Should the EU use Tax & Policy Supports to Encourage Healthy Diets?

Should the EU use Tax and Policy Supports to Encourage Healthy Diets? In this second of two articles on CAP and food policy Joost de Jong explores the impact of taxes – sugar, fat – and policies – such as subsidised fruit in schools –  explains what he thinks should happen to bring agricultural and food policy closer together. Part one is here.

Opinions about what healthy food is vary greatly by country, depending on historical and cultural eating patterns. It would be useful if there were a European health advice about what a healthy diet would entail.

Health, Sustainability and Policy

This author would suggest that a new CAP should contribute to a European Food Policy, something which is entirely lacking. Numerous organisations and experts focused on food and health agree.

The EUPHA (European Public Health Association) in their 2017 agri-food policy document Healthy and Sustainable Diets for European Countries state the following:

“Significant changes in European food systems are required. Food systems should take account of and include both healthy nutrition and sustainability, by linking both population health and climate stabilisation agendas, through smart interventions that can improve both food security and human health, and planetary health as well. Assuring food security for all is an essential component of sustainable food systems. All components of food systems need to identify themselves as parts of a whole, rather than separate entities. Food policies need to be developed and implemented in a holistic manner”.

The EUPHA want a comprehensive approach where health and sustainability are taken into account in agri-food policy making. 

Agri-food policies “will only be effective if they are formulated with input from everyone involved in all aspects of food security and sustainability, including in the agricultural and health sectors, thereby enabling construction of coherent policy frameworks that will be beneficial to sustainability, agriculture and human health. Thus, redevelopment of agriculture and fisheries in ways that conserve the natural resources upon which production depends needs to be addressed. It is essential that agriculture’s dependence on fossil fuels, and the carbon footprint of all food systems, are reduced, and that control of pests and biosecurity are improved. In addition, inter-species diversity and the protection of neglected species and varieties, which can be essential to nutrition security, should be addressed (e.g. winter versus summer apples, which have different storage requirements). Measures must be taken to counteract dietary westernisation and to preserve healthy diets, some of which are traditional (e.g. Mediterranean and Nordic diets), and their associated lifestyles”. 

(download it here: EUPHA_report_on_healthy_and_sustainable_diets)

Helen Walls (and colleagues) note that it is a challenge for CAP in bringing together agri-economic and health policy perspectives. Nevertheless, they request clear guidelines in their 2016 paper in Science :

 “The key findings suggest the need for communication and agreement of clear high-level nutrition guidelines, clarity on the EU mandate to address nutrition-related health concerns via policy, and stronger engagement of civil society in the issues if CAP is to address nutrition more than it is doing currently. The difference in world views between agricultural/trade representatives, and those from public health, also needs to be addressed”.

What works – and who will drive the solutions?

The sugar tax in the UK shows that a tax can stimulate food business to make products healthier: indeed the tax take revenue has been lower than expected in the UK because companies had already been adjusting sugar levels downwards in anticipation of the tax. So even the real threat of a tax impacts company behaviour.  On the other hand, individual Member States have found it difficult to create a specific tax system as we have seen with the short lived Danish fat tax.

Tim Benton refers to the high medical costs of unhealthy diets: “by 2025 the cost of treating Type 2 diabetes alone is projected to be higher than the economic value in GDP generated by producing all food”.

These medical costs justify a change in tax systems, which would make unhealthy products/ingredients more expensive. The EU’s Health Commissioner Vytenis Andiukatis realises the effectiveness of the instrument of taxes to stimulate a healthy food environment, describing them as “very powerful instruments addressing key issues relating to all risk factors salt, sugar, trans-fats, alcohol and tobacco”. Yet he’s not willing to formulate a comprehensive European Food Policy.

The WHO European region have, however, adopted a European Food and Nutrition Action Plan 2015–2020. This paln’s introduction states “analysis of the latest data shows that unhealthy diets are the leading risk factors undermining health and well-being in the WHO European Region.” The plan considers the impact of taxes to stimulate healthier consumption. Four countries and three policies are considered (see below)

Denmark: tax on saturated fats
Finland: tax on sweets, ice cream and soft drinks
Hungary: public health product tax
France: tax on sugar- and artificially-sweetened beverages
European Union School Fruit Scheme
Changes in value-added tax
Supply chain interventions – a global perspective

Having considered the impact of the above, it states “price policies have the potential to influence consumer purchasing in the desired direction.”

The report noted that “the level at which the price increase or decrease would need to be set to influence consumers and the potential for unintended consequences.” It also drew attention to a concern with regard to “potential substitution that could undermine the overall impact on nutritional quality of diets, and the potential regressivity of taxation.” Nevertheless, the societal and health benefits out-weighted these concerns such that “price policies still figure as an important tool in tackling unhealthy diets and NCDs (noncommunicable diseases).”

The report emphaised “taxes on sugar sweetened beverages and targeted subsidies on fruit and vegetables” as “the policy options with the greatest potential to induce positive changes in consumption.”

Read and download the WHO Europe Region report – Using-Price-Policies-to-Promote-Healthier-Diets

Conclusion – a healthy CAP is needed!

The European Commission should seriously work towards a more selective approach to public health. The EPHA 2016 CAP report states: “Contemporary public health concerns are very different from the ones the CAP encountered during its inception and its original approach is unsuitable for the challenges of today”…the “various measures in the CAP are still incompatible with public health and the “Health in All Policies” obligation enshrined in the European Union Treaty”. So there is an “obligation enshrined” for health to be taken into account, and yet, so many agri-food policies go in the opposite direction. Indeed, tobacco plant growing is still subsidied by CAP, to the tune of E600 per hectare in some regions: without these subsidies, it would be completely non-competitive on the global market.

Read and download A CAP for Healthy Living EPHA 2016 (.pdf)

It’s time for a change. We need to help the European citizen eat healthier. Due to the open market and the limited possibilities for the Member States a common European Food Policy  is needed to improve CAP.

 Joost de Jong of the Dutch Transition Coalition of Food Systems argues that European food and farming policy need to be more closely integrated.

On the 29 May at the IPES conference (called EU3F) he will present some ideas on food policy from the Transition FOOD Coalition in the Netherlands and Food Policy in The Netherlands.







see the report of the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy: From Agricultural Policy to Food Policy.

More Coherence between CAP and European Food Policy Needed