In the conclusion of its Farm to Fork strategy on sustainable food systems, the Commission invites “all citizens and stakeholders to engage in a broad debate to formulate a sustainable food policy.” This is pertinent, as decision-making power in the food system is being increasingly concentrated in a handful of global corporations. 

Asger Mindegaard and Celia Nyssens explore some of the benefits of re-localising parts of our food systems to create shorter and fairer supply chains.

The agri-food sector is increasingly characterised by the consolidation of power and market shares in still larger corporations. These large corporations are fundamentally driven by a logic of maximising profit for their shareholders, while environmental sustainability, health aspects, food security and affordability are of less importance. Due to their market dominance and strong lobby efforts, these companies have proven remarkably resistant to scrutiny by regulators and authorities.

Decisions about which food is produced and how it is produced, processed, packaged, priced and sold are crucial to society and cannot be entrusted to large corporations whose primary aim is profit. They should rather be taken in dialogue between national and local public authorities, local businesses, unions, and citizens, striving for a high degree of ‘food sovereignty’ (people’s right to exercise direct, democratic control over food and the resources needed to produce it). 

It is not a question of vilifying businesses in general, but of changing the power dynamics governing global food systems. Rather than being dominated by massive multinational corporations, we need a mobilisation of many diverse actors, new relationships and new distribution networks to reconcile food production and consumption with societal goals and priorities.

Re-localising elements of the food system can bring many benefits to farmers, citizens and the environment and also has the potential to make the food system more resilient to external shocks, such as the coronavirus pandemic. This is not about ending international trade, but about rebalancing priorities to achieve better socio-economic and environmental outcomes. There is a wealth of empirical evidence and a growing body of research (see for example work done by the New Economics Foundation) demonstrating that shorter supply chains can benefit both local communities and sustainability. 

Local food networks preserve local heritage

The global standardisation of agricultural production together with the market dominance of large agri-corporations are driving increasing genetic homogeneity at the cost of locally/regionally adapted animal breeds and crop varieties. 17% of farmed animal breeds are at risk of extinction and at least 100 breeds have gone extinct between 2000 and 2014. And of an estimated 7,000 crop species that have been cultivated for human food throughout history, only 150 are commercially important today. Rice, maize and wheat alone account for 60% of the global food supply. 

The heavy reliance on few food varieties threatens global food security as food production becomes ever more vulnerable to climate change, pests and diseases. It also leads to a loss of local knowledge and the erosion of local cultures depending on local agro-biodiversity.

For the past two decades, Slow Food Europe has worked against these trends through the Presidia project, protecting agro-biodiversity and linking it to economic viability and cultural heritage. A Presidium brings together communities of producers eager to collaborate and jointly establish production rules and ways of promoting their product. Today there are 589 Presidia worldwide, aiming to save native breeds, crop varieties and artisanal products at risk of disappearing by strengthening producer organisations, promoting the local area, preserving traditional methods and knowledge, and supporting sustainable practices.

“The Presidia project exemplifies the Slow Food approach to building local food systems on environmental sustainability, healthy diets, producers’ livelihoods and preserving local culture,” says Madeleine Coste, Policy Officer for Slow Food Europe. ”These local networks don’t only help to protect endangered foods and bring them to market, they also bring immeasurable social and cultural benefits to local communities, which too often are  discounted in food policy making.” 

Varieties of maize (daledbet from Pixabay)

Democratic supermarket in Paris

The EU food retail sector (supermarket and other stores) is highly consolidated, accounting for 30% of the total turnover and employment of the entire EU food and drink supply chain (agriculture, industry, wholesale and retail) in 2015 but representing only 7% of the total number of companies. 50% of food retail sales in the EU happens through only 10 major supermarket chains. The sector has an enormous influence on the food we eat, where it comes from, how it is produced and how much packaging is used. A recent market study in 11 EU countries found that the lack of sustainable options in the usual shopping place was one of the main obstacles to sustainable eating.  

However, an increasing number of alternative business models are challenging the current retail model. Community supported agriculture and direct purchase from producers are gaining momentum across the continent and various innovative food retail business models are gaining traction, prioritising waste-free, organic or local food products. 

A good example of this is the Parisian participatory and cooperative supermarket La Louve. The 4,400 customers are both owners (with a minimum investment of €100) and workers (commiting to a minimum 3 hours of work per month). Strategic decisions about products and sales are taken democratically, fostering a feeling of community and a sense of pride and ownership. The main focus of La Louve is on organic, artisanal, local and fair-trade products, and members pay 15-40% less than in other stores on average. At the same time, it promotes collaboration in urban neighborhoods, democratises food procurement and establishes fair business relationships with regional suppliers.

La Louve, Paris.

Belgian data shows that people have flocked to CSA farming and short supply chain shops since the COVID-19 pandemic started. The pandemic has reminded everyone that the ever-increasing distance that our food travels comes at a great and increasing price,” Nick Meynen, Senior Policy Officer for Environmental and Economic Justice at the EEB observes. “But the seeds of a re-localised food system planted by community groups and cooperatives need state support to grow from a niche to the mainstream. After all, they are doing society at large a valuable favour.”

Local produce on the menu 

Restaurants play an important role in many people’s ‘food education’ and one in five meals is consumed out of the home. Restaurants impact our feelings around food, as we often go to restaurants to celebrate special occasions, to treat ourselves and one another or to try something new and different. Restaurants can tell compelling stories about the food they serve (seasonality, regionality, sustainability, animal welfare etc.) and can help shape people’s attitudes towards food. A restaurant committed to sustainable sourcing from regional producers can thus contribute to building better food systems through the food they cook and the stories they tell. 

With this in mind, the Italian Slow Food ‘Cooks’ Alliance’ recently published a set of ambitious guidelines for its 538 member restaurants. The main objective of these guidelines is to promote local and high-quality raw materials produced by farmers, shepherds, fishermen, butchers, bakers and artisans who preserve biodiversity and traditional knowledge. Furthermore, the restaurants strive to give visibility, dignity and fair value to producers and their work and to reduce food waste and the environmental impact of their activities.

“Slow Food’s Cooks Alliance is a good example of restaurants’ increasing power to shape our food systems: a global network of cooks committed to developing a direct contact with farmers and producers, to sharing knowledge of seasonality and food culture and to guaranteeing respect in the working environment,” says Yael Pantzer, Policy Officer and Network Manager for Slow Food Europe. “If restaurants play their part, we as citizens can play ours by looking beyond the price when choosing restaurants dedicated to quality, sustainability and fairness. At the end of the day, we are not simply consumers, but co-producers.” 

Restaurants have their part to play in the transition to future-friendly food. (Image by StockSnap from Pixabay)

Public money for public good in Slovenia

While individuals’ preferences in the supermarket and at the restaurant are strong drivers of EU food demand, so is public procurement of food by local and national institutions. 250,000 public authorities in the EU spend around 14% of the EU GDP (around €2 trillion per year), amongst other things on food services. The power of public institutions to influence market trends is significant, both because of the sheer economic volume it represents, but also because of the reach public decisions have in our daily lives: the criteria for public procurement determine what food (produced under which conditions) is served in places ranging from our children’s schools to health care facilities, public offices and prisons. Consequently, it can have an enormous impact on our food habits and values throughout our entire lives.

One good example of public procurement seeking to strengthen both sustainability and regional supply is the Podravje Self-Sufficiency Project in the Podravje region of Slovenia. For the period 2015-2020, a minimum of 20% of the budget for canteens in primary schools was earmarked for local products while also prioritising sustainability and nutrition. Looking to 2030, the region wants to expand the project to other public institutions and to go beyond 20%, which will require active capacity-building of the regional food system (producers, processing and distribution). Prioritising locally produced food in public procurement can be challenging though, as EU rules often require authorities to make tenders EU-wide and price-determined.  

“We currently find ourselves in an absurd situation where private consumers are urged to buy local and organic food while public authorities often have limited options for prioritising local products through public procurement,” explains Stephanie Wunder, Coordinator for Land Use Policy and Food Systems for Ecologic Institute. “As a result, authorities have to find ‘creative’ solutions to circumvent rules for public tenders. What we need instead is a change of mindset towards seeing food as a public good characterised by cultural and regional differences,” she concludes.

Authorities should encourage public procurement to have a local focus. (Image by Helmut H. Kroiss from Pixabay)

Towards re-localised food systems

These four cases exemplify how food systems based on shorter and more localised value chains can look, bringing important food decisions closer to buyers whether public authorities, restaurants or citizens. But so far, the opportunities of more regional supply chains remain largely untapped. 

“What we need is a collaborative effort at national, regional and even city level, to support alternative business models, such as short and direct supply chains and consumer cooperatives and involve local and regional governments committed to transitioning towards sustainable food systems,” says Wunder. “At EU level, this needs to be backed with an ambitious Common Agricultural Policy promoting the needed change and trade policies ensuring that imported foods comply with EU sustainability standards to avoid importing environmental destruction, such as deforestation embedded in much soja and palm oil.” 

The initiatives stemming from the Farm to Fork strategy are of utmost importance, not the least the development of a proposal for a legislative framework for sustainable food systems foreseen in 2023. Across the entire food supply chain, from farm to fork, the EU must ensure a meaningful integration and coherence between all policies with an influence on food production, processing, distribution, consumption and trade. The EU must also accelerate its efforts to balance out power relations and protect smaller operators in the food supply chain, building on measures such as the 2019 Unfair Trading Practices Directive.

The examples provided in this article are indicative of the wealth of ideas and initiatives existing in the EU from which the Commission must learn and draw inspiration when implementing the sustainable food framework and other initiatives. Supporting local products and producers, democratic retail, ethical restaurants and sustainable public procurement are but some crucial elements if the EU truly wishes to ensure a resilient, fair and sustainable food system as announced in the Farm to Fork strategy, and at the same time ensure farmers’ incomes and vibrant rural areas as stated in the Commission’s proposal for the reformed Common Agricultural Policy. 

This article is written in collaboration with Yael Pantzer, Policy Officer and Network Manager for Slow Food Europe and Stephanie Wunder, Coordinator for Land Use Policy and Food Systems for Ecologic Institute.

Inspiration for an agroecological Europe

As Europe battles COVID-19 the EEB is committed to continuing our work towards a better future where people and nature thrive together. Getting the future of our food and farming system right is a crucial part of it.

This article is the 11th in a series telling the story of agroecological farms throughout Europe and beyond. We hope to show what an agroecological future for Europe could look like, and why it’s a desirable path. 

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