Peter Schmidt is Member of the European Economic and Social Committee, and Managing Director of Food, Beverages and Catering Union in Germany
Is it time for a comprehensive and holistic European food policy? To put it simply, yes it is!
We in Europe need a comprehensive food policy in order to achieve the necessary goals of providing healthy diets from sustainable food systems everywhere at all times and ensuring supply chains which safeguard health for all Europeans. In order to achieve this, we need to link agriculture to nutrition and ecosystem services.
However, defining what is meant by a holistic approach in food policy is not straightforward. A comprehensive food policy based on the sustainability goals must meet a set of requirements. It needs to be socially, environmentally and economically sustainable and integrated across sectors and levels of governance. It also must be inclusive of all sectors of society and complement – but not replace – a reshaped Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). A comprehensive food policy also needs to ensure fair working conditions at all levels.
The comprehensive food policy could be perhaps compared to a temple the foundations of which are governance and coordination and which pillars include agriculture (under a reformed CAP); territorial and rural development (Cork 2.0 Declaration); the transition to a circular economy; sustainable consumption patterns; fair distribution within the supply chain; preservation of Europe's cultural diversity; environmental protection; and education and trade. The roof of the temple is the food policy itself.
It is the European Commission that needs to take the initiative and set the necessary steps for a comprehensive food policy.
As a first step, it should set up a cross-sectoral, inter-institutional task force with the aim of developing an action plan on food sustainability. In this regard, it is also important to make use of the hearings organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EECS) when drafting a food relevant opinion.
It is the European Commission that needs to take the initiative and set the necessary steps for a comprehensive food policy
Furthermore, the Commission should develop an ‘EU sustainable food scoreboard’ in order to encourage and monitor progress towards the set targets. The transition to sustainable European food systems also requires sustainable dietary guidelines by the European Union, including guidance on smart labelling for sustainable food. Labelling should not only focus on nutrition and other health claims, but also on the environmental and social impact of food.
But why is it high time to build this temple of a comprehensive food policy?
Never before in history have food-safety and quality had such a high value, but unfortunately never before has the agri-food industry's reputation been worse either ‒ and not without reason.
The list of negatives includes species extinction and cruelty to animals as well as food scandals, profiteering by multinationals, low prices for farmers and poor working conditions in parts of the food industry. Moreover, European agricultural policy over the past 50 years or more has focused solely on maximising food production, with no regard for what is being produced and how. At the same time, current agricultural policy has not been able to guarantee an adequate income for farmers.
First, no other supply chain has as many unfair trading practices as the food sector. Food is being wasted more "cheaply" than ever before – 88 million tonnes of food, worth €143 billion, are wasted every year in Europe. This is also a direct result of this unhealthy competitive structure, and it also means that the value of food is lost.
Secondly, there is no coherence between the domains of sustainable agriculture, healthy eating, environmental protection, fair trade relations, and so on. However, there absolutely needs to be one, if we are to implement the United Nation's sustainable development goals.
Thirdly, the social aspect is also important: It has been shown that many people have poor diets due to social inequalities and food poverty, with enormous long-term costs for their health. Some 37% of all deaths in the EU are attributable to unhealthy diets.
Many people have poor diets due to social inequalities and food poverty, with enormous long-term costs for their health
Last but not least, the EU's rich cultural heritage is being threatened by the food industry's massive marketing budgets.
These problems are the result of the chaotic structure of Europe's food industry and of a lack of policy coordination. Each market operator focuses on its own interests, and the policies that ought to be bringing order to the chaos are a wholesale failure.
Another problem is that, unfortunately, far too many politicians in the Member States – and in Brussels too – are quite obsessed with the idea of neoliberalism, which blinds them to the overall picture, namely the need for a comprehensive pan-European food policy.
In order to streamline all these processes, the European institutions could explore whether it would be useful to create a dedicated Directorate–General for Food that could take the initiative on regulation, legislation and enforcement. In my view, we also need a European Food Council in order to give food and nutrition policy a greater value and to make it a pan-European task. The EECS recently adopted an opinion on this subject, setting out tangible first steps and recommendations.
If politicians want to take long-term, sustainable action, they need to develop a strategy that takes account of these proposals, which should be implemented in agreement with all the participants in the supply chain. It is not primarily about adopting new laws, but rather about coordinating and integrating the wide variety of initiatives that already exist.