Outgoing EU commission accused of 'burying' key sustainable food legislation

The new European commission must 'bite back' and overturn their predecessor's blocking of plans to develop a sustainable European food system, argues Bart Staes.

By Bart Staes

07 Oct 2014

The outgoing European commission is guilty of silently betraying Europe's citizens. I am not talking about wasting tax payer's money, or other populist Eurosceptic beliefs, but by not adopting environmental policy measures, they have let everyone down; now and for generations to come.

One such blocked file is the communication on 'Building a sustainable European food system' and this week I have written a letter, which has been co-signed by MEPs from across the major parties, to the commission urgently requesting the publication of this important action plan.

The commission must not shy away from environmental policies out over fears of a Eurosceptic backlash, especially when there is plenty evidence showing that this is what people want.

An overwhelming majority of European citizens, 95 per cent, said in a recent Eurobarometer poll that protecting the environment was personally important to them while more than half think that the EU is not doing enough to protect the environment.

"The commission must not shy away from environmental policies out over fears of a Eurosceptic backlash, especially when there is plenty evidence showing that this is what people want"

Unfortunately, outgoing commission president José Manuel Barroso and his Secretary-General Catherine Day have chosen to block the internal communication related to building a sustainable European food system.

This was originally planned for publication in autumn 2013, yet one year on, we are still waiting. However, it is not the only environmental plan that has been blocked by the upper echelons of the commission.

How we produce and consume food is an often a controversial subject. It is a highly profitable industry, second only to the metals sector in the EU, but also one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

So it is crucial that the commission has a clear strategy on sustainable food production and consumption, in order to mitigate climate change.

In recent years, there has been an increasing awareness that our current food system is unsustainable. We need to change the way we produce food and identify why so much of it is wasted (at least 30 per cent or around 1.6bn tonnes every year).

This will mean completely changing our attitudes towards food. People must come before profit.

"Yet instead of working together to combat serious problems such as food waste, we constantly hear industrial agribusiness claims that we have to produce more food"

Scientific studies have shown that we have no choice, especially with growing global food insecurity, but to reform the current system if we want to be able to feed eight billion people by 2030. Yet instead of working together to combat serious problems such as food waste, we constantly hear industrial agribusiness claims that we have to produce more food.

This is an example of the sort of dead-end-street-thinking of 'ever more growth' by which we are collectively slowly killing ourselves. Dietary related diseases are now one of the leading causes of avoidable illness and premature death in Europe.  

It is against this backdrop that I am requesting that the commission takes decisive action to overhaul current EU food policy, starting with the publication of this communication.

In response to my complaint that its blocking is a cynical war on common sense, a spokesman for the commission, Mark Gray, said, “This is classic Bart Staes commission-bashing. President Barroso has taken this decision because it was felt that in the little time left - that is six weeks before the end of its mandate -, this commission could not take such a major initiative and has decided to leave it for the next college.”

This is however untrue, as the paper was ready and presented for the first time in the commission at the end of April and agreed on by three commissioners. It could have been adopted then but instead it was buried.

I chair a cross-party sustainable food group in the European parliament called 'EU Food Sense', and our letter to the commission shows the importance we place on addressing the unsustainability of the current food system.

The communication is a wake-up call for the EU to address food waste – an economical, ecological, social and ethical insult to what the union stands for.

It is unrealistic to believe that addressing food waste and the issue of sustainable food would be a reason for citizens to shun the EU. On the contrary it would create more trust that the right measures are being taken for the common good of citizens and the environment, and provide policymakers and legislators with the necessary 'food for thought' to reform the system.

"It is unrealistic to believe that addressing food waste and the issue of sustainable food would be a reason for citizens to shun the EU"

Scientific analysis cited by the commission’s Standing Committee on Agricultural Research (SCAR) shows that the communication is not just relevant in addressing the issue of food waste. This is a particularly pertinent document because it looks at the whole food system, and the many aspects of sustainable food, that could guide the EU to move forward and secure the sustainable food production and consumption in the coming years.

Agriculture and food consumption, particularly animal products, have been identified as one of the most important drivers of environmental pressures, especially habitat change, climate change, water use and air pollution.

This communication would be a positive first step towards tackling this and developing a truly holistic system, which also considers the growing body of evidence pointing to the damage to the environment and human health caused by current levels of meat and dairy consumption.

As previously stated, Europeans expect sound environmental policies from their authorities, yet many are still unclear as to what constitutes a sustainable diet. I hope that the commission will ensure that the public has access to information to aid sustainable consumption choices, which must include the reduction of animal-based foods and increase of plant-based foods.

It should also consider incorporating important social goals, such as higher animal welfare products.

Meat reduction campaigns are growing in popularity, with UK prime minister David Cameron's energy and climate advisor, Greg Barker, joining forces with Sir Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday’s campaign earlier this month.

When a recent Guardian poll asked ‘Would you reduce your meat consumption to help fight climate change?’ 87 per cent answered ‘Yes.’

"I will consider it my duty to the electorate to continue ‘commission-bashing’"

I hope that when the new commission takes office in November, they will consider it a priority to publish this communication and work with the parliament on clear steps towards a sustainable food system in a more transparent and cooperative way than the out-going Barroso commission.

If not, I will consider it my duty to the electorate to continue ‘commission-bashing’.

Read the most recent articles written by Bart Staes - Giving the 'green light' to GMO vested interests is 'anti-European'

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