‘We are fed up’ with our broken food system

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

Demonstrators at last year's "Wir haben es satt" protest in Germany. [BUNDjugend/Flickr]

Tens of thousands of people will gather once again in the cold of a Brandenburg winter to protest against what they see as the worst excesses of the food system, writes Oliver Moore.

Oliver Moore is the Communications Manager and EU Correspondent for the Agricultural and Rural Convention (ARC2020).

This protest starts at Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz and snakes around the streets of the German capital to end in front of Angela Merkel’s chancellery. Dozens of tractors accompany colourful samba bands and representatives of over 120 organisations in what is one of the largest annual protests in Germany.

Happening as it does in mid-January during Europe’s biggest agricultural fair, the International Green Week , “We Are Fed Up” (Wir Haben Es Satt in German), is now in its fifth year. So, while the largest gathering of agriculture ministers in the world happens, citizens gather to express their dissatisfaction with a globalised, industrialised model of farming, one where people and the environment come second to the interests of big business.

If this sounds all too familiar, that’s because it is: agri-food in the EU has not been fit for purpose for some time.

The evidence is everywhere. European agriculture is expected to reduce its Green House Gas Emissions by a whopping 1% between now and 2020 under a business-as-usual scenario. In any case, agri-food is off the hook, much to the conventional sector’s delight. Biodiversity rates are still nose-diving – Europe has 25% fewer farmland birds – that’s hundreds of millions fewer – than in 1990. A huge area in the Baltic Sea, sometimes as big as Germany itself,  is stubbornly (pg 19) covered in a polluting algal bloom, thanks in large part to the nitrogen and phosphorus run off from industrial farming in the dozen countries that surround it.

The CAP – Common Agricultural Policy – is the great enabler for all of this. The citizens of Europe were promised a CAP reform, but got in large part a CAP that fits just like the previous one. Indeed, we got a CAP-itulation when compared to the proposed Ciolos reform of 2011.

Some things even got worse in this so-called reform process. For example Pillar one – direct payments for primary production – received an even greater proportion of the overall available cash than in the previous funding period. So Pillar two, where agri-environmental schemes and rural development initiatives are supported – has an even smaller proportion of the overall spend from now to 2020. Biodiversity? Not likely to benefit, according to a large pan-European study last year of CAP’s biodiversity implications.

While We are Fed Up is contextualised by the fact that CAP priorities and spending do not adequately represent the wishes of European citizens, the event has a distinctly German feel, in terms of priorities.

Factory Farming, GM and TTIP have been prioritised as areas of concern this year by organisers Meine Landwirtschaft (“My agriculture” – an alliance of more than 50 NGOs).

And there is cause for concern. That Baltic pollution mentioned above? Too much of that comes from specialised industrialised pig units. And despite ostensibly better animal welfare rules, realities often don’t change on the ground. Compassion in World Farming and Eurogroup for Animals’ 2012 inspections of 45 large factory farms revealed a stunning 44 of them to be in breach of the EU animal welfare directives.

As there is widespread opposition to GM, the EU is now trying a new way to usher in GM cultivation. The EU will now allow member states to opt out when it comes to cultivation of GMOs in order to get their acceptance for cultivation of EU approved GMOs in other member states.

A massive public mobilisation against potential EU US trade agreement, TTIP, including well over one million signatures to a petition declared inadmissible by the Commission, has led to concessions unthinkable just 12 months ago. Greater transparency has been extracted and talk of the removal of ISDS – Investor State Dispute Settlements – is now front and centre of the debate. People are no longer bought off by loose talk of supposed jobs and growth; instead citizens are concerned about a race to the bottom in standards on both sides of the Atlantic: for example 82 currently banned pesticides may become available to EU farmers if corporate trade groups get their way.

Factory Farming, GM and TTIP are prioritised, but fair trade, bees, antibiotics, vegetarianism, global hunger, land access for young farmers, vibrant rural communities, monocultures, seed patents, pesticides, agri-pollution and land grabbing, food waste, are also to the fore this weekend.

This mixed bag of negatives also signposts a cornucopia of possible positives. And these positives can be condensed down into two things: sufficiency and agroecology.

There is another way, as the 3rd SCAR report points out – a sufficiency paradigm. This involves taking a range of relevant, realistic factors into account – such as resource availability, socio-environmental needs and impacts – when deciding how to transition towards a fit-for-purpose food system, one that judiciously produces enough, rather than overproducing unsustainably with significant waste. This thinking is simply not part of mainstream Green Week thinking, as evidenced by the production-at-all-costs orientated approach on display at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture.

And helping develop agroecological Communities of Practice, as we in Arc2020 are doing, is another way too. This is where experts, farmers and citizens come together to help make a food system fit for purpose. This involves environmentally sound inputs and processes and people friendly practices, like shorter supply chains based on respect and solidarity.

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