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Good Intentions Pave the Road to Unintended Consequences for Global Ag

Written by: Constance Cullman   |   June 11, 2020

Environmental footprint

“There's nothing that does so much harm as good intentions.”

That quote was one of the first things I heard in my college introductory economics course. American economist Milton Friedman formally introduced me to the concept that every action has consequences – intended and unintended – and responsible decision-makers should do their best to understand those before taking strong actions. The quote could not be more fitting than now, following the newly announced European Green Deal.

The European Green Deal has good intentions and sets out to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.  At the heart of the green deal is the European Union’s new Farm to Fork strategy. The strategy aims to reduce the environmental and climate footprint of the EU food system as well as strengthen its resilience, ensure food security, improve the incomes of primary producers and reinforce the EU’s competitiveness from farm to fork. One can acknowledge that these goals seem virtuous, but as they say, “the devil is in the details.”

The document outlines several agricultural goals to be met by 2030, including:

  • a 50% reduction in the use of pesticides;
  • a 20% reduction in the use of fertilizers;
  • a 50% reduction in the use of antibiotics in farmed animals and aquaculture; and
  • the conversion of at least 25% of the EU’s agricultural lands to organic practices.

These goals make a lot of assumptions.  Certainly when it comes to producer competitiveness, removing access to pesticides while limiting the ability to bring new innovations to market to address the problems of pests and diseases has not helped the EU producer or the bloc’s competitiveness. An arbitrary reduction of antimicrobial use in food-producing animals without acknowledging the need for responsible antimicrobial use or approval of alternatives puts the EU’s livestock producers at a disadvantage. The assumption that organic practices are always more sustainable than other production systems demonstrates an unwillingness to understand the innovative stewardship practices and sustainability successes experienced in a variety of production systems by farmers across the globe. 

The strategy also contains conflicting policy objectives and appears to ignore the environmental impacts of the alternatives promoted as replacements for the above tools. In place of pesticides, for example, the strategy suggests “crop rotation and mechanical weeding” without acknowledging the increased air emissions from the additional equipment passes over the field. Its goal to move consumers to a more plant-based diet with less red and processed meat via elaborate marketing campaigns and taxing schemes that support organic fruit and vegetables while discouraging meat consumption overlooks the important role livestock plays in the circular food production systems the strategy hopes to promote or the value animal protein plays in healthy diets.

In addition, the strategy espouses the belief that consumer health is dependent upon locally sourced, sustainable diets that limit meat consumption. In one startling paragraph, the strategy states:

“The Commission will seek commitments from food companies and organisations to take concrete actions on health and sustainability…ensuring that food price campaigns do not undermine citizens’ perception of the value of food…  For example, marketing campaigns advertising meat at very low prices must be avoided.”

It does not explore how consumers will obtain the needed balance of micronutrients primarily supplied via animal protein.

I applaud the EU’s desire to leave the world a better place, but I would argue that taking tools away from producers without active encouragement of new innovations and technologies to replace them does not protect its competitiveness. Sweeping changes without understanding its own food system, the challenges faced by its own agricultural producers, or the needs of the rest of the world for not just carbon-neutral food, but food at all, does not encourage food security.

On page six, the report states its intention to change the way the entire world produces food:

“It is also clear that we cannot make a change unless we take the rest of the world with us.”

Perhaps this goal requires a broader, global conversation and a better understanding of the consequences – both intended and unintended.

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