The topic of sustainable food systems and food security was scheduled to be addressed by the European Commission with its Communication on Sustainable Food in 2014, which was finally withdrawn. The topic was partially reprised in the Europe 2020 Strategy, the 2014-2020 Common Agricultural Policy and the circular economy package. However, there is currently a gap in EU policy regarding sustainable food. There is a need to coordinate the current policies and actions taken in various fields (agriculture and rural development, environmental protection, employment, etc.) and transform them into an integrated sustainable EU food policy framework focusing not only on the economic and social development of the EU regions, but also on the territorial cohesion, health, culture and growth prospects of Europe as a whole.
A COR opinion on a sustainable EU food policy is on its way
The Committee of the Regions (COR) is currently drafting an opinion on a sustainable EU food policy that will address the issue of food production in a more comprehensive way, promoting more sustainable food production and consumption patterns and establishing a link between food and other policies (see draft opinion and questions to be raised) so as to ensure food security. The opinion will be discussed during the Commission for Natural Resources on February 2, 2017, and then voted on at the COR March plenary (22-23 of March, 2017).
Natural resource depletion and unpredictable rates of yield directly affect food security. Uncertainty, in turn, causes food price volatility, which has a negative impact on smallholder farmers and poor consumers especially. Moreover, an unsustainable food system has a direct negative impact on the environment because unsustainable agricultural practices cause more biodiversity loss, a slowing down of soil fertility, and more water scarcity. Other indirect factors contribute to the overall problem of food security for all, such as the growing world population and competition for food resources from other sectors. The fact that European citizens tend to consume fewer sustainable and healthful foods also adds to the problem.
However, sustainable food systems do exist in the EU, although they are often hard to access for people living far from rural areas or when the length of the supply chain compromises its sustainability. Even though consumers demand sustainable food, a lack of incentives prevents sustainable business models from evolving. Indeed, the sustainable development challenge is omnipresent nowadays, especially since the UN 2030 Agenda devoted the Sustainable Development Goal #2 to hunger, nutrition and agriculture. This vision pushes for an integrated policy approach rather than a thematic one (environment – waste – biodiversity – water – tourism – climate change); as well as a multi-level governance in order to listen to consumer demands and preserve cultural heritage (with geographical indications for example) but also stimulate a business model shift and raise awareness among the population (health and education). This policy should think broader than public procurements and awareness campaigns.
According to the COR, a sustainable food policy should cover, in a holistic way, and in respect of the multilevel governance principles, a number of issues ranging from (1) the availability of food and water supply, (2) the evaluation of food eco-services, (3) the promotion of high quality and healthy food consumption and (4) the preservation of the cultural and historical heritage that is strongly associated with the consumption of regional foods.
The importance of considering mountain agriculture in the COR opinion
To receive feedback from stakeholders, the Committee of the Regions organised a public hearing on 28th November 2016 where Euromontana suggested that the COR take into account the question of mountain food systems and products and the importance of quality and origin. Indeed, during the meeting, the COR suggested a system of sustainability indicators that would be assessed at every stage of the food supply chain to ensure enforcement of a future EU policy, but such an evaluation system could turn out to be overly costly and time-consuming for small producers, notably in mountain areas. In the upcoming COR opinion paper, small producers mustn’t be forgotten and recognition of the quality of their production, through the optional quality scheme for mountain product for example, is a step towards more territorial cohesion and rural development.10 January 2017