This article is part of our special report European Business Summit 2015.
SPECIAL REPORT / As the agricultural sector faces mounting pressure to raise production, consumer trust in the safety of the food supply chain has been eroding, a European Commission official warned.
The EU’s agri-food sector is increasingly becoming industrialised. With the global population expected to reach nine billion in 2050, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that production will have to increase by 70% to feed the planet.
But although industrialisation has helped bring food prices down, it also caused massive health scares, like the mad cow disease in the 1990s or, more recently, the E.coli outbreak, which killed 48 people in Germany, leading to hundreds of millions of losses for the sector.
“Consumer trust is hard to earn but can be damaged easily,” said Ar?nas Vin?i?nas, head of cabinet of Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, referring to recent food scares. He was speaking at the European Business Summit last Thursday (7 May) in a session entitled Food safety – reconciling competitiveness and citizens’ trust.
The biggest food scandal in recent years broke in 2013, when frozen beef lasagna packages in the UK were found containing up to 100% horsemeat, prompting calls for better traceability of food and more transparent labelling of products.
But this was no surprise to Jorgo Riss, the director of Greenpeace Europe, who said the entire food supply system is flawed. “The whole trend the past five decades has been to increasingly use machines,” he said, warning the trend was unsustainable, both economically and environmentally.
“There is a very large dependency on fossil fuels and on chemical inputs. It’s an expensive system based on non-renewable inputs that is creating larger environmental problems such as ground water pollution. The sector is not feeding the world today, and it never will because it depends on these non-renewable resources that are expensive,” Riss stated.
And as new production technologies become available – like GMOs or cloning -, maintaining consumer trust in the food supply chain could become a bigger challenge.
Vin?i?nas said the Commission sees room for improvement in managing “the complex relation” between citizens’ trust and technological innovations. So-called novel foods containing nanomaterials, the cloning of animals for food production or genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) have all faced scepticsim from citizens, prompting calls for stricter regulation.
“It is unfortunate that sometimes food industries try to modernise and innovate using new approachs and techniques in full respect of a scientific advice, but then meet the opposition and hostility from consumers and pressure groups,” Vin?i?nas said.
“This leads us to one of the key challenges as a legislator how to make laws and regulate in the face of emerging technologies in situations where science appears to be questioned by either deeply-rooted conservative groups, societal opposition or for any other reason.”
Referring to the horsemeat scandal, Vin?i?nas added that the Commission saw the fight against fraudsters as a top priority.
Jean-Charles Bocquet, the director general of the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), which represents pesticides manufacturers, recognised the sector’s problems. Bocquet said the industry needs to make sure there is enough food in Europe, but also beyond, noting that today Europe is net importers of food.
“Where we have to improve a lot is when it comes to information and communication with the public. It’s true that the industry representatives consult each other, but we have some contraints so we need to talk more with NGOs,” the industry representative commented.
“They are a positive aspect and challenge us in specific areas. We are not always able to respond to their demands short-term, and some demands are exagerated, but it’s a continuous debate that will be more effective if we put in place some initiatives to make sure that all stakeholders are working in the same direction,” Bocquet said.