Health doesn’t start on the plate; it starts at the farmgate

While food is widely recognised as a cornerstone of health, its impact on our wellbeing extends far beyond the contents of our plates. The industrialisation of food production, marked by the widespread use of chemicals, large-scale machinery, and intensive indoor animal rearing, has come with significant environmental and health consequences. While the environmental toll of intensive agriculture is widely acknowledged, its detrimental effects on human health, both direct and indirect, are less recognised. Célia Nyssens-James from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) explores how we can change our food systems to benefit us and our planet. 

Everyone knows that food is a critical determinant of health, and in many parts of the world, poor diets have become the leading cause of premature death, with lower socioeconomic populations impacted the most. Yet, the links between food and health don’t start on our plate.

The industrialised food system, which has emerged over the past half century, has relied heavily on synthetic inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides to boost productivity, mega machines, and high-density indoor rearing of animals, has brought about considerable trade-offs. It is well recognised that intensive farming and animal rearing causes huge harm to the environment. While the environmental consequences of industrialised agriculture are well-documented, its direct and indirect (via environmental degradation) impacts on human health remain less recognised, casting a shadow over its long-term sustainability.

In the long term, environmental scientists are warning that intensive agriculture is eroding the natural resources that are crucial to our food production abilities in terms of having healthy soils and functioning ecosystems etc. At the same time, climate change – to which our food system is a major contributor – will also make productive farming increasingly challenging, even impossible in many parts of the world, including much of Southern Europe. These are major threats to our food security, and it is clear that poorer populations will be hit the hardest, as they have lower capacity to adapt and less access to, or support from, public services.

How industrial farming is slowly killing us

But we don’t need to wait a few decades to feel the effects of industrialised food production on our wellbeing, already today, we are paying serious, but largely hidden, health costs. The industrialisation of agriculture, in particular intensive livestock farming, is a major source of air pollution – responsible for 94% of ammonia emissions (precursor for secondary particulate matter PM2.5) and 56% of methane emissions (precursor of ground-level ozone, a harmful air pollutant). The major threat of antimicrobial resistance is also clearly linked to factory farming, with antibiotic resistance genes found in water bodies near intensive livestock farms in many countries around the world, including in Europe.

Out on the fields, the routine and intensive use of pesticides is directly poisoning farmers and farm workers (especially – but not only – in developing countries where pesticides use safety rules are lax). There is a growing body of evidence that pesticide use is contaminating our drinking water and air, leaving harmful residues on our food posing health risks. Children are most at risk of long-term serious health consequences from pesticides exposure which affect their rights and the widespread pollution and accumulation of pesticides in the environment also undermines our right to a clean environment and the rights of future generations.

“Exposure to pesticides has clear human rights implications” was the unequivocal message of Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, at a conference organised by the EEB in the European Parliament last year. In the EU, the costs directly attributable to pesticides and born by our societies add up to around 2.3 billion €/year – twice as high as the net profits made by the industry.

While we know that certain foods, such as those high in fats, salt, and sugar, are bad for us, we don't often think about how the way our food is grown affects how healthy it is. Studies have shown that the way we've been breeding crops to get bigger yields and make them easier to grow and sell has actually led to a big drop in the vitamins and minerals they contain. This is also due to the widespread degradation of agricultural soils (strongly affecting soils’ microbiome), which has led to a significant decline in the micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) content of our food, in turn harming the micro-nutrients content of what we consume.

Farmers, as one of the weakest actors in food value chains, cannot be expected to undertake the complex transition to agroecology on their own. Political leadership and supportive policies must drive this change, and at the heart of it, a deep reform of the EU’s behemoth farm subsidy policy, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), is unavoidable.

The CAP was set up to support farmers’ incomes, modernise the agricultural sector, and ensure food security in Europe. While it has changed over the 60 years of its existence, it has retained a core focus on its original objectives, with environmental goals still merely a secondary focus, while public health concerns are not even part of the discussion.

With discussions starting in Brussels about the next round of reform of this policy, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), alongside BirdLife Europe and WWF, recently published a vision paper setting out key recommendations for how the CAP should evolve to meet the challenges of the next decades, optimistically titled A brighter future for EU food and farming.

At the core of our recommendations is a call to fully repurpose the €60-billion per year taxpayers-funded budget of the CAP away from untargeted and sometimes even harmful subsidies and towards instead supporting farmers to transition to sustainable practices and production models as well as to reward those who go the extra mile in protecting and enhancing ‘ecosystem services’ on their farm.

While the ‘environmental case’ for such a shift is clear, how this relates to the One Health approach remains little discussed or understood. Yet, in light of the multiple adverse health impacts of our current system of production, it should be clear that transforming our agriculture and hence overhauling the CAP are unavoidable steps to achieve optimal health for people, animals and the environment.

A deep transformation of our food and farming system is as critical for addressing the global environmental crises, as for enabling everyone to fully enjoy their right to the highest attainable standard of health, today and into the future. With the forces defending the status quo dominating the political debate today, it is paramount that the different movements and sectors defending fairer, greener, or healthier societies join forces in pushing for change.

Change is possible...

This paints a rather bleak picture, but it does not need to be so. From grassroots movements to the high spheres of the UN and in every part of society in between, many people are pushing for a transformation of our food and farming system. The solution promoted by most of the environmental and food movement for a more sustainable model of agriculture also holds huge promise for a healthier food and farming system.

Agroecology – in its narrow sense meaning nurturing and utilising natural processes to support productive agriculture, a concept close to organic farming – is widely recognised as a viable alternative to industrial agriculture. A seminal modelling study showed that – on the condition that we adopt more sustainable diets, i.e. eat less animal products and consume a more plant-based diet – Europe could go 100% agroecological, which would have major environmental benefits, and still feed its population while even reducing its pressure on land in other countries and still maintaining some exporting capacity.

Agroecology provides farmers with the tools and knowledge to transition to more sustainable and resilient farming practices. The process seeks to reconnect animal farming to the land and nutrient cycle, and it restores healthy soils and ecosystems allowing for more nutritious food production and better resilience in the face of a changing climate. In other words, it addresses all the health-related threats listed above.

But agroecology is also a broader concept, which doesn’t end at the farmgate, and emphasises the importance of relationships, human and social values, and democratic control in the food system. Moving towards an agroecological food and farming system also means reconnecting producers with consumers and re-localising food systems to a certain extent. This too, can have deeply positive and transformational impacts on our health and wellbeing, especially when it also involves community empowerment.

Farmers, as one of the weakest actors in food value chains, cannot be expected to undertake the complex transition to agroecology on their own. Political leadership and supportive policies must drive this change, and at the heart of it, a deep reform of the EU’s behemoth farm subsidy policy, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), is unavoidable.

The CAP was set up to support farmers’ incomes, modernise the agricultural sector, and ensure food security in Europe. While it has changed over the 60 years of its existence, it has retained a core focus on its original objectives, with environmental goals still merely a secondary focus, while public health concerns are not even part of the discussion.

With discussions starting in Brussels about the next round of reform of this policy, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), alongside BirdLife Europe and WWF, recently published a vision paper setting out key recommendations for how the CAP should evolve to meet the challenges of the next decades, optimistically titled A brighter future for EU food and farming.

At the core of our recommendations is a call to fully repurpose the €60-billion per year taxpayers-funded budget of the CAP away from untargeted and sometimes even harmful subsidies and towards instead supporting farmers to transition to sustainable practices and production models as well as to reward those who go the extra mile in protecting and enhancing ‘ecosystem services’ on their farm.

While the ‘environmental case’ for such a shift is clear, how this relates to the One Health approach remains little discussed or understood. Yet, in light of the multiple adverse health impacts of our current system of production, it should be clear that transforming our agriculture and hence overhauling the CAP are unavoidable steps to achieve optimal health for people, animals and the environment.

…if we fight for it together

While the health and environmental movements have often pursued their respective goals independently, their objectives are intrinsically interlinked and are two sides of the same coin. The prevalence of cheap, ultra-processed foods is a stark reminder of of the connection between the industrialised agricultural system's reliance on heavily subsidised production of low-cost commodities.

As the European Environmental Bureau has been arguing, alongside many allies including public health organisations such as EuroHealthNet in the EU Food Policy Coalition, we cannot address individual issues in the food system without systemic change, driven by holistic, cross-cutting policy and legislative change. The need and democratic appetite for change was somewhat recognised by the European Commission four years ago when it published the European Green Deal - the plan to make the EU the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 - and in May 2020 its agri-food chapter, the Farm to Fork Strategy. These were huge steps in the right direction, with a clear commitment to move to a fairer, healthier and more sustainable food system through a cross-cutting policy approach; underpinned by concrete targets and a commitment to bring forward a new legal framework on sustainable food system.  Finally, it seemed like real change was on the horizon.

But today, after an intense and prolonged anti-Farm to Fork campaign by ‘Big Ag’ and agri-chemical industry lobbies and influential politicians with close ties to them, it seems that we are back at square one. The European Commission has dropped promised flagship legislation on sustainable food systems and better animal welfare, as well as silently indefinitely delaying key diet-related Farm to Fork initiatives such as front-of-pack nutrition labelling and a revision of the EU’s subsidies for agri-food promotion campaigns (criticised for promoting the consumption of foods and drinks Europeans should consume less of).

A deep transformation of our food and farming system is as critical for addressing the global environmental crises, as for enabling everyone to fully enjoy their right to the highest attainable standard of health, today and into the future. With the forces defending the status quo dominating the political debate today, it is paramount that the different movements and sectors defending fairer, greener, or healthier societies join forces in pushing for change. The European elections coming up in June 2024 are a crucial opportunity to put healthy and sustainable food on the public and political agenda. Let’s work together to put change back on the table.

A brighter future for EU food and farming

Read EEB's 'A brighter future for EU food and farming' in conjunction with WWF Europe and BirdLife Europe on their call for a structural transformation of the EU Common Agricultural Policy to support a just transition towards sustainability.

Screenshot 2023-11-28 141410
Célia Nyssens-James
Senior Policy Officer for Agriculture and Food Systems at The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) | + posts

Célia Nyssens-James leads the European Environmental Bureau’s work on EU agriculture and food policies. Before joining the EEB, she worked on agriculture, public health and climate policy in Scotland. She holds a B.Sc. in Political Sciences from KULeuven and an M.Sc. in Global Environmental Politics from the University of Edinburgh. Follow @Green_Europe.

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