Europe needs to revolutionise its approach to food, focusing on sustainability and health to tackle the many challenges of the future, said a report published on Wednesday (6 December).
From obesity and chronic diseases to the circular economy and climate change, food policy covers a wide range of policy areas. But today’s policymaking on food is incoherent, with competences divided between the national and EU levels and between different departments at the European Commission.
An opinion presented by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC – representing the civil society in the EU) on Wednesday (6 December) highlighted the many challenges Europe faces and how a truly comprehensive food policy could help meet them.
“If the EU were ‘reborn’ today, it would create a comprehensive food policy that aims to create sustainable diets from sustainable food systems, linking agricultural production to nutrition and ecosystem services, and ensuring supply chains which safeguard public health for all sections of European society,” the report states.
Speaking to journalists on the sidelines of the EESC plenary session on Wednesday, German EESC member and author of the opinion Peter Schmidt said the question we need to ask ourselves now is “which foods do we produce and how”.
Food policy is like “a temple roof”
To answer this, he said, we should view food policy as a temple roof supported by a number of pillars. “The Common Agricultural Policy is one pillar, health policy is another, then trade policy, industrial policy, transport, the circular economy and the single market.”
Schmitt stressed that these pillars are currently each the responsibility of different departments of the EU administration but that the comprehensive food policy of the future should bring them together “not only at European level but also at national, regional and local level”.
For the food industry expert, now is the right time to act due to the sheer number of food programmes being implemented around the world. “It is the UN’s Decade of Action of Nutrition. And under the FAO, there is an enormous number of programmes, many of which are financed by the EU. Then there is the Milan Urban Food Pact and the international platform for food policy,” Schmidt said.
“Even on a local level there are more and more food councils that deal with food policy,” Schmidt added. “And we say that all these initiatives, at all levels, must be brought together. That is the fundamental idea behind the opinion.”
The rapporteur said his opinion had been well received by the Commission’s various departments but that he hoped for a stronger indication of support from DG AGRI, the executive’s department responsible for the Common Agricultural Policy.
In the long term, he even suggested that one day the Commission should create a ‘DG Food’. But Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, who attended the presentation, advised caution: “I remember the Soviet times when everything was centralised, but it didn’t make things more efficient,” the Lithuanian said.
Sustainability and food waste go hand in hand
The opinion makes strong references to the environmental impact of our current food system, something Schmidt believes can be improved in part by encouraging the development of the organic sector and making good quality, responsibly sourced food available to more people.
“This is what people want,” he said. Many people do to have time to go to the organic market every week, so “sustainability has to be brought into the whole food production chain”.
He said there are many ways in which organic agriculture can be encouraged, through the taxation of certain processes or harmful substances in traditional food production, and the deployment of technology to make farms more efficient.
“And our meat consumption in the Western world simply cannot go on,” he said, adding that 15,000 litres of water were needed to produce one kilo of beef.
Yet the German EESC member was keen not to demonise big business. “They are doing an awful lot,” he said, “without necessarily using the organic label.”
Piece by piece, the big players in the food industry are rethinking their “packaging materials, production methods, energy use, wastewater treatment, shortening supply chains”, he stressed.
In answer to the question of whether Europe could feed itself without today’s system of intensive agriculture, Schmidt insisted that “there is no contradiction” between the goal of increasing organic agriculture and ensuring the EU’s food security. But a greater effort to stop food waste would be needed.
Around 30% of food is wasted in the EU, according to official estimates. For Schmidt, tackling this requires action at many levels, including monitoring the industry and educating the public about the value of food.
“Consumers need to learn to see their food differently to other products, like car tyres,” he said. “Food is too cheap, there is no doubt about it.”
The FAO recently published a report in which it reached the same conclusion: the prices paid by consumers do not take into account factors like environmental impact, energy use and transport.
Labelling must get smart
The rapporteur also called for the adoption of a smart labelling system as part of a comprehensive food policy, to reduce the complexity of different national systems for producers in the single market and improve the information available to consumers.
The major food multinationals declared in March that they were ready to roll out colour coded labelling on individual portions, but Schmidt lamented that they had not committed to developing a smart system that could be used across the whole food chain.
Colour coded systems “are not smart”, he said. “When you mark a block of cheese or a banana red, there is something going wrong.” He went on to criticise the food industry’s attitude on labelling as “ridiculous”.
Pekka Pesonen, the secretary-general of Copa-Cogeca, the union of EU farmers and agri-cooperatives, agreed that colour coding is not suitable for all foods as it may give the impression that some agricultural products are less healthy than processed foods.
“Colour coding labelling systems only focus on certain nutrients, which limits and ignores the overall nutritional contribution of agricultural products to our diet,” he said.