Analysis: “Making Europe healthier: Biodiversity and Sustainable Food strategies unveiled by the Commission” by Anjum Shabbir
Two ambitious strategies, one on preventing the further loss of biodiversity and restoration of degraded ecosystems, and one on food sustainability for the health of humans, livelihoods and the planet through sustainable food chains, were published by the European Commission through Communications two days ago. They were sent to the European Parliament and Council asking them for endorsement ahead of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2021, with aims to develop the strategies into a new UN Global Diversity Framework. The Commission is also encouraging a broad public debate.
These strategies are mutually reinforcing goals that are core parts of the European Green Deal announced by the Commission on 11 December 2019, which aims for a climate-neutral circular economy that separates economic growth from resources, with the grand aim of making Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050.
This Commission is not resting on its laurels. Earlier measures taken to implement the European Green Deal policy objectives include a European Climate Law proposal on 4 March 2020, an Industrial Strategy for Europe (climate neutrality and digital leadership) on 10 March, and a Circular Economy Action Plan on 11 March. It is also currently exploring a European Green Deal Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change, a Zero Pollution Action Plan (for air, soil and water) can be expected in 2021, as well as an Integrated Nutrient Management Action Plan in 2022, and an EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability.
Strategy to Prevent Loss of Biodiversity
Biodiversity loss is described in the Strategy as ‘one of the biggest threats facing humanity in the next decade’. Biodiversity can summarily be described as plants, animals, fungi, micro-organisms, their habitats, and ecosystems made up of living species, which provide food, materials, medicines, recreation, health and wellbeing through cleaning water and air, pollinating crops, regulating the climate, keeping soil fertile, and more. The loss of biodiversity is closely connected to climate change: climate change drives that loss, and the loss has a negative effect on the climate. There is also an economic loss: it leads to losses due to land-cover change, land degradation, reduced crop yields, fish catches and potential new sources of medicine – the Commission states that the world has lost between 3.5 and 18.5 trillion per year from 1997 to 2011, plus 5.5 to 10.5 trillion per year due to those issues.
This Strategy is not directed at an unturned stone: there is existing law regulating aspects of biodiversity dating back to 1979, including the conservation of Birds Directive 2009/147; conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora Directive 92/43; Invasive Alien Species Regulation 1143/2014; keeping of wild animals in zoos Directive 1999/22; prohibition on use of leghold traps Regulation 3254/91; Trade in Seal Pups Regulation 1007/2009; and import of skins of Seal Pups Directive 83/129.
However, the Strategy is considering how anachronistic that law is, and addresses the wide gap between the law and reality in terms of environment and human health protection. It proposes ways to implement that existing law more effectively (it is currently carrying out ‘fitness’ checks of that law), and also suggests new commitments, measures, targets and governance mechanisms.
It addresses the unsustainable use of land and sea, suggesting transformation of 30% into protected and managed areas, and the bringing back of 10% of agricultural area under a high diversity landscape, through strict protection (building on existing Natura 2000 areas listed in the Habitats Directive which are not considered properly protected).
The overexploitation of natural resources is also considered, with the suggestion to place them under Maximum Sustainability Yield levels.
As for pollution, it proposes ways to reduce it, including by aiming for green cities, such as through urban planning.
And turning to protection of habitats, species and ecosystems, it suggests a new legal framework with binding targets to restore damaged ecosystems; making 25,000km of rivers free-flowing through an EU Nature Restoration Plan; improving the health of protected habitats and species, bringing pollinators such as farmland birds and insects back to agricultural land; and making biodiversity protection an integral part of the economic growth strategy (and by a reflection of real environmental costs in pricing and tax systems).
It also intends for the promotion of organic farming and biodegradable-friendly farming practices, integrating biodiversity governance into national policies and encouraging research and innovation to that end.
Strategy for Food Sustainability – ‘Farm to Fork’
As with Biodiversity, there is already existing legislation in the field of food sustainability and health, such as the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Legislation (Directive 2009/128, and Regulations 1107/2009, 396/2005, 2017/625 and 1185/2009), Animal Welfare Legislation (Directives 98/58; 1999/74; 2007/43; 2008/120; 2008/119; and Regulations 1/2005 and; 1099/2009) and Food Labelling Legislation (Regulations 1169/2011 and 1924/2006) (some of which is also undergoing a ‘fitness’ check). The Commission has sent the European Parliament and Council reports evaluating existing Regulation 1107/2009 on marketing of plant protection products and pesticides, on nutrition declaration, and national targets on the sustainable use of pesticides.
A more complete and modernised transition to a sustainable food system however, with the aim of forming a global standard, is envisaged by the Strategy to address the environmental impact and ensure food security, and that food is healthy, nutritious, accessible, affordable, environmentally-friendly and sustainable.
Examples of targets the Strategy proposes are: reducing the environmental and climate footprint (including by reducing waste); reducing the use of pesticides by 50%, and the most harmful pesticides by 50%; reducing the use of fertilisers by 20%; reducing the use of antimicrobials for farmland animals and aquaculture by 50% (noted as being linked to the deaths of 33,000 people in the EU per year); promoting organic farming on 25% of agricultural land; improved labelling to provide consumers with information on healthy and sustainable foods; and working on providing fast broadband to rural areas by 2025 to promote digital innovation.
A proposal for a legislative framework for sustainable food systems will later be put forward to support implementation of this Strategy and development of sustainable food policy.
After the European Green Deal was announced, the Commission proposed to provide financial support and technical assistance of 1 trillion euros for the period 2021-2027 through the Just Transition Mechanism, on 14 January 2020.
It also refers to the InvestEU Fund to foster investment in the agro-food sector by de-risking investments by European corporations and facilitating access to finance for small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) and mid-cap companies. It aims at mobilising the financial sector to play a major role, including the European Investment Bank. And, it has stated that the CAP must increasingly facilitate investment support to improve the resilience and accelerate the green and digital transformation of farms (see more on how the Commission is considering a reform of CAP to link it to the European Green Deal here, and the view of scientists that farming subsidies cause steep declines in wildlife here).
In this particular case, the Commission has proposed the use of InvestEU and an actual figure of 20 billion euros a year from a mixture of EU, national and private funding, and to spend 10 billion euros under Horizon Europe funding on research and innovation on food, bioeconomy, natural resources, agriculture, fisheries, aquaculture and the environment, as well as the use of digital technologies and nature-based solutions for agri-food.
It is clear that the Commission has not abandoned its global and ambitious plans to implement the European Green Deal despite being rocked by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, shown by the issuing of these strategies, past strategies, and with its plans for future strategies. It also shows how this can be done by outlining concrete figures and funding sources. Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a shift that allows investment in this area to grow. However, it remains to be seen whether future measures will be respected, litigated, and enforced (consider the Commission’s acknowledgement of implementation and enforcement gaps here; difficulties with Poland not fully complying with the Court of Justice’s ruling prohibiting the logging of the Białowieża Forest as one example; and how this has not deterred Romania from illegal logging – a recent infringement procedure has been opened by the Commission against Romania for doing so within Nature 2000 protected sites).
Anjum Shabbir is an Assistant Editor at EU Law Live