In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, food security has become the hot topic on everyone’s lips – but not everyone agrees on the best way to strengthen the EU’s food security.
One response to the crisis can be seen in the marked rise of protectionism across EU member states, with a strong focus placed on building and reinforcing local food chains.
This has been championed by the EU Agriculture Commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, who has said that the EU must focus more on developing local markets and boosting the local food industry to help strengthen European food security.
During a recent EURACTIV conference on food security in the EU, Commissioner Wojciechowski stressed that reliance on overseas markets is “not good” for the EU’s food security, instead highlighting the importance of creating connections between farmers, the local food industry, and local markets.
“Some sectors in agriculture need to supply the animals across Europe, feed from across oceans, seasonal workers from outside the EU, and they are looking for the market in China – this is not good for food security,” he said, adding that a food system where everything is transported thousands of kilometres is “not resilient agriculture”.
He cited the example of animal feed imports, such as the 36 billion tonnes of soybean imported each year from America, as a particular cause for concern.
But this turn to the local is increasingly becoming a cause for concern for some stakeholders.
Although Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, deputy head of Wojciechowski’s cabinet, stressed during the recent Forum for the Future of Agriculture Conference that strengthening local markets does not mean the EU will completely exclude trade, she echoed the Commissioner’s concern about the import of feedstuffs.
She said this is one of the main weaknesses of the EU food chain and that the EU must look at how it can improve its autonomy and resilience.
Likewise, in a speech on Monday (29 June), French President Emmanuel Macron highlighted the need to increase food sovereignty, saying that France needs to “strengthen [its] capacity to produce [its] own proteins” and work towards creating a more independent model in this area.
Following a similar logic, the Czech government has recently proposed an amendment to the Food Act which will oblige traders to have at least 85% of food products of domestic origin.
However, stakeholders are sounding the alarm about how to reconcile strengthening local markets with the need for free trade, highlighting that a turn to the local doesn’t necessarily correspond with an increase in food security.
In a statement referring to a recent report on trade barriers, the European Commission stressed that the EU is continuing to open up markets outside Europe “in the midst of rising protectionism”, with Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan saying it is “essential to keep global trade flows open”.
The statement highlights that this benefits EU farmers and food producers, citing the examples of EU beef exporters regaining access to China, pork producers who can now export to Mexico and producers of baby milk powder can now export again to Egypt.
Julia Köhn, CEO and founder of PIELERS, a company which helps consumers buy directly from producers, and chairwoman of the German AgriFood Society, told EURACTIV that protectionism is the “worst thing to do” to increase the resilience of the agrifood system.
“This nationalism, regionalism, localism that we are talking about at the moment is completely the wrong way,” she said, stating that the emphasis must instead be on transparency, increased information and interconnections.
“If you start protecting, you are cutting off the information flow between the parts of the whole system, and then collapses within parts of the system become much more likely,” she said, adding that enabling trade and collaboration is the key to success in an uncertain economy.