I was pleased to be invited to give a talk at the EIT Food conference on the future of food last Thursday where the organisers had given me the very ambitious title at the head of this post. I reproduce below the talk as I presented it, with one small modification. The great advantage of attending a conference of this kind is that one is alerted to new perspectives and new angles and, in the light of listening to some of the other excellent contributions to the conference, I slightly nuanced one of my conclusions below (I note the specific change at the end of this post).
My key message is that there are inevitable trade-offs in the transition to a sustainable food system, but that the discourse around a threat to food security is not helpful or correct and masks other trade-offs which policymakers should address more directly. I have included the slides in this blog post, but the presentation can also be downloaded directly if anyone is interested.
In my talk, I want to examine our state of food security, the challenge of achieving more sustainable food system outcomes where I focus on avoiding health and environmental damage, recognizing that sustainability also has economic and social dimensions, and I will conclude with some ideas on how to address the inevitable trade-offs that will accompany this transition.
Ensuring food security for its population is one of the basic obligations of governments. In recent months, we have seen increasing focus on actual and potential challenges to food security in Europe and abroad. Geo-political tensions, rising commodity prices such as for rice, and fears about the potential impact of El Niño are fuelling these concerns.
These concerns are now being used to argue that the European Union should slow down or even abandon initiatives proposed under the umbrella of the European Green Deal to transform its food system in a more sustainable direction and with better outcomes for human and planetary health.
I want to suggest that the discourse around food security in the EU has little to do with ensuring that ‘all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs’, to quote the FAO definition.
Instead, the food security discourse masks fears that the sustainability agenda will adversely affect the competitiveness of European farming, with negative implications for jobs and livelihoods in the sector and particularly in rural areas, could lead to the off-shoring of environmental problems, and as well contribute to higher food prices at a time when governments are still struggling with food price inflation.
I will argue that the transition to a more sustainable food system will be hugely challenging because of these many trade-offs, but that framing the issue as a threat to food security is not helpful or correct. Food insecurity exists, also in Europe, but needs to be addressed as a separate issue.
A success story – deaths from malnutrition greatly reduced…
On the global level, one of the great success stories has been the steady decline in total deaths from malnutrition as shown in this figure. The Millennium Developments Goals set by the United Nations in 2000 set a target to reduce the proportion of undernourished people by half by 2015. This target was almost achieved – the proportion fell from 23.3% to 12.9% – and encouraged the world community to set the even more ambitious Goal 2 in the Sustainable Development Goals to end hunger in all its forms by 2030 and to achieve food security.
… but hunger again on the increase
Unfortunately, since 2015 progress in eliminating hunger first stagnated and more recently has gone into reverse. The two series on this figure show both the numbers and prevalence of undernutrition at the global level. The reverse is due to the economic fallout from the covid pandemic, consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, weather extremes, and an upsurge in conflict in many of the poorest countries where hunger is still endemic.
The problem in Europe has been food price inflation
In Europe, despite newspaper pictures of empty supermarket shelves in the first weeks of covid lockdowns, the food chain was remarkably resilient and food shortages were avoided. More recently, in the wake of higher energy prices (shown in yellow on this chart) and also higher global food prices, we have seen a massive increase in food prices in the EU, with food prices (shown in red in the figure) increasing by 28% in the two years to January 2023. Food prices have stabilized in recent months but show no sign as yet of falling. These high food prices, in conjunction with higher energy prices, have led to increased food insecurity among low-income households in Europe as well as to significant changes in consumer behaviour.
Lessons from the energy market crisis
Fears of potential food insecurity have also been fanned by lessons from the energy market due to vulnerabilities arising from excessive dependence on Russian energy supplies, particularly gas. EU natural gas prices were seriously affected as Russian supplies were weaponized as part of its war on Ukraine.
In May 2022 the EU Commission launched its RePowerEU plan, with the aim of phasing out dependence on Russian fuels well before the end of the decade. This will be achieved by doubling down on the green energy transition among other initiatives, by increasing the energy efficiency target (already agreed in July 2023) and by raising the binding renewable energy target by 2030. The contrast with the food sector where food price inflation has led to calls to delay or postpone the green food transition is striking and we need to understand the reasons why.
What Europeans eat
Any discussion of food security status in the EU must start with what Europeans eat and where this food comes from. The first message from this figure is that the average European eats more than enough at present, even if we allow that these figures represent food availability and not food consumption. The EFSA recommended dietary energy intake for women and men is around 2,000 to 2,500 kcal per day, also depending on age, while its recommended protein daily intake for adults corresponds to between 41 to 83 gm protein per day for adults between 50 and 100 kg bodyweight. Most of us could eat less and be better off for it.
Looking at the composition of the diet, roughly equal shares of dietary energy come from cereals, livestock and sugar and oils combined, whereas most of our protein supply comes from livestock and fish with 45% coming from plant-based sources.
The EU is largely self-sufficient in basic commodities…
In general, the EU has a high degree of food sovereignty and is fortunate to be relatively self-sufficient in basic commodities. This figure shows that the EU is a net exporter of wheat, dairy and meat products, and close to self-sufficient in coarse grains and sugar. Its main deficit areas are in vegetable oils (where a significant share of imports go to biofuels rather than food), oilseeds and oilseed meals as animal feed, and in fruits and vegetables.
These figures underestimate the importance of trade because there are often both exports and imports of the same commodity, reflecting quality differences. Reliance on trade, and particularly imports, is not a bad thing in itself. Imports allow us to take advantage of differences in comparative advantage and to purchase goods more cheaply abroad than we could produce at home, thus raising our standard of living. The fact that we import from other countries means that they import from us, raising incomes in our exporting sectors. Trade can help to stabilize price and markets in the face of fluctuations in domestic production, but it can also be a source of instability. The EU has sensibly established a European Food Security Crisis Preparedness and Response Mechanism to identify vulnerabilities and coordinate responses.
Despite this relatively favourable self-sufficiency situation EU leaders at their March 2022 informal meeting in Versailles immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine identified food as a strategic dependency to be addressed. Specifically, Member States committed to strengthening the EU’s food security by reducing dependency on key imported agricultural inputs, especially by ‘increasing the EU production of plant-based proteins’. In that context, the Commission announced in its food security communication its intention to review its protein policy in the first quarter of 2024.
There are many good reasons for the EU to have a protein strategy which should include the development of novel proteins as well as the cultivation of plant-based proteins. But I have never been convinced by the food security justification for extending the area under plant-based proteins to substitute for imports for animal feed. The arable land area in Europe is fixed, so any increase in protein crops will be at the expense of probably wheat and maize and, given current yield differences, overall biomass production would be reduced. Potential vulnerabilities in oilseed supply chains, which in any case are only moderately concentrated, may be a concern for the animal feed and livestock industries but this should not be confused with a threat to food security.
… and has a large production reserve currently allocated to animal production
In fact, the large share of arable crops fed to animals is a massive food reserve. Grazing animals can make a net addition to the EU food supply by converting otherwise indigestible forage crops into animal protein, but most animal protein is produced by feeding with crops using land that could be used directly for human food supply. As the figure shows on the right hand side, around two-thirds of EU cereals are fed to animals with significant conversion losses.
Lack of fertilizer is likely to be a bigger threat to food security in the EU where producing more food is not a solution. The EU’s dependence on imported supplies especially from Belarus and Russia was sharply exposed following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Fertilizer imports and natural gas which is the main ingredient in fertilizer manufacture from Russia were excluded from sanctions as a result.
You will hear more on fertilisers from other more expert speakers at this conference. I merely note that the Farm to Fork objective to reduce nutrient losses by 50% by 2030 which is intended to reduce the use of fertilisers by 20%, although proposed in order to mitigate air, soil and water pollution as well as climate impacts, is also ideally targeted to reduce this vulnerability and, by increasing efficiency, is also a win win for farmers themselves. But not all of the Green Deal targets will necessarily have this happy outcome.
The food system has a large environmental footprint
The food system has a very large environmental footprint related to water, air and soil pollution, freshwater consumption, biodiversity losses, and climate change, as well as negative impacts on human health. The scale of these negative impacts has been regularly documented by the European Environment Agency in its State of the European Environment reports and scientific papers. Measures to address these adverse effects at least in the short run may reduce yields and production, raise costs and lower farm incomes.
More ambitious climate action is particularly needed
A potential clash with production is particularly likely in the case of climate action. The figure shows that agricultural emissions are projected only to be 4% lower in 2030 compared to 2005, increasing to 8% if currently planned measures are implemented.
In the first half of next year, the Commission will bring forward a Communication for EU emissions reduction targets for 2035 and 2040. The European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change has recommended net emissions reductions of 90-95% by 2040, relative to 1990 levels. The new Climate Commissioner Wopke Hoekstra gave an undertaking at his confirmation hearing with the European Parliament that he would support the at least 90% net reduction recommendation. Even with some contribution from carbon removals, this will not be possible without significant reductions in agricultural emissions.
Between 81-86% of EU agricultural emissions come from livestock farming including feed emissions. We cannot reduce agricultural emissions without reducing livestock emissions. The most effective way to incentivise this would be a trading scheme for agricultural emissions, but putting a price on agricultural emissions has yet to gain traction, even if there is wide support for the idea that farmers should be paid for carbon removals.
These environmental and climate challenges raise the question how big the agricultural sector should be in Europe and what should it produce. All of the evidence points to the fact that, with current technologies and practices, agricultural production exceeds its biophysical boundaries just discussed. In the light of negative impacts or externalities of agricultural production, a smaller agricultural sector would be optimal. This does not necessarily apply across the whole farmed landscape, but certainly in hotspot areas.
How big should the EU agricultural sector be?
The logic here is simply explained in an Economics 101 diagram. This shows the decision process in setting the optimal level of output per ha. For a farmer, the optimal level is the point Q where the marginal addition to revenue of an additional unit of output is just equal to the marginal cost of producing that unit. In making this decision, farmers only take into account their priced input costs – feed, fertilizer, chemicals, machinery and so on – though they may also be constrained by regulatory obligations. Summing all the individual farm decisions gives the national level of agricultural output.
But we know that at the output level Q there are also hidden or unaccounted net environmental costs. At low levels of output intensity per ha, these environmental impacts may be positive, but as output and intensity increases, they become increasingly negative. The socially optimal level of output is therefore Q*, which lies to the left of Q and is a lower level of output. How much lower will depend on the adjustment possibilities open to farmers, which in turn is a function of knowledge generation and innovation.
Addressing the productivist or ‘food at any cost’ argument
This conclusion that we need to limit and adjust agricultural production in Europe is contested by what I will call the productivist argument. This has two parts. The first part is the undoubted challenge to meet a growing global food demand, driven less and less by increased population but increasingly by rising incomes for the majority of this population, in the context where on the supply side the quantities of high quality land and water available for agriculture are diminishing and climate change is expected to further reduce the productivity of key crops in several regions of the world. As the figure shows, yield and production growth rates have been falling in recent years even prior to covid and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The second part of this argument is that the EU’s contribution to this global challenge should be to increase its production capacity to increase our net exportable surplus to food deficit countries. This was the argument used to justify allowing Member States to derogate from GAEC 8 requiring arable farmers to maintain a minimum share of non-productive land when first introduced in the 2022 season, when extended and widened in the 2023 season and behind the push for further loosening of environmental measures in the 2024 season.
But there are other ways in which the EU could increase its exportable surplus without rolling back nature protection measures. Many member states still encourage the use of crop feedstocks for production of biofuel and bioenergy. More active measures to encourage plant-based diets would have a similar effect. In any case, there is no obligation to produce food where the total costs of doing so including environmental damages exceed the value of the food produced. The EU should certainly contribute to increased food availability globally, but the most effective instrument to do this is through assistance to increase food production in developing countries themselves, or through humanitarian aid through bodies like the World Food Programme to help reverse the increase in numbers undernourished shown in a previous slide..
The potential risk of off-shoring environmental damages
The future of food is one where European farmers produce quality food in ever more sustainable ways, but it is likely to be more costly. Evidence suggests that there is a minority of consumers who are prepared to pay for sustainability characteristics and it is possible this group will grow over time. On the other hand, in times of high food price inflation and a cost of living squeeze, consumers become more price sensitive. There is thus a risk that higher environmental standards reduce EU production and lead to increased imports and the export of pollution abroad.
Environmental regulations are not always an additional cost. They can stimulate innovation and new practices that minimize any negative competitiveness impacts. European farmers also benefit from significant public support and, in some cases, tariff protection, to offset these higher costs of production. The argument that imports and thus the EU’s ecological footprint overseas will increase assumes no parallel change in consumption patterns, when it should be an objective of policy to shift consumption patterns in a similar direction.
European farmers argue that the higher standards that apply to them should also apply to imports, the notion of reciprocity also referred to as mirror clauses. Imported products are already checked for compliance with EU health and safety standards and can be refused entry if they fail to meet those standards. Farmers argue that the same rules should apply for environmental standards.
The Commission is prepared to take action where standards are of global environmental concern, and has already done so in the case of two neonicotinoids given the threat they pose to pollinators. The legitimacy of these unilateral trade measures under WTO rules remains to be tested, and there is always the risk of trade retaliation. The Commission has stated that it will consider issues on a case-by-case basis and this is undoubtedly the right approach. The longer-term aim must be to convince other countries also to adopt higher standards, rather than to introduce trade restrictions per se.
Higher food prices as a barrier to the sustainability transition
Another worry is that if producing more sustainable food is more costly that this will put the food security of low-income families at risk. At a time when more Europeans than ever have recourse to food banks, and where Eurostat barometer surveys show a rising proportion of the population experience food deprivation, this is an obvious concern.
There has long been a movement advocating for the true cost of food as a powerful tool to set up sustainable food systems. The price of food should reflect the full costs of producing it. Providing a hidden subsidy to food by ignoring its environmental costs likely results in a very skewed distribution of these benefits to better-off consumers. Food insecurity in Europe arises due to the inability to access food due to low incomes, rather than due to the unavailability of food. It follows that providing targeted support to low-income families is a more appropriate response.
A critical role for innovation
It is imperative to improve the sustainability of our food system. I have argued that, even in the short run, this will not put the food security of EU consumers at risk, and in the long run, it may even be a prerequisite for their food security.
However, transitioning towards a more sustainable food system will require significant changes in what we produce, in how we produce it, and in what we eat. In the short run, there are difficult trade-offs, not necessarily with food security, but with the livelihoods of current producers, with the EU’s consumption footprint abroad, and with the prices consumers expect to pay.
Political opposition to the necessary transition in the light of these issues is not unexpected. It is particularly potent when the costs are short run and experienced within an electoral cycle, while the benefits become evident much later and even for later generations.
There can well be scope to increase European food production in future, but this cannot be at the expense of further exacerbating environmental damage. This is where those of you – researchers, academics, innovators, farmers –have a hugely important role to play. Innovation has a critical role in delivering sustainable productivity growth and helping to minimise these trade-offs. Sustainable productivity growth can help to reconcile the apparently conflicting demands of increasing food production and environmental sustainability. We need much more investment in delivering these solutions.
Note: The small change made in this blog post compared to the oral presentation refers to the blank statement in the oral presentation that a protein strategy could not be justified by reference to food security. Here I had in mind the European Council resolution which specifically referred to plant-based proteins. Widening the perspective of the protein strategy to include novel proteins which could be a net addition to the EU food supply and not simply a replacement for imports would evidently improve our food security.
Update 28 Oct 2023. I clarified that my criticism of the European Council argument refers to extending the area under plant-based proteins to substitute for imports of proteins for animal feed.
This post was written by Alan Matthews.
Picture credit: Camy West used under a CC by 2.0 licence.