For a long time, shelves full of food have been the norm for EU citizens. No one ever questioned the security, origin or quality of our food. However, with COVID-19, the issue has suddenly become omnipresent. Is our system resilient enough to ensure sustainable, safe, affordable and good food in Europe?
While the European Commission has presented the Farm to Fork Strategy as Europe’s silver bullet for a sustainable food chain; however, I believe that the strategy is not yet there. In my opinion, we need to consider five key aspects to balance both the need to ensure our food production is economically viable, affordable and secure, and meets the need to be sustainable, protecting the environment.
First, involve all actors. The Farm to Fork Strategy needs cooperation and acceptance; the strategy can only succeed if all actors feel included and that their input is valued. We need to recognise that there is rarely a single solution to any problem.
Whereas I like the idea of the strategy, unfortunately the current text focuses too much on the “Farm” aspect, rather than the entire chain. Rather than flooding the sector with additional requirements, let us help farmers make the necessary investments and changes for the future.
“The Farm to Fork strategy may be a silver bullet, but it will not be implemented by magic. Farmers need the right tools to shift to more sustainable practices while maintaining their economic stability”
Second, rely on scientific policymaking: The Farm to Fork Strategy was published in the midst of a Coronavirus crisis, and thus could not take this into account.
While we can say now – fortunately - that our food sector has proved resilient, the long-term impact remains unclear. Unlike the Agriculture Committee, which has commissioned a study into the impact of Covid-19 on the agricultural sector, the European Commission has been silent on this issue.
The EU must be able to provide nutritious, affordable and safe food for its people. Whether and how the EU does this can only be answered by a long-overdue impact assessment. This assessment must dive deep into all aspects of food security, quality and income stability. Without science, the strategy remains a ‘nice-to-have’ paper that lacks robustness and seriousness.
Third, adopt market-driven solutions: Rather than rely on obligations and fixed targets, the strategy should focus on target corridors and incentives. This represent an equally ambitious approach; one that increases acceptance by all actors, responds to the needs and demands of consumers and allows flexibility in extreme situations.
These market-driven solutions should, above all, come into play in the discussion about pesticides, fertilisers and organic farming. Take, for example, the target of making 25 percent of Europe’s farming organic by 2030: This will only be possible if consumers wish to buy organic and if it remains economically attractive for the farmers.
It took 40 years for Baden-Württemberg to build an organic share of 14 percent - it is highly ambitious to seek to gain another 10 percent in 10 years.
Fourth, help farmers to adapt to the future: The Farm to Fork strategy may be a silver bullet, but it will not be implemented by magic. Farmers need the right tools to shift to more sustainable practices while maintaining their economic stability. This can be through promoting investment, innovation and digitisation, reducing bureaucracy and having the courage to allow new (breeding) technologies.
Digital technology will be the future; it can help us reduce pesticide and fertiliser use, improve animal health and increase produce and income security. This is crucial both for farmers and for the environment, the climate and our rural areas. We therefore need funding methods at European, national and local levels.
I can imagine, for example, how digitisation could be used to promote greater biodiversity in eco-schemes. This would be a great incentive for farmers.
“We need to make consumers aware of the quality and price of their food. With their purchasing behaviour, consumers decide which agricultural model they want to promote”
Last, enhance consumer awareness for quality and sustainability. These aspects have their price. I support the idea of food prices fairly reflecting transport and production costs.
This is why I want fair trade practices and fair payment for those involved in the food chain, as well as strict measures against food counterfeiting. We need to make consumers aware of the quality and price of the food they buy. We need to make consumers aware of the quality and price of their food.
With their purchasing behaviour, consumers decide which agricultural model they want to promote. We, as policymakers, will have to do a better job in allowing for product labelling that informs consumers whether their food originates from the EU and where and when it has been produced.
The question here, of course, is how ‘local’ we want to go and how we avoid threatening the internal market by promoting national products over those originating from other EU countries.
However, such labels must not restrict manufacturers and processors in terms of their entrepreneurial freedom and the internal market. If these five steps are considered, the Farm to Fork Strategy stands a chance of becoming the EU’s silver bullet. Our aim should not be environment versus economy, but rather a combination of the two.