Distance not determining factor of sustainability, says Commission official

There is a strong association of distance with sustainability amongst consumers, according to the European Consumer Organisation BEUC.  [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Short food chains, often thought of as a ‘greener’ way to get food on the table, are not necessarily synonymous with sustainability, according to a Commission official, who called for a considered approach to the trade and sustainability debate.

“Distance is not the determining factor of sustainability,” Rupert Schlegelmilch, director of the Americas, agriculture and food safety at DG Trade at the European Commission, stressed during a recent EURACTIV event.

He emphasised instead that it is important to fully grasp the complexities of the food chain. 

His comments come on the back of an increased interest in shortening agricultural supply chains, a key focus of the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy.

This is something that has grown in the wake of the coronavirus strategy, which has led to much deliberation over the best way to increase both sustainability and resilience in the EU food sector, resulting in a surge of interest in buying locally.

“Normally, the effect of having the right climate, the right soil or the right water outweighs very often the transport cost, which is the first thing you think about when you think about sustainability,” he said.

He offered up the example of growing bananas in Iceland, which he said is currently being done with renewable energy. But weighing up the costs of the fertiliser and energy inputs required to achieve this against the costs of importing bananas from elewhere does not necessarily add up, he said.  

Flavio Coturni, head of unit for agriculture of food and sanitary and phytosanitary matters at DG TRADE, concurred, saying that it needs to be made clear that “what matters in terms of sustainability is not so much where the product is produced, but rather what type of product it deals with”. 

“One product is different from another in terms of carbon footprint, but also the way it is produced. And the methods of production can be sustainable or unsustainable, depending on a variety of the elements, and not necessarily depending on where and how long or short the supply chain is,” he emphasised.

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Despite this, there is a strong association of distance with sustainability amongst consumers, according to Léa Auffret, senior trade policy officer at the European Consumer Organisation, BEUC. 

“Two-thirds of consumers are now saying they’re ready to change their eating habits to reduce the impact they have on the environment. And most of them say that local supply chains are a synonym of sustainability, they really associate the two concepts,” she said, adding that origin remains one of the most important factors for consumers when they are buying food.

However, she pointed out that this interest in origin goes deeper than sustainability. 

“When we say that consumers want to bring the farm closer to the fork, it’s not only to reduce the impact of transport. It’s also because they want to support local producers, because they want to know where from which country the product can come from, just to have an idea of what type of environment or standard what type of labour rights are in place there, to make the appropriate choice,”Auffret said. 

Freedom of choice

As such, she highlighted that it was vital that consumers were empowered to make their own choice, both on origin but also on other criteria such as animal welfare standards, calling for trade policy to be “braver” on these aspects to help consumers “make the healthy and sustainable choice”.

But this is a challenge for consumers as they do not currently have enough information, she said.

This is especially the case for prepared food, she added, such as the origin of meat in processed products.

“We need to look at this at EU level to really improve the way we inform consumers, on origin and also aspects of sustainability,” she stressed.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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