The Netherlands currently holds the Presidency of the EU (this rotates every six months between the EU countries). They have just published a courageous Discussion Paper that could lead to a much-needed turn round in EU farming policy. Perhaps even to the end of factory farming.
Factory farming (of both animals and crops) pumps out huge amounts of food and therefore is dependent on consumption levels being high.
This high-production model leads to environmental degradation, unhealthy diets and animal suffering. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy is lop-sided giving great weight to farmers’ interests while neglecting other concerns – though of course decent livelihoods for farmers are vital.
The Dutch paper challenges the status quo. Firstly, it suggests the Common Agricultural Policy should be replaced by a Common Agriculture and Food Policy. This move would require policy to take account of many factors in an integrated manner. It would need to promote healthy diets. It would have to restore the natural resources on which farming depends – soil, biodiversity and water. It would deliver high levels of animal welfare. And, it must ensure that farmers are properly rewarded for their work and skills.
Secondly, the Dutch paper argues that policy should be focused on consumers. The public needs to understand the detrimental impact of current diets. Eating less and better meat would lower heart disease and certain cancers. Research shows that a 50% decrease in EU meat and dairy consumption would lead to big reductions in greenhouse gas emissions as well as in the use of water, arable land and soy as animal feed, the latter resulting in less deforestation in South America.
Studies show that our diets alone – with their high levels of meat and dairy consumption – will take us over the Paris Agreement’s target of keeping the rise in temperatures to ‘well below 2°C’. Governments need to inform consumers about this; many would change their diets rather than risk plunging future generations into dangerous levels of climate change.
Thirdly, the Dutch paper rightly challenges the assumption that substantial increases in food production are needed. It emphasises that the present difficulties in the EU pig and dairy sectors stem from over-production.
The West’s high production levels are not necessary; indeed they have to be shored up by waste and myths. Around 20% of EU food is wasted – thrown out by retailers or consumers. Without this waste, current high levels of food production could not be sustained. Over 50% of EU cereals are fed to animals who convert them very inefficiently into meat and milk. Without factory farming’s huge demand for grain as animal feed, the EU arable sector would have to downsize – it could abandon the monocultures and agro-chemicals which so harm the countryside.
The key myth that is cultivated to justify a drive to even higher levels of production is that a 60-110% increase in food production is needed to feed the growing world population. However, studies show that we don’t need to produce large amounts of extra food; we simply need to halve food waste including the waste involved in feeding grain to animals.
In suggesting that we move to a Common Agriculture and Food Policy, in placing consumer behaviour centre-stage and in challenging the notion that high levels of production are a virtue in themselves, the Dutch Presidency has opened up a vital debate on the future of food.