Sustaining tomorrow: the imperative for the EU to uphold its 2030 goals for a sustainable food system


The EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy was designed to ‘accelerate the transition to a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system’. It sets a range of targets to be met by 2030, underpinned by a mixture of new or revised laws, and non-legislative initiatives. As the current European Commission nears the end of its mandate, this article proposes how the next European Commission, from 2024–2029, should carry forward the goals of the Farm to Fork Strategy, and actions to meet its targets, especially as the EU is currently stalling many of its aspects in light of recent farmer protests.



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An urgent agenda

The goals of the Farm to Fork Strategy remain as relevant today as they were five years ago. The key challenge is to move to a system which is capable of ensuring food and nutrition security whilst operating within planetary boundaries. This is a longer-term goal than 2030, but by the end of the decade, Europe will need to have made significant progress towards it, including in terms of having the right policy frameworks in place.

A key area of action will be addressing climate change, and the large contribution of the food system. In 2020, the share of agri-food systems in total emissions was 32% in Europe. Early in the next Commission mandate, the EU will have to agree emission reduction targets for 2040. Achieving the reductions compatible with net zero by 2050 will require an estimated 40–60% reduction in agricultural emissions by 2040. This will require an increase of ambition in climate action for the sector; the EU’s 2023 Climate Progress Report projects that agricultural emissions will decrease by 1% with existing measures, and by 5% (compared to 2005 levels) with additional measures by 2030. A big priority will therefore need to be how to accelerate emissions reductions in the sector, and find the correct policy mix that ensures this happens in parallel with addressing other sustainability challenges like biodiversity loss, nitrogen pollution and soil depletion.

Limiting and adapting to climate change will be critical for food systems resilience, especially with regard to agricultural production. Climate change is already having severe impacts in Europe, with some of the strongest impacts being felt on agricultural yields. In Spain, the world’s biggest olive oil producer, production plunged to roughly 620,000 tonnes in 2023, compared to the five-year average of around 1.3 million metric tons in 2022, following Europe’s hottest summer on record. The economic losses in EU Member States attributed to extreme weather are increasing: an estimated €59.4 billion and €52.3 billion were incurred in 2021 and 2022, respectively. Agricultural losses are estimated to account for more than 50% of total drought losses in Europe, with the highest sector share in the Mediterranean region (60%) and the lowest in the boreal region (39%). For example, in Germany, research estimated annual agricultural revenue losses due to drought for winter wheat alone to be over €23 million for the period 1995–2019. These impacts are mirrored globally, threatening stability in a number of regions and increasing the likelihood of conflict and disaster-related migration. Making progress towards sustainable and resilient food systems is therefore also sound economic and security policy.

Political progress is lacking

There has been some limited progress on agri-food–related legislation since the launch of the Green Deal by the current European Commission, for example with the agreement on legislation to tackle deforestation in supply chains, or increased targets and certification for carbon removals in the land use sectors. A number of policy files have also been agreed or are under negotiation that would significantly improve the data collected to assess the sustainability of agriculture and food systems in the EU, including on farm practices and soil health. However, key legislation such as a regulation aimed at reducing pesticide use has been withdrawn.

In fact, throughout the current European Commission mandate, key actions and policy files under the Farm to Fork Strategy have been some of the most contested, and there has been an overall lack of sufficient progress in terms of legislation needed to put the EU on track to bring down agricultural emissions, cut pesticide and fertiliser use, and restore nature on farmland by 2030. Much of the opposition has stemmed from concerns about the impacts on food security of such actions, and the recent farmer protests across Europe have underlined the opposition of many farming groups to environmental regulation or the reduction of current benefits like tax breaks for tractor diesel. Whilst the science is clear that long-term food production rests on the sustainable use of natural resources and healthy agro-ecosystems, short-term uncertainties and potential yield losses are effectively used as arguments for business as usual. The lack of a clear long-term pathway for farmers and others in the agri-food chain may also be a barrier to change, along with the financial risks that transitioning from one farming system to another involve. Short-term actions like the current weakening of environmental requirements of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are not the solution and risk being counterproductive. On the other hand, President Von der Leyen’s ‘Strategic dialogue on the future of agriculture’ could be an opportunity to forge a better consensus between stakeholders and policymakers on the transition pathway that is required, that brings together needs for climate protection and more sustainable business models.

The road to 2030

Given the relative lack of progress towards the Farm to Fork targets, the next European Commission should make the agri-food system transformation a key strategic priority for the remaining part of the decade. The task will be to provide a suitable policy mix that provides the right incentives and disincentives for: reducing emissions, increasing carbon removals and adapting/building resilience to extreme weather, addressing biodiversity loss and tackling over-use of natural resources like water and soil, at the same time as supporting productivity and resilience. Actions to address agricultural emissions as part of the EU’s 2040 targets will be a key first step. Indeed, the EU was one of 159 parties to sign a declaration on sustainable agriculture at COP28, including a commitment to integrate food into their updated climate plans by 2025, and to ‘revisit and reorient policies and public support’.

In this context, the timing of decisions during the next EU budget cycle are favourable. In mid 2025, the Commission will need to come up with a proposal on the EU budget, and, shortly after, the CAP. This is a prime opportunity to directly link CAP funding to the targets being agreed for the sector on climate mitigation, but also to use the CAP funds to support farmers in delivering on sustainability priorities, including biodiversity.

As recently set out in a vision paper by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) and several other European think tanks, in the long run, the CAP needs to move to a model of support that gives farmers and rural land managers a reliable income stream for delivering public goods like nature conservation and carbon removals. In the shorter term, covering at least the next EU budget cycle of 2028–2034, significant temporary support is required for a just transition for agriculture, supporting diversification out of the sector, along with support to de-risk the switch to sustainable farming models such as regenerative farming. The option of establishing a market mechanism, such as an Emissions Trading System (ETS), for the agri-food sector could be one source of revenue additional to the CAP that could provide support to farmers for such a transition, similar to the creation of the Social Climate Fund to accompany the ETS for road and transport.

Action on the production side will need to be accompanied by a complementary agenda on consumption. This has traditionally been a difficult political nettle to grasp, and many of the relevant policies are national rather than EU-level competences. Nevertheless, there is some movement; for example, the EU is currently negotiating legislation to halve food waste by 2030. The ‘Sustainable Food Systems Framework’, which was originally planned to be published in 2023, would provide important legal clarification on the direction of travel across the food system, along with much-needed action to promote sustainable diets, such as through public procurement rules and labelling. It could also provide a link to Member State–level food policies to increase the complementarity between national and EU-level action.

Summing up the task ahead for the mid to late 2020s

The transformation of Europe’s food and farming systems, as with the energy or other sectors, is a gargantuan and costly task. But the costs of not doing so are far greater. The need for action has been established for several decades, and the devastating impacts of inaction are already being felt by farmers. Instead of short-term measures that increase uncertainty about the way forward for the agri-food sector and threaten resilience, EU policymakers need to come with clear policy agenda that supports a green and just transition, attuned to the economic and social needs of rural areas. The large amounts of public support already going to the agriculture sector via the CAP and national funds offer an opportunity to invest now in order to avoid a future bill that we are not able to pay, be that in terms of climate breakdown, loss of food supply or diet-related diseases.


The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.