ENVI

Vegetarian by circumstance: In 2022, due to a rapid increase in food prices, 8.3% of people in the EU were unable to afford a meal containing meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent every second day, disproportionately affecting vulnerable groups. What steps can the EU take to ensure that access to food is both sustainable and…

Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety

Vegetarian by circumstance: In 2022, due to a rapid increase in food prices, 8.3% of people in the EU were unable to afford a meal containing meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent every second day, disproportionately affecting vulnerable groups. What steps can the EU take to ensure that access to food is both sustainable and equitable for all its citizens?

By Jasmīna Bundule (LV)

The Case Study

Almost any person who has attended a grocery shop within the last two years has noticed a sharp rise in food prices, ranging from the price of a cucumber all the way to your favourite chocolate bar.  Every family has felt this rise, yet the families and individuals who are worse off are those who are already at risk of poverty. A single mother providing for her three children with a minimum wage is likely to have to decide to either provide her kids with fully nutritious meals containing meat, fish and vegetables at least twice a week or pay heating bills for their apartment. This is the harsh reality experienced by many in the EU, with countries such as Bulgaria being especially affected, since about 44.6% of those at risk of poverty, with the inability to afford a meal containing meat, fish or a vegetarian alternative every second day.

Abstract

The real food price inflation (rate of food price inflation minus overall inflation) reached 4% in October 2023 within the EU. Indeed, the bloc has seen a continuous inflation trend since 2022 due to a rise in energy costs, which reportedly has become the main worry for 93% of all EU citizens, which has had a knock-on effect on the agriculture industry. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022 is the core driver of these phenomena, as Russia has been targeting the agricultural facilities in Ukraine that had been providing many of the EU Member States with sunflower oil and grains. The inflation has since decreased, yet the effects are strongly felt all over the EU, even in the wealthiest Member States such as Luxembourg and The Netherlands where 5% and 7% (respectively) of the population are unable to afford a meal containing meat, fish or a vegetarian alternative every second day.

Picture 1: Share of the population unable to afford a meal with meat, fish or vegetarian equivalent every second day

Key Concepts

  • Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): an urgent call for action adopted within the framework of the United Nations. It proposes a broad range of objectives that range from ending poverty and other deprivations to improving health and education, reducing inequality, and spurring economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests. SDG 2, in particular, focuses on malnutrition, the sustainability of agricultural production and its environmental impacts, hence direct progress regarding SDG 2 has the potential to solve the deprivation caused by inflation in food prices.
  • European Green Deal: it includes a number of policy proposals put forward by the European Commission, with the main goal of ensuring the EU becomes a more modern, resource-efficient economy. The overall aim is to ensure that there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050, that economies grow without simultaneously increasing resource use and that the green transition is fair to all societies and industries. This will affect virtually all EU competencies, such as energy, finance, regional development, agriculture, and industry. 
  • “Farm to Fork” strategy: the agricultural pillar of the European Green Deal, this strategy has been developed by the European Commission to ensure better and more environmentally friendly food production in the EU. It encompasses the goals of increasing sustainable food production, reducing food insecurity and keeping stable food prices by drafting regulations around farming, sales as well as consumption. There is currently no tangible progress recorded, since the EU was set to have the strategy proposed by the end of 2023,  and all the main goals are to be reached by 2030.
  • Common Agricultural Policy (CAP): one of the main policies of the EU, it aims to provide support to smaller farms to ensure the economic viability of European farmers, to improve agricultural productivity and to increase flexibility for Member States to implement measures that are best suited for local needs and capabilities. One of its main instruments is the Performance Monitoring and Evaluation Framework (PMEF), set up by the European Commission to support the CAP in the shift from rule compliance to showing performance and results. Based on the framework farmers as well as Member States will set goals in the area of farming, food production as well as distribution. 

Key Actors and Stakeholders

European Commission

As the main executive body of the EU and the only one able to propose new legislation, it is one of the most important actors. Its Directorate-General for Environment (DG ENV) proposes and implements the Commission’s policies on the environment. Therefore, DG ENV has the power to put forward and develop a policy that aims at ensuring food availability to all citizens while also granting the sustainability of the food provided.

European Central Bank (ECB)

The EU body responsible for controlling the Eurozone and ensuring monetary stability. In order to ensure price stability, the ECB’s main task is to manage inflation, which in turn promotes economic growth and job creation. Therefore, the ECB holds the main accountability regarding the surge of food prices in February of 2022. 

Member States

EU Member States possess important powers within several policy areas that are relevant for this topic, such as environment, agriculture and public health. Indeed, the EU and Member States have shared competences over these sectors, which means that Member States can legislate nationally as long as the EU has not intervened. Hence, they can still operate at the national level on policies such as farming or requirements for food supplies. 

Farmers

If the European Green Deal’s aims, and especially the Farm to Fork Strategy’s, are to be achieved, individuals who are in charge of large industrial farms or smaller local ones must be willing to change their ways of working. However, this risks coming at a high cost for them, something which has led to frequent protests against green policies in the last years, as well as intense lobbying of EU institutions by farmers’ associations such as Copa-Cogeca. In particular, lobby groups have been fueled by studies published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Wageningen University that argue that the Farm to Fork strategy will have a negative economic impact, leading to a reduction in farmers’ income and agricultural productivity.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs)

When new legislation is proposed by the EU, NGOs often lobby the EU institutions, just like farming industries’ associations do, but in a direction that is usually opposed to the one that is wished for by these latter. For instance, NGOs have been denouncing the studies on which industries attempt to criticise the Farm to Fork strategy as “partial and incomplete”

What Has Happened so Far?

Eastern European countries struggle proportionately more

According to research, Central and Eastern European (CEE) Member States struggle more than the other EU Member States when looking at the extent of material deprivation, which indicates that there are more people at risk of poverty than in countries with lower levels of deprivation. Furthermore, evidence suggests that CEE Member States were hit the hardest by the rising food prices since February 2022. The 3 countries with the highest share of people at risk of poverty, who are unable to afford a proper meal according to Eurostat (Picture 2) are Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia. Yet, although this represents a clear divide between these fresher Member States and the Western ones, there has been no explicit action from the EU to address these regional differences. 

EU action on food prices 

Several EU bodies have been working on trying and solving the issue of rising food prices, which represents a particularly transversal social, economic and environmental matter. The European Parliament began working towards food price reductions in March 2022 by calling for a  reduction of the EU’s dependence on key imported agricultural products and inputs, in particular by increasing the EU production of plant-based proteins. Member States also recognised the necessity of implementing changes to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in order to ensure future food security and sustainability. The EU also looked outward and pledged to provide 500€ million to support agricultural production in Ukraine as an attempt at tackling the source of the issue. Furthermore, possibly the biggest action from the ECB was the decision to increase interest rates by 4.50%, 4.75% and 4.00% respectively, with effect from 20 September 2023. This action aims at ensuring that people spend less, which should lead to prices decreasing within the EU; in addition, this should make the euro stronger as a currency, leading to a decrease of prices for food imports. This is highly important to the EU, since 9% of all EU food is imported, including the food coming in from Ukraine.

EU progress towards the SDGs and the conflict between Farm to Fork and CAP

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) act as EU guidelines for progress on social and economic development with a focus on doing so sustainably. A yearly report monitors the EU’s performance on SDGs implementation.The 2023 edition of this report states that the trends in the area of malnutrition remain unfavourable. However, the trends in the agricultural sector have improved towards more productivity and increased public investments that, in turn, have the power to increase the amount of EU-produced agricultural items for consumption. The EU makes further contributions to reaching SDG 2 via the “Farm to Fork” strategy, which sits at the heart of the EU Green Deal. However, not only is there an existing conflict between the stakeholders involved in these sectors, for example, the farmers, NGOs and the EU, but also between the EU strategies, namely the CAP and the Farm to Fork strategy. 

In the past, the CAP has already been criticised for halting the EU progress from reaching its sustainability targets and when the updated Farm to Fork strategy was published, the CAP policy proposal for funding had already been passed for the period of 2021-2027, with little hope of new amendments. The main issue lies in the lack of effective binding requirements within  the CAP framework for farmers to implement Farm to Fork sustainability measures. Indeed, one of the headlining targets of the Green Deal is a reduction of at least 55% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Overall, already during the 2014-2020 CAP period the EU has invested about € 100 billion from the CAP budget on climate change mitigation and adaptation, but so far the measures have had very little impact on improving emission rates. However, even after the approval of the Farm to Fork strategy, there is virtually no indication in the new CAP that targets the most emitting food sectors such as that of the livestock sector.


Picture 2: The CAP objectives and Farm to Form strategy pillars

Food for thought

Environmental issues have a tendency to affect every part of our lives, whether it be because of their economic, social, agricultural or political effects. Because of this overlap, we are seeing slow progress from the EU institutions in addressing these pressing environmental issues, despite the numerous discussions and conferences taking place in the present day. We must recognise that efforts are being made by the governing institutions, but at the same time, we cannot forget to continue pushing for more progress as individuals. How can we ensure that the goals of policies are successfully reached? What can we as individuals contribute? Would involving other, smaller organisations in the pursuit of sustainability be effective and if so, what could they contribute?

As you can see, the topic of food poverty and sustainability is multifaceted and can be discussed from many different perspectives, so when you are looking into it, I urge you to not overlook the small details. You will see how these small details regarding social issues, the work of the Commission or of local farmers and so much more will turn out to be puzzle pieces that will neatly line up with one another to show you yet another facet of this topic. I remember that when I was researching my first committee topic, I did not have a deep understanding of the EU, so not much of what I found made sense to me. Yet, my own Chairperson encouraged us all to keep in mind those pieces of information we found and see how clear they will become over time. To my surprise, they really did, so I encourage each of you to do the same and we will all piece it together!

Valuable Links to Browse

But how do we actually solve the issue or is there even a solution to the problem at all? Saying “let’s solve hunger in the EU” is a sweeping statement to make but how do we actually do it? When thinking of solutions to the issue at hand, researchers have proposed creating a meat tax to reduce meat consumption, thus attempting to increase the amount of vegetables produced and consumed. How willing would we be to adopt a diet with reduced meat or fish products? Check how well you comply with the SDGs with this quiz. The European Green Deal is not only concerned with the farmers, NGOs and MEPs but can also include you through the European Climate Pact which aims to involve citizens in the journey towards the goals of the EU Green Deal. Finally, if you have more questions on what and how much the EU population actually eats, and whether it really affects society as much as we think, check the article about EU consumerism