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Apples and Oranges – The Need for a New EU Food Policy

Food plays an integral role in our everyday lives. Often, though, we find it easy to overlook how it affects millions of people worldwide as an industry. The EU has historically overlooked this too. In this article, I explain why food is so important, and how we can move forward to more inclusive, nuanced, and ecological food policy.

Sara Roversi

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The year 2021 began full of hope and expectation, if only because a new year meant we could leave behind one of the most complex years in the history of mankind and finally turn the proverbial page. 

However, after almost three months, we’ve seen that to truly live up to this widespread desire for improvement, we need to roll up our sleeves and move in the right direction. Doing this, however, requires some reflection. All the more so if we think of the great opportunities for positive change in the coming months; the G20 Summit and COP26 represent two fundamental summits in which Europe is deeply involved, helping to design a different – better – future. 

G20 stands for “Group of Twenty”: it is a forum for international cooperation bringing together 19 countries and the European Union discussing the most important aspects of the international economic agenda. The 2021 G20 has already begun its journey under the Italian Presidency, and it will end with the Summit of Heads of State and Government on 30-31 October 2021 in Rome. This year’s edition will focus on three broad, interconnected pillars of action: 

 1. People – tackling inequalities and promoting human development for all;
 2. Planet – developing a safer and more sustainable world by restoring the balance between people and nature;
 3. Prosperity – striving to make digitalisation an opportunity for everyone.

The COP26 is the 26th “United Nations Climate Change Conference,” a global summit about climate change and how countries are planning to tackle it. The meeting this year will take place in Glasgow, in November, and it will hopefully establish new agreements between the parties to act as soon as possible toward a more sustainable and climate-friendly future. 

Both of these important events represent crucial opportunities for discussing global issues that interest the whole planet: the COVID-19 pandemic, economic depression, and climate change. 

Food for good 

Food systems interconnect and underpin these multifaceted global issues. Simply put, food is a necessary part of everyday life, all over the world. Food therefore cuts across the crises we face – environmental, health, economic, and social – often playing an integral, if underappreciated, role. 

For example, eating well is good for us, but it is also a way to promote biodiversity, assure the fertility of the soils, improve social justice, safeguard equality, and mitigate climate change. Eating well necessitates adequate and universal nutrition to holistically contribute to the wellbeing of humans, of our communities, and of the ecosystems in which we live. Moreover, each of us makes food choices every day. Each of us can vote with our fork, influencing the system we live in. Supporting, through purchases, agricultural models that care about the earth and those who cultivate it, being more careful about waste, reducing meat consumption, or simply increasing awareness of what we have on our plates would allow us to utilise the power of food for positive change. If change is to take place on a global scale, our individual behaviors, consumption choices, and daily actions can make a difference, positively or negatively influencing the future of the planet and the lives of each individual. But consumers alone do not bear all the responsibility. 

Therefore, let’s return to the aforementioned global summit. Food needs to be on the table there as well. While the G20 will be responsible for leading the post-pandemic recovery, and the COP26 will have to offer concrete solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change, we cannot continue to ignore the fact that none of these goals will be attainable unless we make our food systems more sustainable. 

Food, glorious food? 

In order to understand how food affects a veritable bucket load of global issues, we first have to understand food systems. But what do we mean by food systems? According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), a food system is  “the entire range of actors and their interlinked value-adding activities involved in the production, aggregation, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal of food products that originate from agriculture, forestry or fisheries, and parts of the broader economic, societal, and natural environments in which they are embedded.” This definition gives an idea of the incredible complexity behind the food we eat. It also highlights the relationship between what is on our plate and its impact on the ecosystem in which we live. 

To be classed as sustainable, a food system needs to deliver food security and nutrition for all while simultaneously generating positive value along three dimensions: economic (it needs to be profitable throughout), social (it offers broad-based benefits for society), and environmental (it has a positive or neutral impact on the natural environment). Creating sustainable food systems is a huge but urgent and crucial challenge that needs to be addressed by policy implementation.

Currently, there is no EU ‘food policy’. Given the importance of food, irrespective of agriculture, a simple agricultural policy as it exists at the moment is not sufficient.

Even though the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) made progressive steps towards reaching and creating a greener, smarter, younger, fairer, and more inclusive system, it did not go far enough. Small-scale producers and agri-enterprises still have only limited access to viable markets. High levels of food loss and waste, along with food-related diseases, remain a reality. The ecological footprint associated with the industrialisation of food supply chains has increased. The food system is still the cause of a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions, and people still suffer from hunger while obesity continues to rise. 

Something is not working, and policies – the CAP in particular – need to change.

The CAP is not complete because it is incapable of embracing the complexity of the food context and the diversity of the European food system(s). This is due to its intrinsic structural characteristics: the CAP focuses only on agriculture! Just focusing on agriculture is limiting because food involves many other different policy frameworks – such as food safety and public health, trade, environmental protection, climate and energy, economic and social cohesion, rural development, international development, and education. By only focusing on “agriculture,” we address just the first part of the food chain, ignoring healthy diets, resilient ecosystems, and decent livelihoods for farmers and food workers, all of which should be key objectives – not footnotes – to the policies affecting food systems.

The future of food policy

Current policies at the EU level remain highly segmented and poorly aligned: there is a need to build bridges between different policy areas. To break down the silos. As Peter Senge, an American systems scientist, puts it: “We tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system. And wonder why our deepest problems never get solved”. 

Only an ecological approach and a coordinated policy, bringing changes to all of these different components, can overcome the system inertia. We need an approach that accounts for the interconnections of the infinitely complex system in which we live. Food is the center of this intricate web and is, therefore, the best tool for the necessary ecological transition to a more sustainable lifestyle that is good both for us and for the Earth. 

A ‘successful’ CAP reform needs to address the challenge of building sustainable food systems in Europe.

For now, two of the most important aims that agricultural policies address are related to food safety (which pertains to the handling, preparation, and storage of food in ways that prevent food-borne illness) and food security (defined by the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security as “the access by all people to enough food for an active, healthy life”). Both aspects need to be addressed in order to achieve a sustainable food system. However, to achieve the inclusive sustainable development that the CAP targets and to implement the necessary ecological approach, Europe must first address its food sovereignty. 

This concept, first coined in 1993, demonstrates the complexity of the issue and is a good starting point from which to approach food policy issues. During Nyéléni 2007, the very first global forum on food sovereignty that was organized in Mali, food sovereignty was defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”. Clearly, the substantial difference between food sovereignty and food security is the focus they have. While sovereignty focuses on the producers, security addresses consumers. Both stakeholders, however, are critical, have the right to protection, and should be considered. If there is no protection for producers, it becomes more difficult to protect consumers. Again, everything is interconnected. 

For many years, beginning with the Green Revolution of the ‘70s, our food systems have focused on increasing productivity. We have been obsessed with supplying large volumes of food to ensure that food shall be affordable for all, including low-income families. Farmers were gradually encouraged to become providers of cheap raw materials for the food processing industry, and consumers’ needs were considered to be satisfied by the dumping of cheap calories on the shelves of supermarkets. 

While there have been many positive steps taken in agriculture, the current food system’s negative impact on the environment, the loss of food sovereignty for smaller producers, and widespread health problems globally should be enough for us to realise the need for drastic change. 

For the last 50 years, discussions have focused on effectiveness, economies of scale, low-cost, and quantity. Today we rather need to discuss efficiency, biodiversity, accessibility, and quality.

Speaking about a Common Food Policy (CFP) – rather than a Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) – could be the starting point of a new interconnected and inclusive process.

Virtuous food policies are indispensable in guaranteeing security, stability, and prosperity – not only for a given country but for the entire world. The G20 and Cop26 must lead to substantial rule changes: a healthy and fair food future for all humanity and the environment around us depends on the choices made at these forums.

Sara Roversi

As the Founder of the Future Food Institute, a purpose-driven international ecosystem, I catalyze real change to improve life on Earth, through education and innovation in the global food systems. I combine my experience as an entrepreneur, activist, educator, and seasoned growth expert to collaborate with high-profile think tanks on setting the agenda for the sustainable food industry. Described as a game-changer, I have a flair for exploration and prosperity thinking. Over the past 10 years, I have focused on a mission to take food leaders and youth to the next phase of action through education, research projects, and innovation challenges. In addition to my responsibilities with Future Food, I also serve as a director of the Food Innovation Master’s Program, Partner and Board Member of the Food For Climate League.