Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, criticised European Union farming policies for driving demand that is “literally impossible to satisfy” and requiring vast amounts of “virtual land” in other countries.
“The EU today uses 640 million hectares of land, which is about 1.5 times its own surface,” De Schutter, a Belgian law professor who serves as an independent expert to the United Nations, said in a recent speech.
“Globalisation places populations with very divergent purchasing power in direct competition,” De Schutter said at a 20 March event in Brussels hosted by the Compassion in World Farming charity.
The UN Conference on Sustainable Development, which takes place in Rio de Janeiro in June, offers the opportunity to move away from a “productivist paradigm” and commit to “sustainable production”, De Schutter said.
More people, more conflicts
Concerns about conflicts between food production and resource sustainability are reflected in a new UN Food and Agricultural Organisation report. It forecasts a 70% rise in global agricultural demand by 2050 – and a doubling of need in low- and middle-income countries – at a time when food production faces threats from climate change, unsustainable water use and deteriorating soil quality.
EU officials have pledged to use the Rio event to promote European policies and, as Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik has said, to seek “targets, timeframes and political direction” to protect the ecology and create a “zero-waste economy.”
Meantime, the European Parliament and national governments are in the process of reviewing the European Commission’s plans for 'greening the CAP'.
The proposals are aimed at improving biodiversity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions; using CAP direct payments to encourage farmers to rotate crops as a way to reduce fertiliser and pesticide use; and preserve at least 7% of land for focus areas such as buffer areas or permanent grassland to help reduce emissions.
It also seeks incentives to make livestock farming more compatible with other environmental goals, including reducing farm runoff from manure that contributes to nitrate pollutants in waterways.
Yet such policies have sparked a debate about whether Europe should be considering limits on production when it must import ever-growing amounts of commodities from around the world.
“Today we produce 35 million hectares outside of Europe for our feed and food needs,” said Friedhelm Schmider, director general of the European Crop Protection, an industry group representing the pesticides inudstry. “So we produce in Africa or in Asia for our food in Europe, which is called land-grabbing.”
Schmider told EurActiv in an interview that “we have to increase the land productivity but we have to do it in a sustainable way.”
Super-sized diets and waste
Western habits also have other impacts, experts say.
Rich-nation diets are spreading globally – especially to mushrooming middle classes in emerging countries like India, Brazil and China – and with them rising consumption of meat and food that are contributing to soaring levels of obesity, World Health Organisation figures show.
Food waste is a global problem – with consequences for the environment and supply chain. The European Parliament recently called for “radical measures” to slash food discards to conserve natural resources and cut landfill disposal.
“Many, many more are overeating as compared to the number of people who don’t get enough,” Jan Lundqvist, senior scientific advisor at the Stockholm International Water Institute, told EurActiv recently.
He worries that excess food consumption is destined to grow as middle classes expand in developing countries. “I think those aspects must be considered when we talk about the problems of feeding the world or to supply water.”
De Schutter told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 6 March that the spread of Western eating habits was undermining efforts to improve nutrition globally and spurring a rise in obesity.
“Urbanisation, supermarketisation, and the global spread of Western lifestyles have shaken up traditional food habits. The result is a public health disaster,” the UN expert said in Geneva.
He called for taxing unhealthy foods products; regulating foods high in fats, sugar and salt, restrictions on food advertising and revamping “wrong-headed” farm subsidies and doing more to support local crop production.