Animal rights advocates and environmentalists across Europe have been left scratching their heads after news broke of a ‘Beefatarian’ campaign for which the European Union has set aside over €3 million to target consumers in Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal, and Spain. Of course, the new clip celebrating, and even promoting, the consumption of red meat is just the tip of the iceberg in the controversies associated with the EU’s Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy, which is intended to make Europe’s food system healthy as well as sustainable for the planet.
The F2F strategy, published earlier this year, outlines many crucial areas for the bloc to address, such as the promotion of agroecology and sustainable consumption – notably including the need to move towards less (and more sustainably produced) meat. In this light, the European Commission’s ongoing funding of campaigns to boost meat consumption seems to be undermining its own food policy, while also forcing the citizens of Europe to wonder whether they can really trust the Commission’s approach to implementing effective nutritional and environmental policies.
Beef between environmentalists and the Commission
Just a few weeks after the pro-beef campaign was unveiled, 26 non-governmental European organizations addressed a letter to international institutions, in particular the European Union, broaching the very same subject. Their missive underlined the extent to which food production influences the rate of climate-altering emissions.
Signed by groups including Slow Food, Humane Society International, and the Climate Action Network, the letter reads: “Energy, fossil fuels, transport and industry tend to dominate climate discussions and actions. However, the food system generates around 26% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Around 75% of agriculture’s emissions are produced by livestock, including the production of feed for livestock and the associated land use changes. In contrast to this, global meat and dairy production provides only 37% of our protein and 18% of our calories.”
The sector’s footprint is indeed massive. The agriculture sector accounted for roughly 10 percent of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, and nitrogen pollution costs the EU as much as €320 billion each year. Addressing UN Secretary-General António Guterres and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, among other leaders, the NGOs decry industrial meat production which emits more climate-altering gases than the entire transport system, as well as devastating the soil, polluting groundwater, and exhausting water resources.
The European Union’s consumption of meat and dairy is already 70% greater than the WHO recommendation, and twice the global average. Campaign groups insist that if our consumption continues to grow at this rate, the “system will collapse.”
Should Europe put a label on it?
The new beefatarian campaign could turn out to be just one of several ways in which the EU knowingly or unwittingly promotes unsustainable meat consumption, with the ongoing debate surrounding front-of-pack food labelling featuring candidates which stand accused of pushing consumers towards eating more meat instead of less – essentially offering misleading nutritional guidance which is also bad for the planet. Here again, the F2F strategy, which enshrines the Commission’s commitment to considering a harmonized front-of-pack labeling (FOPL) system for the whole of the EU, finds itself front and center.
One of the leading candidates under consideration by the Commission, the French traffic light-style Nutri-Score, has raised questions among environmental campaigners over whether it promotes meat consumption. In determining grades for food products, Nutri-Score is designed to see meats receive “greener” scores because their protein content leads Nutri-Score’s algorithm to consider them healthy, regardless of whether or not they have been produced by factory farming. As a result, in France, Belgium, Spain, and most recently Germany, activists are contending with policy choices that may both directly (via the beefatarian advertising campaign) and indirectly (via the Nutri-Score food label) push consumers toward the very meat consumption they are trying to reduce.
Nutri-Score’s controversial algorithm is also under fire for its impact on other key elements of European diets, notably the Mediterranean culinary traditions prevalent in Italy, Spain, and other southern EU countries. Notably, long celebrated ‘Mediterranean diets’ have recently attracted renewed scientific attention for their environmental sustainability as well as their contributions to human health. By encouraging the consumption of fruits, vegetables, cereals, and legumes, with only occasional servings of red meat, these food traditions and their small footprints have been held up by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as a model for a “sustainable diet” worldwide.
These decisions, though they may seem esoteric, add up to a big impact on the planet. If dietary shifts can indeed “contribute up to a fifth of the mitigation needed to meet” the Paris Agreement’s target of keeping global warming below 2°C, grassroots activists are fighting a key battle in advocating for a shift away from unsustainable eating and towards slow, mindful consumption.
More battles still to come
Consumer advertising and food labels are just two of the many heated debates the Commission will need to navigate as it pushes ahead with F2F. The concept of “new breeding techniques” or mutagenesis has also been included in the document, despite the European Court of Justice ruling on genetically modified organisms. Agriculture experts also state that the F2F strategy’s pesticide reduction targets of 50% are too low to reverse the unprecedented pollinator extinction rates the EU is currently seeing, with 12 wild bee species now critically endangered.
Given the over €1 trillion that will be poured into the European Green Deal over the next several years, including the F2F and Biodiversity Strategies, the efficacy of the EU’s approach is of great import for the 447 million people who live in the European Union. While the F2F strategy was drawn up to instate a Europe-wide sustainable food system, flawed implementation threatens to drastically undermine what could otherwise be decisive European action on climate change through the food industry and agriculture.