Food aid in Europe at scale 'not seen since the second world war'

European citizens' growing reliance on food banks is 'unacceptable', and the EU must ensure our populations are able to enjoy a healthy and affordable diet, argues Edward McMillan-Scott.

There is justified concern over the growing reliance on food banks in the UK and across the European Union. We should consider it as a symptom of a broken food system which requires a complete overhaul. We need a sustainable food policy across the EU, where often prosperous farmers will get €350bn over the next seven years, while the most deprived get a meagre €3.5bn.

On 30 March, a further report from the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) warns that the impacts of global warming are likely to be "severe, pervasive and irreversible". Scientists and officials meeting in Japan said the document is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the impacts of climate change on the world.

The week before the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009, I organised a hearing at the European parliament in Brussels on the theme 'Less Meat = Less Heat'. Paul McCartney spoke up for his campaign for a 'meat-free Monday'. There is something we can all do about climate change: change our diet. I did and it has been five years since I stopped eating meat.

"Nine million EU citizens depend completely on food hand-outs from Brussels"

So on 2 April I organised a further hearing, again addressed by Olivier de Schutter, the UN's food rapporteur, to address the need for true reform of the common agricultural policy (CAP).

Today, nine million EU citizens depend completely on food hand-outs from Brussels, mostly in countries with poor welfare systems. In the UK, a recent survey for the BBC Panorama programme 'hungry Britain' found that 140 local authorities are now subsidising food banks.

At the recent UK Liberal Democrat spring conference in York, the heart of my European constituency, a policy motion was passed calling for a review into the causes of the present situation, including an examination of the effect of benefit cuts. Many involved in food banks report that delays and suspensions of benefit payments have caused a significant increase in those relying on food banks.

Across the EU, the economic crisis has had the effect of tightening welfare payments, of delays in payment of benefits and the increasing use of sanctions, combined with rising food and energy prices. These all impact on the most vulnerable members of society and undermine the principle of the welfare 'safety net'.

A little time ago, the vicar of one of a poor Yorkshire town said, "My parishioners are so poor that they cannot afford to eat well, and so they eat cheaply and badly." He was referring to the obesity, diabetes and early death which results from a poor diet of fats and processed meat.

The priority of the EU should be to protect the right of its citizens to nutritious and affordable food. Because of the problem of livestock competing with humans for food, there is an increasing emphasis on the need to reduce meat consumption in the EU, as well as promoting a fairer balance between farmers and the consumer.

Such a policy must address all of the important aspects of sustainable food practices, including the fair pricing and value of food; the protection of biodiversity and natural resources such as water and soil; food distribution; packaging and food waste, as well as economic aspects, such as the development of local economies and small-scale production.

There are also important cultural issues, such as the protection of traditional knowledge and species.

Next month, the European commission publishes a green paper on sustainable food, which will shape policy in the coming legislature. There are concerns that this will focus mainly on food waste, which, although a significant problem in the EU, should not be used as an excuse not to tackle the main barriers to a truly sustainable food system.

"Food aid in Europe is on a scale not seen since the second world war"

As vice-president of the European parliament responsible for human rights, I believe that the UN's 10-year message 'a right to food' is a timely one. The current levels of food poverty and malnutrition in Europe are unacceptable. According to Yves Daccord, the director general of the international committee of the Red Cross, food aid in Europe is on a scale not seen since the second world war.

Food banks are not a long-term solution to this food crisis. It is now time for forward thinking and a European food policy which benefits the consumer above all and ensures that all EU citizens have access to healthy and affordable food.


Read the most recent articles written by Edward McMillan-Scott MEP - European parliament 'making important changes' with new powers