With the new “farm-to-fork” strategy, the EU Commission wants to promote healthier eating habits through tax incentives. Tagesspiegel author Thomas Trappe on scepticism about the plan.
Right at the beginning of her term of office, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, emphasised that although the two areas did not correspond to the departmental structures of most national ministries, in her view the two issues should not be considered separately.
The Cypriot reiterated this on Wednesday when presenting the Commission’s biodiversity and farm-to-fork strategies, which are part of the Commission’s “Green Deal” to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050.
The current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic with its temporarily interrupted supply and production chains shows the importance of a functioning and above all sustainable food supply for the health of citizens, said Kyriakides. The EU’s task must therefore be to “ensure that citizens have access to an adequate supply of affordable food”, according to the paper that the Commission sent to member states and Parliament on Wednesday.
Reducing the burden of disease for the 500 million or so EU citizens through improved nutrition is one of the key concerns of the proposal, which should be a kind of script for further Commission initiatives in the coming years.
The paper is primarily concerned with a profound change in agriculture, first and foremost the health of farm animals, plants, land and ecosystems. By 2030, for example, the use of pesticides would have to be halved and that of fertilisers reduced by 20 percent – and a quarter of the land would then be taken up by organic farming.
“Food systems are major contributors to climate change,” Kyriakides said. Sustainability has a price, “but the price of inaction would be even greater for all of us”. However, two other areas are likely to have more direct health policy implications.
For example, the spreading antibiotic resistance is to be slowed down somewhat by a massive reduction in the use of antibiotics in animal breeding. And the pandemic spread of cardiovascular and other diseases caused by unhealthy nutrition is to be countered by financial and educational measures that lead to less consumption of meat, salt, sugar and fat.
Cancer as a result of unhealthy nutrition
33,000 deaths in the entire EU are caused by the “excessive and inappropriate” use of antibiotics in agriculture, and there are also “considerable health costs”. For this reason, measures are to be taken to reduce the sales of antimicrobial agents in farm animals and aquaculture by 50 percent by 2030. “The new regulations on veterinary medicines and medicated feeds provide for a wide range of measures to achieve this goal.
But above all, it is a question of changing the eating habits of many EU citizens, says the paper, which in this context addresses two groups in particular: Those people who cannot afford healthy food and those who could afford it but are not well informed.
It is estimated that 33 million EU citizens cannot afford a full quality meal even every other day and a very large number of people are dependent on food support. It is not malnutrition but malnutrition that has led to more than half of the population now being overweight, with the associated health consequences.
One in five deaths in the EU are estimated to be prematurely caused by unhealthy diets, particularly cardiovascular disease, but also cancer. The fight against cancer is one of the other major projects of Kyriakides and the Commission.
“Overall, the European diet does not comply with national nutritional recommendations,” the paper says, and the “healthy option is not always the easiest”. While in the EU “the average intake of energy, red meat, sugar, salt and fats continues to exceed the recommended maximum levels, the consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, pulses and nuts is insufficient”.
The Commission announces that by the end of 2023 they intend to present a legislative proposal for more sustainable food production. In Germany – where Aldi has just announced that meat will be sold even more cheaply in the future and that increasingly expensive schnitzels will make the headlines – this plan is likely to offer great potential for political conflict.
Plea for “meat tax”
The Commission is proposing mandatory labelling of nutritional information on the front of food packaging – a goal also shared by German Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner (CDU), although she wants a voluntary model.
However, the Commission’s aim to make healthy food cheaper and unhealthy food, especially meat, more expensive is likely to be much more far-reaching. “Tax incentives should drive the transition to a sustainable food system and encourage consumers to opt for sustainable and healthy eating,” it says.
Member states could, for example, be authorised to reduce the price of organic fruit and vegetables through reduced VAT rates. On the other hand, member states would have to ensure in their tax systems that “the price of various foodstuffs reflects their real costs in terms of the use of limited natural resources, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and other external environmental impacts”. Ultimately, this would amount to the “meat tax” which has become a politically contentious issue.
In a first reaction, Agriculture Minister Klöckner declared on Wednesday that “theoretical requirements are brought into line with practice and the everyday working life on farms”, it was “the core task of agriculture to produce food”.
She saw a “need for discussion” on “how further measures of the strategies – which were presented today without the Agriculture Commissioner – will be implemented”. The German Council Presidency, which will start in July, must now focus on “creating a necessary balance of interests”.
Restraint in the German Bundestag
Rainer Spiering, spokesman for agricultural policy of the SPD parliamentary group in the Bundestag, explained on inquiry that he sees “very good approaches” in the proposals. Last summer, Spiering was one of those politicians who proposed a higher price for meat by eliminating the reduced VAT rate. “In this respect, I would agree with all proposals for a more honest pricing of meat, provided that the additional revenue is actually used for modern, animal- and environment-friendly agriculture.
Harald Ebner, chairman of the Greens in the Bundestag’s food committee, welcomed the fact that “the costs of environmental damage, unfair wages etc. should finally be priced in”, but that this would also mean “dumping would have to become more expensive, for example through higher standards, for example in animal husbandry, and through levies on CO2 and pesticides”.
For Carina Konrad, FDP chairwoman on the committee, the “influence of the VAT rate on sustainable purchasing behaviour raises many questions. Will healthy tomatoes from Spain then be taxed differently in winter than healthy tomatoes from the Netherlands in order to reflect different sustainability aspects?”
The left-wing chairwoman Kirsten Tackmann said that a “reduction in VAT to support healthy and sustainably produced food could be an option”. “However, the recent reduction in VAT on tampons has shown that the deadweight loss effects are considerable – which is why the balance of power in the supply chain must also be addressed.
This article was published on Tagesspiegel Background Gesundheit & E-Health