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Corporate Leaders Groups

Business leadership for a climate neutral economy

28 June 2021 As the European Union gets close to agreeing on the reform of the Common Agricultural policy, Eliot Whittington, Director of the European Corporate Leaders Group, writes about the need to create more sustainable food systems in Europe that align with the Green Deal and enhanced climate ambitions. 

Food and agriculture is at the heart of European society. It shapes our environment and culture, contributes to our economy and anchors communities. But our current model of food and farming, from production to consumption, also contributes to growing environmental and social problems. That is why it is key that the EU develops a new policy framework that will help drive the necessary and urgent transition towards a more sustainable food system.  

If we are going to take meaningful steps to meet climate goals, reverse the decline in the natural environment and deliver a fair and equitable food system in the EU, the time for determined action is now.  

While there has been progress made on this front – Europe is at the forefront of some of the most exciting developments in improving sustainability – there is more to do to deliver change at scale and the coming months and years are critical for the EU and its Member States to create a more sustainable future for the food system in Europe and globally.  

Policymakers must grasp these opportunities with both hands to deliver real change and empower and encourage businesses to further invest in the transition and to adopt new models and practices. 

To address some of the main issues the EU and Member States are grappling with, the European Corporate Leaders Group Europe (CLG Europe) has recently published a briefing, ‘Towards a sustainable food future for Europe’ setting out insight from business and the group’s recommendations for action on this agenda.   

There are examples of innovation and change in the business community that should give policy makers the confidence to raise their ambition on this agenda. Some businesses have taken a clear lead and are adopting regenerative agricultural practices that, according to the World Economic Forum, could generate 60 million jobs and $1.1 trillion in economic opportunities by 2030 

The Danone-initiated Farming for Generations Alliance and Unilever’s Regenerative Agriculture Principles are two new initiatives highlighted in our briefing that show what might be possible when the EU implements its future food strategy. Companies like Royal DSM, Danone and Coca-Cola are proving there is market appetite for new sustainable products like their plant-based meat-substitute, dairy and beverage ranges. Many international businesses are also looking to work to encourage more sustainable, fair and inclusive global value chains. But business needs an active and enthusiastic partner in government.  

The CLG Europe briefing identifies a clear need for political leadership to boost environmental and climate ambitions and shape and create the framework that can enable stakeholders throughout the food value chain to act. We need a strategy that is focused on specific environmental objectives and in alignment with the EU Green Deal as a whole.  This can only be achieved through the provision of adequate financial resources and determined implementation at national level, with environmentally harmful subsidies phased out once and for all. 

These changes will need to be driven through the range of EU policies affecting this sector. Notably the CAP needs to be aligned with the Green Deal objectives to provide the right financial incentives to scale up investments and accelerate the adoption of new business models. New eco-schemes developed under the CAP require significant investment now to have an early impact. This encouragement for climate-friendly farming practices should be delivered alongside technical and training support to enable the creation of new sustainable business models.  

The Farm to Fork Strategy is another essential pillar in a new policy framework for a sustainable food system and there should be no delay in moving forward on its commitments. The strategy has the power to open the door to benefits for climate action, wider environmental sustainability, economic development and public health. Yet in its current form it doesn’t yet deliver the clarity needed on delivering the EU’s broader sustainability goals and climate objectives. As it is implemented this clarity should be provided, so it ensures that agriculture and the food value chain contribute to climate neutrality by 2050 as well as the wider Sustainable Development Goals. 

Food production has historically taken centre stage in agrifood policies but one essential development from the Farm to Fork Strategy is bringing food consumption equally into the spotlight. With EU diets slowly shifting towards more plant-based and low-meat alternatives, supporting more sustainable consumption patterns can help reduce food system emissions and improve health. There is a clear market for this - the European plant-based food and beverage sector is forecasted to grow at an annual rate of nearly 9% over the next few years. 

The role of research and innovation initiatives should also not be overlooked. Future partnerships to strengthen EU leadership in innovating and transforming how we produce and provide food have to be on the menu. Bold action here is needed to unearth innovation, stimulate private investment, scale up applied research and disseminate best practice.  

Finally, it is also essential that the EU looks beyond its borders and strengthens external policies to support sustainable food systems. Inserting ambitious sustainability elements within bilateral trade agreements, can discourage unsustainable production methods outside EU borders. Moments like the UN Conference on Biodiversity (COP15) and the UN Climate Summit (COP26) provide vital opportunities we simply cannot afford to miss if the EU is to show global leadership in accelerating action for the global food transition for people and the planet. 

Failure to act on this agenda will threaten public goals on health, biodiversity, climate action and more. With the Green Deal Europe has given itself tools to drive change and achieve a huge range of benefits for its people. We need to seize this opportunity and act.  

Read the CLG Europe policy briefing: Towards a sustainable food future for Europe here 

Read more on CLG Europe’s engagement with European policymakers here. 

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Eliot is Director of CISL’s Corporate Leaders Groups – leading the team behind both the European and UK Corporate Leaders Group (CLG Europe and CLG UK). He also leads CLG Europe’s Green Growth Partnership with leading EU climate and environment ministers.

His work has a strong focus on climate change, but he also helps drive action on the circular economy, plastics and issues around the social and justice implications of economic change. He represents the Corporate Leaders Groups on the board of the We Mean Business Coalition and has been responsible for CISL work that has included collaborations with the World Bank, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UNFCCC, a number of European governments and a wide range of senior business stakeholders. He regularly advises business and government and has sat, for example, on the UK government’s BEIS Economic Recovery Taskforce on Net Zero and Treasury Net Zero Review Technology and Innovation Advisory Group.

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Staff articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.