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A New Homemade Sauce but the Same Market Pasta: Do the European Union's Newest Agricultural Policies Support Food Sovereignty?

Gina Hervey


  • Explores a few examples of where the European Union’s (EU) Farm to Fork Strategy and upcoming Common Agricultural Policy for 2023 reflect and countermand food sovereignty.
  • Discusses how a Common Food Policy would support agricultural production, environmental health, and everything shaping the “food environment.”
A New Homemade Sauce but the Same Market Pasta: Do the European Union's Newest Agricultural Policies Support Food Sovereignty?
Os Tartarouchos via Getty Images

“Food Sovereignty means solidarity, not competition, and building a fairer world from the bottom up.”––Food Sovereignty Now!

Food sovereignty is a global concept increasingly considered the necessary approach to ensuring a healthy and lasting food system as we face climate change. The newest European agricultural policies largely support, and in some cases even require, food sovereignty activities. However, how deep food sovereignty takes root across Europe will depend on what each member state chooses as their enforceable policies pursuant to transnational policies. This article explores a few examples of where the European Union’s (EU) Farm to Fork Strategy (the Strategy) and upcoming Common Agricultural Policy for 2023 (CAP 2023) reflect and countermand food sovereignty.

Food Sovereignty and Food Systems

Poverty and hunger are most acute in rural populations where small farmers, herders, and fisherfolk producing 70 percent of the global food supply reside. Many have turned to food sovereignty as a way to address this devastating irony. The food sovereignty movement was a response to the unprecedented increase in food production’s mechanization, chemicalization, corporatization, and market consolidation in the 20th century. Rather than support these trends, the food sovereignty movement focuses on reshaping food policies to encourage climate resilient farming, local control, and working in cooperation. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food explains, it is a food regime focused on ensuring local food producers not only have enough to eat, but are respected and honored. Given the growing international call for food sovereignty, it is a useful lens to analyze two of Europe’s leading food-system policies: the Farm to Fork Strategy, and the EU’s upcoming farmer-funding system, CAP 2023.

Farm to Fork Strategy and Food Sovereignty

Though itself unenforceable, the Strategy, administered by the EU’s executive branch or the European Commission (the Commission), includes suggestions and focus areas that inform CAP 2023, and in turn, each EU member state’s domestically enforceable national strategic plan (NSP).

The Strategy is considered the “heart of the European Green Deal” and aims to make food systems “fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly.” Indeed, the Strategy does contain several food sovereignty–aligned concepts, though not without their flaws. One highly food sovereignty–aligned addition to CAP 2023, influenced by the Strategy, relates to human rights law. Beginning in 2024, for a farm to receive CAP subsidies, they must adhere to a “social conditionality.” This “conditionality” requires farmers to follow European labor laws, recognizing that “workers’ social protection, working and housing conditions, as well as protection of health and safety, will play a major role in building fair, strong and sustainable food systems.” Such a focus on worker well-being is a key tenant of food sovereignty.

The Strategy also has strong language centered around promoting a global transition to sustainable systems. However thus far, their approach has been ineffective. While the EU promoted their efforts to bolster international sustainable food systems at the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit, the Summit was highly criticized as the antithesis of food sovereignty. Hundreds of diverse farmers including indigenous individuals, youth, women, and fisherfolk came together to advocate for small-scale, local food systems at a counter-conference: the Global Peoples Summit. This outward promotion of international sustainable food systems, coupled with loud criticism from those working in the food system, suggests that the Strategy may not be fully motivated by a desire to improve food systems internationally, nor be truly food sovereignty aligned. 

Common Agricultural Policy and Food Sovereignty

CAP is the dominant EU policy used to finance farmers across Europe. One of CAP 2023’s overarching purposes is to support the Strategy. To this end, CAP 2023 expressly aims to ensure farmers receive a fair income. One way the Commission intends to achieve this goal is by redefining “farmer” to avoid large corporation abuses. Supporting small and medium “active” farmers aligns with food sovereignty’s focus on honoring and valuing farmers and removing corporate reliance. However, given the significant discretion EU nations have on what to include in the “farmer” definition within their unique NSP, a true shift toward supporting “authentic” farmers is unguaranteed. While high national deference is necessary given the variety between EU nations, requiring community-based oversight boards might be a more food sovereignty–aligned method of ensuring a community’s authentic farmers are receiving CAP funding.

National Strategic Plans and Food Sovereignty

Each EU country’s NSP pursuant to CAP 2023 will take effect January 1, 2023. Each NSP must address all 10 of the CAP 23 “key objectives,” though how they do so is largely up to the EU country and their specific agricultural economy. Per Cap 2023, each NSP must include “conditionalities” (actions a farmer must do before receiving CAP funding) and a new set of “eco-schemes” (actions a farmer may do to receive additional CAP funding). A global leader in the food sovereignty movement, La Via Campesina, pushed for, and succeeded, in including the “social conditionality” in CAP 2023, indicating food sovereignty alignment. Further, the funded eco-schemes are explicitly agroecologically based, and thus aligned with food sovereignty. For instance, planting legumes as part of a crop rotation is agroecological since it adds nitrogen back into the soil without using synthetic fertilizers. Thus, if an EU nation’s NSP includes funding legume crop rotation, a farmer who partakes would qualify for extra CAP 2023 funding.

Toward A Common Food Policy

While flawed, CAP 2023 has echoes of food sovereignty suggesting that more is possible. Indeed, there is a growing call for a Common Food Policy. This Food Policy would support agricultural production, environmental health, and everything shaping the “food environment.” Larger in scope, it would allow the EU to fundamentally shift how it thinks about their farmer-funding mechanisms and could focus more on community-empowerment and place-based production. Further, as the largest global food importer, if the EU required sustainable food practices on imported food, they could significantly, and unilaterally, change international food systems for the better. Given the Strategy’s generally supportive language, and CAP 2023’s significant NSP deference, EU policy has space to make its food systems more sovereign. Now, it is up to its citizens to demand that it does.