Olivier De Schutter is co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). He took part in the ETUI webinar ‘A crisis within a crisis: the European Green Deal back on track after Covid-19?’, analysing what is at stake with the ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy. We took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about the EGD and the EU Recovery Plan.

In your opinion, the ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy does not take sufficient account of the EU’s foreign policy. Why is this?  

The chapters on “sustainable development” introduced in the EU’s free trade agreements are relatively non-binding. There is, for example, no penalty for non-compliance with the principles laid down in these chapters. 

There are reasons to be optimistic about the future because I think that the Commission seems to be heading towards more binding standards in this area. However, the EU’s trade policy today is based on the ambition of eliminating all barriers to imports. This encourages social and environmental dumping. Social movements and NGOs from the south are not, for their part, being listened to. The Directorate-General for Trade of the European Commission claims that imposing stricter environmental conditions in free trade agreements would be contrary to World Trade Organisation (WTO) standards. This is not true. The WTO in fact offers more flexibility in this area. The EU’s logic is still: “We must seek growth where it can be found” – for example, on the African continent or in India. Yet economic growth cannot be an end in itself if the price to pay for it is the degradation of the environment and social and human rights in the Global South. 

“Growth should not be considered the alpha and omega of our development model, as has been the case in the past. We need a new model based on social welfare and the reduction of our environmental footprint.”

More and more studies are questioning the possibility of decoupling growth from environmental damage. In this context, is the implementation of a broad economic recovery plan paradoxical? 

The claim that it is impossible to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation is generally true. I also think that there is a misunderstanding about the word “recovery”. GDP growth should not be considered the alpha and omega of our development model, as has been the case in the past. We need a new model based on social welfare and the reduction of our environmental footprint. The “Farm to Fork” strategy, for example, does not really recognise the need to break away from the dynamic of increasing the number of available calories while lowering the price of food for consumers. In reality, it would be more appropriate to strengthen social legislation in this area to enable all families to benefit from healthy meals.

The Green Deal seems to be betting heavily on the development of new technologies to achieve the objective of climate neutrality by 2050. Do these expectations seem realistic to you?

The objective of climate neutrality for 2050 is unrealistic if only reductions of CO2 emissions are envisaged. It is also necessary to absorb the emissions. To this end, the potential of agriculture is enormous. Transforming soils from carbon emitters (as is the case at the moment) into carbon absorbers would be a major step forward. In this context, it should be stressed that the “Farm to Fork” strategy rewards better soil management. However, although the potential of these technologies is very significant, their deployment alone cannot be a substitute for real change in our development model.