As a EESC member, Peter Schmidt, has a first-hand view of how food can take on a leading role in reaching sustainability objectives and how it is affected by regulation, policies and the practices of multinational corporations. In fact, the current food system has created a distorted value of food that allows big business to make huge profits at the expense of European farmers that rely on 60 billion euros per year in subsidies paid by EU taxpayers. A comprehensive food policy, that regulates the food system according to circular economy principles and educates consumers as to the real value of food, will be instrumental in creating a more equitable and environmentally friendly approach to food production and consumption.
How important will it be for Europe to focus on a circular economy strategy for food?
“It is crucial for the implementation of the Agenda 2030 as food is related to at least 12 Sustainable Development Goals. If we do not reach a comprehensive approach in relation to food production and food consumption I believe we will fail the Agenda 2030 targets. Europe must become a forerunner in this process. As we just recently heard from Vice-President Timmermans, the whole world is keeping an eye on Europe and not only because of the European elections but also in terms of what will be done in the fight against climate change and how it will develop its social model. Therefore, a circular economy strategy is key.”
Europe currently lacks a general food policy. Is there a need for one?
“We are starting to develop one now. As a representative of the European Economic and Social Committee, we have called for comprehensive food policy that isn’t completely encompassed in the Common Agricultural Policy. Although the two are linked, in Brussels, policymakers are very focused on the Common Agricultural Policy. This is understandable because it involves around 60 billion euros distributed throughout Europe to mitigate the situation currently affecting farmers. However, politicians, institutions and organisations are now realising that agricultural policy is directly linked to an overarching policy, namely a comprehensive food policy. It is a part of that. For instance, when you look at the reflection paper ‘Towards a Sustainable Europe’ which came out on the 13th of January, for the first time ever the commission talks about a comprehensive food policy. Therefore, in order to implement the Sustainable Development Goals, people in the commission have realised that we need and comprehensive policy, or at the very least a food policy which we do not have.”
Will this involve implementing a circular economy for food?
“Yes, of course. Otherwise you cannot think in terms of a comprehensive approach. At all levels of production we must organise circles. Starting in the farm, passing through processing and ending at transport and retail: all must think circularly. For example a dairy factory which produces 300,000 litres of milk daily has a grey water discharge that is comparable to a city of 60/70 thousand inhabitants. Bringing all this together will lead to a shortening of the supply chain. Over the last decades we have developed an increasingly global supply chain which must be shortened. This is the logic now. If we don’t do this then we cannot become circular. The food system can have a huge impact in the fight against climate change and it also has the potential to bring local jobs, which in the future have to be better paid and grant better working conditions.”
Currently, the European Union is giving billions of euros to farmers in subsidies. Is there any space for specialised food production to help stabilise their financial situation?
“Yes, there is evidence that the more farmers grow organic produce the higher the returns on their investments. However, there is also a shift in the thinking of consumers. When you look at the last 5 or 10 years the development is huge: 10/15 years ago organic products were in a niche and now they are increasingly coming out of this niche. Organic production follows circular thinking quite logically, but we have to see what the political decisions behind this process are, whereby only niche organic products get the right amount of value for their produce.”
Do you think there is an imbalance in the power structures that dictate food production and pricing?
“Well in terms of those 60 billion euros in subsidies given to farmers, it reveals a ridiculous process that we are participating in. This isn’t an attack on farmers; farmers need this financial aid as they are being squeezed by the large multinational corporations on the one side and the retail sector and the processing sector on the other. The ridiculous situation is that nobody challenges the profit margins of the multinational corporations. They are making 20% percent profits (from what we know already) and want to make even larger gains. Yet at the same time we pay 60 billion euros to farmers so as to mitigate their situation. This is ridiculous. It means that the tax payers pay for the profits of multinational corporations. We must have a debate about this at a policy level. The taxpayer must challenge this system and hold decision makers accountable.”
How can we improve on this situation?
“One of the first steps the EESC took and the EC followed was to call for a fairer supply chain in the food sector. Unfair trading practices in the supply chain must be stopped. So, we created a list and the Commission now acts upon this list. This includes regulation in the food supply chain, which although insufficient is the first step towards regulating the market and moving away from our current obsession with a non-regulated/free market approach. The commission has realised that we need regulation to obtain fairness in the supply chain and hence fairer prices for farmers.”
What about waste? The farming sector generates lots of waste and by-products. However these have not been made profitable in a systemic way. Is using farming waste and by-products something that could help create extra revenue for farmers?
“I don’t see the complete logic in this. Most importantly, the majority of waste is not produced by farmers. The majority of waste occurs on the side of consumers rather than in the production and processing sectors which are well organised. Although we must distinguish what kind of waste we are talking about, we can say that overall it is estimated that around 30% of total food production is wasted. I believe it is illogical to say let’s create innovative products coming out of food waste. The first logical step would be to reduce total food production. At the same time, we have to bear in mind that we will have a global population of around 9/10 billion people in the coming years. So, the question is how do we produce food in a comprehensive and circular way and therefore also tackle climate change. If we simply use this waste to create and organise other materials then nothing has been done to fight climate change; we are simply using more soil and further destroying our environment. In fact, in order to protect the environment we must produce less per hectare. That’s the logic. To have a comprehensive approach would lead exactly to this conclusion rather than to find ways for farmers to get more money. What we really need is for farmers to get adequate compensation for what they are producing.”
Do you think the way we value food products can contribute to the creation of a circular food system?
“Compare the price of a litre of milk with a litre of coke. In many cases coke is much more expensive than the milk we buy in supermarkets. We can all imagine how difficult it is to produce milk compared to coke: coming from the farm and selling it at the end of the day in the supermarket is no easy feat. At the end of the day, there is a mismatch in pricing. And the second thing is that all these external costs are not included in the price, but are simply paid for by the farmers. This is why we have to find a way to communicate what is clear to us at the EESC: food is too cheap and the value of food is not well considered. The value of food cannot be compared to that of a car tyre or a smartphone because it is an ongoing process. In Germany we have a good expression for this, we say ‘Lebensmittel,’ which means ‘life supplies.’ Nobody can live without nutrition and a diet which is why we must make people conscious of the value of food in order to create a comprehensive food policy which is an essential part of the process.”
Water is another big factor. Food and water waste are directly related. What can be done to make water usage more circular?
“Well this is not just an issue on the agricultural side, it is also an issue in urban areas. We have lost the ability to think in the long term when building infrastructure. Policy in the last decades has led to the situation whereby municipalities have stopped investing in their infrastructure and a key part of the infrastructure is the water system. We need infrastructure which is solid and lasts for a long time. We have foregone long-term planning and we have a lot of water loss because of this. And this brings me back to the issue of circularity. We must think circularly in all possible areas, which requires huge investment and regulation, as well as bold decisions from politicians. This also implies talking about the distribution of wealth in our society: we must have a societal debate about how we distribute the wealth we produce, especially as we are living in the richest society ever.”
European Economic and Social Committee, www.eesc.europa.eu
Towards a sustainable Europe by 2030, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/publications/reflection-paper-towards-sustainable-europe-2030_en
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