Last year EPHA identified 11 ways in which the EU common agricultural policy (CAP) could deliver for better health. This month the European Parliament’s environment and public health committee (ENVI) voted for a series of improvements to the CAP proposal, giving hope that the policy can be reformed to pursue a healthier course for people and planet. While not bold enough to drive a “great food transformation”, and still far from a real food systems policy, the outcomes of the vote should be cherished and built upon for the upcoming, crucial procedure in the Parliament’s agriculture (AGRI) committee.
Concretely, which main health-relevant improvements were introduced?
- “Health” was maintained as a new CAP objective, alongside the need to promote nutritious food and reduce food waste. The prevention of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) was added as another health component. While maintaining health may not seem like a big deal, it provides an important signal for the vote in the AGRI committee, where the rapporteur proposed to scrap health from CAP objectives.
- Significant funding, around €15 billion per year, was reserved to achieve environmental objectives. Most of these carry vast health benefits, such as mitigating climate change and reducing air, soil and water pollution. This measure is not about taking money away from farmers and ‘giving it’ to nature. Rather, it is about giving money to farmers to advance environmentally-friendlier agricultural practices.
- Funding for the promotion of wine both outside and inside the EU was largely dismantled. Today, more money under the CAP is spent on promoting wines – nearly €220 million per year in the period 2014-2018, than on fruit and vegetables for schoolchildren – an allocated budget of around €150 million annually.
- Public health stakeholders, such as health authorities and civil society organisations, would have to be involved and have a real say in the preparation of national CAP implementation plans. It is difficult to imagine how health goals could be meaningfully pursued without the involvement of public health experts, especially as countries would need to find a response to all CAP objectives without being able to ‘cherry-pick’ only their favourites.
- Concentrated animal farming operations that do not comply with good animal welfare practices and harm the environment were barred from receiving any support. Likewise, sugar beet cultivation was made ineligible for voluntary coupled support. As governments push food manufacturers to reduce sugar in their products, not financing the production of sugar is really the minimum one can go in terms of policy coherence.
- The recently adopted Veterinary Medicines Regulation, which significantly restricts the routine preventative use of antibiotics, was added to conditionalities and a list of EU regulations to which national CAP strategic plans should contribute. While not adding to the mandatory nature of the regulation itself, it strengthens commitment to address AMR.
- Finally, new indicators to measure the success of the policy were added, in particular those related to the use of veterinary medicines, pesticides and animal welfare. There would also be a stronger focus on performance in the CAP with an enhanced role for “impact indicators”.
Facing-up to reality
The upcoming vote in the AGRI committee puts Members of European Parliament to the test on whether they are ready to face the reality of what the transition towards a sustainable food system involves. The reality dictates that to avert ecosystem collapse and the widespread erosion of well-being, Europe should produce and consume a more plant-rich diet with increased fruit and vegetables, pulses, nuts and whole grains, and with less meat and other animal products. This should be done while improving production methods and enabling farmers to make a good living.
This is by no means an easy transition. But there is no indication that the market will solve these issues in time by itself. It requires policy-makers to face up to reality and position themselves on the right side of history.
Policy Coordinator for Food, Drink and Agriculture