Europe must get serious about short food supply chains

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

What has COVID-19 changed for the EU's Farm to Fork Strategy? Nothing apart from underlining the urgency of transforming our food systems, write Nick Jacobs, Celia Nyssens and Nikolai Pushkarev.

This article is part of our special report Short food supply chains in Europe’s North.

Europe must get serious about short food supply chains (SFSC) and put an end to the frustrating inconsistencies within the Common Agricultural Policy and with other European policy fields, write Maria Heubuch and Bart Staes.

Maria Heubuch and Bart Staes are MEPs and member of the European Greens.

Making a clear choice in favour of SFSC and ironing out these inconsistencies is a way for the EU to really make a difference. This should be completed by effective regulatory instruments tackling further market concentration and unfair trade practices,

Some good news to start: More and more Europeans are favouring regional and quality food products, a Eurobarometer survey from earlier this year shows. Over three quarters consider regional and local aspects when making their purchase decisions.

And almost nine out of 10 are in favour of strengthening the farmer’s role in the food chain – a  clear necessity, also admitted by the European Commission as food supply chains “are rarely to the advantage of the farmers”. As farmers or small cooperatives mostly rely on few powerful actors for processing and distribution, they often find themselves squeezed by unfair trading practices.

If you are looking for alternatives to this unfair and unsustainable ‘business model’, look towards Short Food Supply Chains (SFSC). These SFSC involve no, or maximum one intermediary operator. SFSC include community-supported agriculture systems, local farmers´ markets, basket delivery systems or pick-it-yourself orchards.

They re-connect city-dwellers and the old and new peasants and yield multiple benefits for the environment, health and jobs. Yet, short food chains are little more than an unloved daughter-in-law when it comes to EU policymaking.

Point taken, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) does grant support for the establishment and development of SFSC and local markets, promotion, information and advisory activities. But this is little consolation facing the handouts to big agrifood corporations that heavily outweigh these programs.

Let’s first take a look at the many answers that short chains provide to many problems of the current food system. Through SFSC systems, consumers receive fresher food of higher quality, nutritional value and variety. They can actively shape and support jobs in their region, its resilience and cohesion.

Their environmental footprint and dependence on the monotonous corporate offer are reduced. Geographical and social proximity to the producer and the field help to (re)discover what food production means. To give an example, the community supported agriculture project “Garden Coop” in the German city of Freiburg deepens this understanding through a few fieldwork hours per member and year.

On the producer side, SFSC enables a fairer remuneration through better price control. In Brussels, for example, there is the growing Gasap-network, in which around 4,000 citizens established direct and long-term relations from around 30 small-scale farmers. This provides a stable and fair economical basis for sustainable food production.

Furthermore, short food chains reduce the need for storage, packaging and the dependence on the agro-industrial sector. Rural communities preserve or gain new jobs on farms, in manual processing, and local distribution, and thus benefit from the added value remaining in the region and a strengthening of the social tissue. Thriving, locally organised SFSC can also be an important attraction, especially in times of growing culinary tourism.

For all of these reasons, Europe must get serious about short food supply chains. It is currently not doing its job: Inconsistencies within the CAP, but also with other European policy fields are frustrating. Three main inconsistencies include:

  • The CAP does, through its so-called 2. pillar, provide funds for developing SCFC. But most of the money is still spent in indiscriminate hectare-based payments. This favours large-scale operations that in most cases produce for world, not local markets. What is worse, the CAP reform proposal now on the table wants to cut by 25% the most goal-oriented programs of the 2. pillar, while leaving hectare-based payments almost untouched with only a 10% cut. This means less funds for SFSC in the future and more heavy competition from big producers.
  • Talking about competition, the EU needs to get serious about protecting its local food heroes from corporate power. The recent Baysanto merger shows that there are currently not enough tools in the box to prevent unhealthy market concentration and its effects on the environment, health and local economies. By allowing the agricultural input industry, but also processors and retailers, to become bigger and bigger, room for manoeuvre diminishes for farmers (potentially) engaged in SFSC.
  • The European trade agenda also needs to be aligned to truly support local and sustainable food production, both in Europe and abroad. Prospected imports of 99.000 tons of cheap beef via the EU-Mercosur trade deal as well as cheap milk from New Zealand will destabilise local markets and producers even further. It is also bad news for farmers and environment in the originating countries. Already now, Chinese investors invest into stables with several thousand cows in New Zealand, resulting in pollution of water and soils.

Making a clear choice in favour of SFSC and ironing out the described inconsistencies is a way for the EU to really make a difference. SFSC must also be actively promoted and supported by regional and local measures.

As regulating bodies, regions and communities need to assure a framework for SFSC, such as providing affordable marketplaces or facilitating the cooperation of SFSC producers. In their role as large customers for canteens in schools, hospitals and suchlike, they have to be allowed to give priority to SFSC. Cities like Ghent and Copenhagen are doing some excellent work in this area.

The argument often put forward, that small, local farms can only provide a limited amount and a seasonal varying offer, needs to be invalidated by encouraging cooperation between SFSC producers and by bringing seasonality back into kitchens and eaters´ minds. It is not only about supplying a demand, it is also about creating a demand.

The growing number of citizens and economic actors choosing to buy their food through SFSC reflects the trends revealed by Eurobarometer. Nonetheless, their “consomm´action” can only be one part of a broader strategy.

It must therefore be complemented by effective regulatory instruments tackling further market concentration and unfair trade practices. Besides, the expenditure of public money, like the CAP, has to assure the provision of public goods like health, good food, functioning ecosystems, climate protection and social cohesion.

This cannot be achieved with a disproportionate cut in the second pillar and further incentives for farm enlargement and export. In contrast, SFS chains make an important contribution to provide these goods, and will do even more when their development is truly fostered.

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