenda. To tackle the continent’s growing overweight and obesity epidemic, the Commission has proposed a bloc-wide front-of-package (FOP) food label designed to help its citizens make healthier dietary choices. Created in France, Nutri-Score was once favoured for the Commission’s nod, yet intense criticism from member-states across the bloc has seen the final proposal delayed indefinitely, with the continent progressively awakening to the dubious science underpinning the label’s algorithm and A-to-E scoring system.

Leading French nutritionist Jean-Michel Lecerf has perhaps best summarised the widespread resistance to Nutri-Score, dismissing the system as “a nutritional concept from the 1980s” due to its “reductionist approach” that fails to capture the complexity of nutritional value. Similarly, Yale public health professor Tassos Kyriakides has pointed out Nutri-Score’s inability to provide “context of how a specific food is used,” which has serious implications for accurately informing consumers and accommodating individual health needs.

Consumer protection concerns have fueled Nutri-Score’s mounting rejection, with a court in Romania – where the label is banned – recently fining a local supermarket chain for stocking Nutri-Score labelled foods on the grounds that the system “leads to the distortion of consumer behavior.” What’s more, a parliamentary motion in Switzerland targeting the system’s misleading scoring system could see the country become the first Nutri-Score adopter to prohibit its use.

While FOP labels like Nutri-Score represent outdated solutions, the rapid development of AI offers a future-fit foil, with this technology increasingly used for personalised nutrition. Logan Kim, CEO of sustainable food startup Nuvilab, has highlighted how AI innovation will “improve the accuracy and objectivity of diet recording” and support for people with special health needs, enabling better health outcomes. With this tech-driven, preventative approach, the EU could start building a healthier food system without unnecessary politicisation.

Reconciling sustainability and productivity

Yet Brussels’s sustainable farming efforts remain even more divisive than its food health ventures. With analysts increasingly questioning whether headline Green Deal farming policies will ever make it over the line amid strong pushback from the European People’s Party (EPP), debates on issues such gene editing and the sustainable use of pesticides regulation (SUR) were discussed in dedicated events at the Future of Farming & Food Summit.

With its target to halve the use of pesticides in the EU by 2030, the SUR represents Brussels technocratic approach to green farming, which, like its equally controversial Industrial Emissions Directive to slash emissions in “industrial” livestock farmers, reveals a lack of on-the-ground knowledge and regard for the significant economic burden placed on farmers. What’s more, advocates of this rigid, arbitrary targets-based model largely reject the innovation offered by new genomic techniques (NGTs), which allow farmers to boost productivity while reducing water usage by breeding drought resistant crops.

Despite baseless political fearmongering, the Commission encouragingly proposed to relax regulations on NGTs, which do not involve foreign DNA of transgenic GMOs and have been proven to be safe. While not a silver bullet, the EU will need to accept NGTs as part of the innovation mix – along with the high-tech and soil protection solutions of precision and regenerative agriculture – needed to maintain food production while the progressing green transition in a fair and viable manner.

As the enlargement push gathers pace ahead of the EU summit in December which could see the launch of accession talks with Ukraine, the Commission will need to resolve internal divides over the future of the continent’s agri-food system with policy reforms and innovation to prepare the ground for a healthy, sustainable and well-functioning bloc.

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