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January 24, 2024

Editor’s note: why the world needs a food and farming transition plan

Cultivated or lab-grown chicken
Lab-grown chicken. Cultivated meat is seen by some as part of the lower emissions future, but the technology is causing uproar in certain EU countries (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The latest edition of our Sustainable Views newsletter

Dear reader,

Farmers and food are in the news across Europe. In Germany, France and elsewhere, farmers are blocking roads and demanding policy change. Exactly what sort of change they want is not always as clear as simplistic headlines suggest, however.

Government plans to scrap diesel tax breaks were a trigger for the protests in Germany, putting, once again, certain farmers in direct opposition with environmentalists. Some farmers in France also want to be left in peace to farm without, as they see it, intervention from the EU or national legislation demanding they change the way they do business. The EU Nature Restoration Law, the final iteration of which still needs to be signed off, was a prime example of the perfect storm between industrial farmers and those calling for more nature-friendly ways of growing food. But some of the protests in France are also aimed at the supermarkets and their immense control over food systems and prices — a stance that would be backed by many sustainable food campaigners.

Where various actors in the food and farming debate sit is complicated. The situation will become only more so as countries are forced to decide how they will transition farming systems in line with the pledges made at COP28 to reduce the climate impact of agriculture, responsible for a third of emissions globally. Until now, this statistic has been largely ignored by climate negotiators, focused on shifting the world’s energy systems away from fossil fuels. 

One solution to reduce emissions from food and farming is to reduce meat production and encourage the consumption of alternative proteins. Lab-grown or cultivated meat is seen by some as part of this lower emissions future, but the technology is causing uproar in certain EU countries. Agriculture ministers meeting in Brussels yesterday discussed the idea that such practices “represent a threat to primary farm-based approaches and genuine food production methods that are at the very heart of the European farming model”.

In November 2023, Italy went the whole hog and banned lab-grown meat in a bid to protect its powerful agricultural industry and traditional culinary culture. The bill states: “Synthetic food represents a dangerous means of destroying every link with natural food and different lands by cancelling every cultural distinction, often thousands of years old.”

Yet, what is considered “natural” or not is highly subjective. It could be argued there is little “natural” about the massive animals French presidents enjoy posing with at the annual agricultural salon outside Paris. 

Meanwhile, the age-old discussion about the role of genetically modified organisms in Europe’s food and farming systems is raising its head anew as the EU negotiates its way towards a new law on GMOs. Greenpeace argues the proposals could “violate the individual rights of farmers, in particular their fundamental rights to property and the freedom to run a business” with the introduction of patents on new products. 

Claire McConnell, policy adviser for sustainable agriculture and food systems at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, was clear when I spoke to her during COP28 that “we cannot achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement and limit warming to 1.5C without radically transforming our food systems”. 

This means not only deciding — based on facts and evidence, rather than high emotions and spurious ideas about culture and the definition of “nature” — what are the best solutions for farmers, the environment and nature, but also how this change will be financed. The International Energy Agency does a fine job of mapping out how the energy transition can be achieved, it would seem it is time the same was done for the world’s food and farming systems. 

In addition to its issues with farmers, Germany is also struggling with its energy climate commitments, after a constitutional court ruling in November stated that €60bn in unused pandemic debt could not be transferred to the country’s dedicated Climate Transformation Fund. Claudia investigates what’s happening and what the solutions are to funding the country’s Energiewende.

Until tomorrow,

Philippa

Philippa Nuttall is the deputy editor of Sustainable Views 

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