Every month, the Whitehouse food and nutrition policy team brings you the latest policy and regulatory developments, helping you understand and shape the future of sustainable food systems. You can subscribe to our newsletter here to get exclusive insights directly into your inbox.
In addition, below you can find some of the top stories that caught our attention this month:
Ukraine war lingers – Commission presses ahead with Farm to Fork plans
The ongoing war in Ukraine has laid bare a tremendous impact on the country’s food security. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) noted that it is “deeply concerned”, mentioning that not only has the war significantly disrupted livelihoods, but it is “uncertain whether Ukraine will be able to harvest existing corps, plant new ones or sustain livestock production as the conflict evolves”.
The impact extends beyond Ukraine’s borders. The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament highlighted its fear that food supplies, including wheat, soybeans, vegetable oils and chicken meat, which the European market imports from Ukraine, will be significantly compromised. Sunflower oil, one of Ukraine’s biggest food exports, is notably troubling the supply of “frites” one of Belgium’s signature foods, while in Spain supermarkets have begun to limit the amount of sunflower oil that customers can buy.
The situation has led some stakeholders (including the EPP) to question whether the sustainability objectives in the EU’s Farm to Fork (F2F) Strategy should be put on hold while scarcity issues are addressed. COPA-COGECA – the confederation of European farmers and agri-cooperatives – called on the EU to reconsider these objectives and focus on allowing European farmers to concentrate on producing agricultural products to fill the gap created by the situation in Ukraine. More than 90 environmental and other NGOs have expressed their disagreement: in a joint letter they emphasise that “the crisis in Ukraine is yet another reminder of how essential it is to implement the Green Deal and its Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies” and that, by acting responsibly now, Europe can ensure being well-placed to face possible future crises.
Views on this issue were split within the European Commission, too. While Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski wanted to hold off on implementing the EU’s flagship sustainable food policy, Vice-President Frans Timmermans advocated in favour of retaining the EU’s green ambition despite the challenges.
Last week, the European Parliament passed a resolution to highlight the need for an urgent action plan to bolster food security within the EU in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, the European Commission has now published a communication recalling its commitment to the Green Deal and the F2F Strategy, as a means to reinforce the resilience and sustainability of the EU’s food system to be prepared for future crises. The communication highlights that “food availability is currently not at stake in the EU, since the continent is largely self-sufficient for many agricultural products”. Nonetheless, it sets out a range of short and medium-term actions to enhance global food security and support farmers and consumers in the EU. This includes a support package of €500 million to help producers most affected by serious consequences of the war, and the possibility for Member States to derogate certain greening obligations in 2022 to bring additional agricultural land into production.
Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechwoski has since then also indicated that the Commission is prepared to set up special trading routes between Poland and Ukraine to facilitate the movement of food products and live animals in both directions.
EU Member States call for an EU plant-based protein strategy
Ahead of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council on 21st March, the Austrian delegation presented a note on “Enhancing the potential of plant-based proteins in Europe in line with the objectives set out in the European Green Deal”. The note stresses the crucial role of plant-based proteins for the transition towards more sustainable food systems, and highlights Europe’s dependence on imports from third countries for plant-based proteins such as soy.
While all delegations welcomed the Austrian initiative, Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski affirmed that the Commission is not planning to adopt an EU strategy on plant-based proteins at this stage. Instead, the Commission asserted that it would be assessing the different available tools and encouraged Member States to exchange best practices.
The Austrian initiative builds on the joint declaration signed by the French and Austrian Ministers in December 2021, which called for the European Commission to initiate work on a European protein strategy to ensure greater food security. The need for greater independence comes as the demand for plant-based proteins is growing and EU plant-based protein production is in major deficit. The crisis in Ukraine has created an even greater momentum for Austria to push for such initiatives as some key sources of nutrients have already faced shortages, such as sunflower oil.
The Food and Agriculture Forum (FAO) also reported this month on the expanding market of plant-based alternatives, looking at the benefits and risks of such changes in the market. Taking stock of how major global drivers will shape food safety in tomorrow’s world, FAO calls for more awareness in evaluating allergens from foods not commonly consumed before. Among others, the report raises potential concerns regarding the ability of algae – an alternative protein source – to accumulate high levels of heavy metals, like arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury.
Environmental labelling is being questioned or postponed
A group of fourteen NGOs – including the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), Slow Food Europe and the Fair Trade Advocacy Office – called for European ministers to reject the use of the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) system in the sustainability labelling of food products. In a joint letter sent to the Commission, the group of NGOs claims that the PEF is being considered by the Commission as the basis for its upcoming proposal on substantiating green claims and the upcoming sustainability labelling initiative within the legislative framework on Sustainable Food Systems.
The PEF is a multi-criteria measure of the environmental performance of a product or service from the extraction of raw materials, through production and use, to final waste management, but its use is considered misleading for agri-food products. The PEF predominantly favours the most intensive methods of production while disregarding both a number of positive elements and the negative externalities of the food production process. According to these associations, it also disregards land degradation, biodiversity losses and imported deforestation as indicators of sustainability.
The joint letter recommends instead an environmental label for food which is more closely aligned with the objectives of the F2F strategy.
In the meantime, Italy has postponed again the introduction of the environmental labelling obligations that it was set to introduce from 1st July 2022 to 1st January 2023. The obligations for environmental labelling for all packaging are intended to facilitate the collection, reuse, and recycling of all packaging. The entry into force of the labelling obligations had already previously been delayed.
The main reason for the postponement has been the lack of clear guidelines from the legislator, which created difficulties for companies. The Italian Ministry of Ecologic Transition now has three additional months to provide the official guidance documents.
EFSA and the WHO inform policymakers on how to regulate sugars in the diet to limit health problems
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) completed its safety assessment of sugars in the diet and their potential link to health problems. While the assessment confirmed the link between intake of dietary sugars and health risks and diseases, it was unable to set a Tolerable Upper Intake level for dietary sugars. The EFSA Panel on Nutrition, Novel Foods, and Food Allergens (NDA) found that the adverse health risks increased with the level of dietary sugars in a constant and linear manner, and concluded that intakes of added and free sugars should be as low as possible.
This assessment was completed in response to a request issued by Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden in 2017, and it will serve as a source to review recommendations for sugar intake and food-based dietary guidelines in these Nordic countries. The sugar industry criticised EFSA’s scientific opinion highlighting that it is misleading for consumers’ sense of sugar safety and suggesting it may lead to further use of artificial sweeteners.
Reducing sugars in the diet is also a priority for the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has submitted recommendations on how to develop and implement taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages. Finding such taxes an effective health measure in combating non-communicable diseases, the report evaluates the implementation of the tax in ten European countries.
The report identifies that the tax is most effective when it reflects the health burden of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption, as well as the cultural patterns of the country. Interestingly, the report recommends limiting the involvement of the food and beverage industry in sugar-sweetened beverage tax discussions to minimise opposition to their introduction. It also highlights that having the support of non-governmental organisations, academics and other social actors helps the taxes’ adoption.
The WHO report and EFSA’s safety assessment are both in line with a policy drive to limit sugar consumption both in the EU and in the UK. More specifically, the EU is currently in the process of reviewing the rules on food labelling to raise consumer awareness and help them make healthier and more sustainable food choices. With the Farm to Fork Strategy, the European Commission announced to revise EU rules to introduce harmonised mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling, which aims to raise awareness on food products high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS). Similarly, the UK government introduced an online and TV advertising ban for HFSS between 9:00 pm and 5:30 am which aims to reduce the consumption of HFSS foods.
Spain plans to regulate what foods popular figures can promote to youth
The Spanish consumer affairs ministry has drafted a decree that would prohibit influencers, TV presenters and sports stars from advertising foods high in sugar, sodium, salt or fat to children. More specifically, “the ban would prohibit appearances in commercial communications by parents, educators, teachers, children’s TV professionals, sportspeople, artists, influencers, and people or characters – be they real or fictional – who may, by dint of their careers, be likely to represent a model or example for these minors”. The ban would apply to items such as chocolate, cakes, biscuits, energy bars, juices, energy drinks and ice creams.
High-profile figures popular among children would also be sought to help promote “physical activity and health, sustainable and responsible eating habits” by participating in educational and public health campaigns.
Spain’s consumer affairs minister, Alberto Garzón, announced these plans back in October last year, which he deems as necessary to tackling “the serious public health problem of childhood obesity”. The plans include a ban on advertising these products from TV channels for children (all day), and restrictions on the radio or other TV channels before, after and during timeframes when under-16s are likely to be watching. Advertising aimed at children will not feature in social media, applications, the internet and the printed press. Garzón, the coordinator for the United Left alliance in the coalition government, had previously received backlash for the plans, particularly from right-wing conservative politicians.
Obesity rates are not only rising in Spain (where 15% of children are obese), but also across Europe and the world. The World Health Organisation reports that worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975 and Eurostat data estimates that 52.7% of the adult population in Europe was overweight in 2019.
The consultation on the draft decree ran from 7th to 29th March and the authorities are now analysing the responses that have been received.
Brazilian organisations urge the EU to act on deforestation
Thirty-four Brazilian environmental organisations, including World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Brazil, published a joint statement calling for improvements to the European Union’s proposal for a regulation on products free of deforestation. The Brazilian organisations consider the proposal “necessary and positive” but also flag that the new legislation has gaps which need to be addressed to combat illegal deforestation in exporting countries, such as Brazil.
The letter specifically assesses a need for a wider definition of the term ‘forest’ in the European Commission’s proposal to include key ecosystems in Brazil, including the Pantanal wetlands, the Cerrado savannah, and the Pampa lowlands. It also calls for stricter control against “leakage” deforestation within the same property to ensure that due diligence measures apply to entire farms rather than to targeted parts of the farms. According to the European Commission proposal, the “portion” of a farm subject to audit is defined as the actual area of the property on which a particular commodity is produced.
The European Commission’s proposal is currently being discussed in the European Parliament and the Council. The Environmental Council exchanged views for a common definition of key terms such as ‘deforestation’, ‘forest degradation’ as well as for ‘sustainable harvesting operations’. Commonly defining these terms was agreed to be necessary for an effective and harmonised operational application of the regulation. In the European Parliament, a draft report has been published on 25th March suggesting that the regulation should also apply to natural ecosystems such as wetlands and savannahs. Moreover, companies will have to also include in their due diligence the geolocation coordinates of “relevant production areas” rather than the exact “plot of land” as proposed by the Commission. The draft report is expected to be presented to the Parliament’s environment committee on 20th April for amendments.
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