Short-term and insecure contracts, dire working conditions, widespread suffering caused by diet-related diseases. Our current food system leaves a lot to be desired for the people working in and buying from it.

Asger Mindegaard and Celia Nyssens look into needed changes to make the EU food system a driver of social sustainability – for producers, workers and consumers alike. 

In its landmark Farm to Fork strategy, the European Commission sets out to foster a transition in the EU food system to improve its fairness, healthfulness and environmental sustainability. Having addressed the latter objective extensively in previous articles, we now turn to how to bring about a fairer and healthier food system. 

Agroecology, the core of this ‘Future farming’ series, is a concept and a movement that encompasses much more than the environmental and agronomic benefits of sustainable farming. Agroecological food systems place the wellbeing and fair treatment of farmers, workers in the food sector and those consuming the food at the heart of the food system.

But what does this mean in reality? To seriously address the social unsustainability of our food system requires significant changes throughout supply chains, from the farm to the fork.

The happy farmer – and the rest

Across the EU, the number of farms decreased by 25% from 2005 to 2016 while the agricultural area remained more or less the same. This means that land steadily became more concentrated in fewer hands and is indicative of an accelerating industrialisation of the agricultural sector, characterised by mechanisation and standardisation. This type of agriculture tends to be specialised in one or very few cash crops, turning landscapes into ecological – and human – deserts: monocultures. There are of course exceptions, big can be beautiful, as we reported last year, but today this is by no means the norm.

Large-scale industrial agriculture aims at a high degree of mechanisation and labour requirements are often seasonal and short-term due to the monocropping. Plus, around four of the ten million people employed in European agriculture, in addition to landowners and their families, are temporarily employed as migrant workers outside their home country, including illegally employed workers. These temporary farmworkers often travel between countries in the search for work and are vulnerable to exploitative salaries and poor working and housing conditions.

Farmworkers harvesting grapes. (Image by Franco Lucato).

This situation became only way too clear during the first corona lockdown last spring, when restrictions of cross-border movement threatened to block migrant workers’ access to the fruit and vegetable fields of countries like Germany, Italy and France. The prospect of seeing ripe crops rotting in the field due to lack of domestic workforce willing or able to do the job made politicians and farm owners take decisions that raised some eyebrows. Exemptions were passed in haste and special charter flights brought agricultural workers to the fields in countries like Germany and the UK under questionable conditions. The corona restrictions clearly showed how important these workers are for European food production and how little regard is paid to their safety and wellbeing.

Yet, it is not only in the fields and orchards that Covid-19 put suboptimal working conditions in the spotlight. Similar problems haunt workers across the food supply chain. One grim example that got much international media attention recently is that of workers in slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities. The rapid and severe spread of the virus in meat processing plants in multiple EU countries shone a light on the appalling working conditions for the employees (often migrant workers) resulting from companies chasing cost savings at all costs.

Without people to take care of the many different aspects of agricultural production, the steady supply, diversity and quality of agricultural products for EU consumers cannot be guaranteed,” warns Arnd Spahn, Political Secretary for Agriculture for the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT). “Today, the protection of workers and farms against corona outbreaks is the basis for this security.”

Making it easy to choose better food

When it comes to a food system that benefits those who eat from it, the concept of healthy and sustainable food environments is fundamental. In a nutshell, it means that the entire environment around our food choices (what products are available, how they are presented in shops, their prices, available information, discounts etc.) should be designed in a way that make healthy and sustainable choices as available and intuitive as possible. It is not a question of telling people what to eat, but rather to ensure that the physical infrastructure and socio-cultural conditions around them make healthy and sustainable food the easy choice.

And transforming food environments in the EU is critical for public health. Poor diets – diets dominated by ultra-processed foods and with high levels of fats, refined sugar and salt – are a key driver of obesity and of so-called ‘non-communicable diseases’. This covers a series of conditions such as cardiovascular problems, diabetes and cancers, which account for 75% of diseases and 85% of deaths in Europe. Furthermore, as is often the case, these diseases intersect with socio-economic inequalities, disproportionately affecting people with lower incomes.

As for barriers to eating more sustainably, a recent analysis of European consumers’ attitudes clearly pointed to price, a difficulty in identifying sustainable food options, a lack of knowledge and availability of sustainable food in consumers’ habitual shopping and eating places. All these parameters are part of the so-called ‘food environment’ and can be designed to create environments more conducive to sustainable and healthy diets.

To effectively promote healthy and sustainable food choices, we must act on multiple levels,” says Camille Perrin, Senior Food Policy Officer for the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC). “Improved food labels are necessary to guide consumers and it is imperative that food becomes greener and healthier by design, that food companies stop promoting unhealthy food to children and that food prices send the right signals.

Prices, information, options and how foods are presented all make part of the ‘food environments’ which have a big influence on what we eat. (Image by Daria Volkova on Unsplash).

Stronger together

One powerful way of driving positive change in the food environments is through consumer co-operatives. Consumer co-operatives are retail companies owned by their consumer-members, who take key decisions about how the operation is run. Surplus capital is either distributed amongst the members or invested in the co-operative, rather than being reaped by shareholders. In countries like Finland, Slovakia, Estonia, Switzerland and Denmark, the leading actors in the food retail market are today run according to this people-centred business model.

Consumer co-operatives hold a big potential for radical improvement of supply chain fairness and for healthy and sustainable food environments,” explains Giulia Tarsitano, Food Policy Manager at Euro Coop, the European Community of Consumer Co-operatives. “Unlike conventional retailers, they do not exist to create profit for the shareholders but to satisfy needs and expectations of their consumer-members. Hence, priorities such as solidarity, sustainability and health can have more weight in the way the business is conducted.

To control the integrity of the supply chain and guarantee quality products often means investing in long-term direct relationships with suppliers and shortening the supply chain as much as possible. One example is Konzum, part of the COOP group Czech Republic, which operates over 100 food shops in the south-eastern part of the country. Through the “Jsme tu doma” (“We’re home here”) program, Konzum cooperates with 78 local producers, who would otherwise not have market access, and sells a large variety of typical regional products, delicacies, seasonal fruits and vegetables.

Risk sharing can green EU farming

The co-operative business model can also help address economic risk and uncertainty around market access and value, one of the key obstacles slowing down the widespread transition to sustainable farming. Close connections between consumer co-operatives and farmers (individual or farm co-operatives) can help abate risks related to investment in sustainable farm management, for instance by guaranteeing a market for the products while promoting supply chain transparency and improved producer-consumer relations.

An example of this is the British Co-op’s Farming Group, consisting of around 400 UK farmers. The farmers commit to certain production standards covering environmental sustainability, seasonality and animal welfare. In exchange, the Co-op offers long-term supplier contracts and commits to sourcing 100% British for certain products, thus guaranteeing a stable market for the farmers.

This type of ‘partnership approach’ is crucial for supporting farmers in transitioning towards nature- and climate-friendly production. By sharing the commitment and the risks between producers and buyers, like in the Community-Supported Agriculture model, farmers can innovate with less fear of failure and consumers can be more involved in the journey, fostering a better understanding of the cost and societal value of sustainable food. This, in turn, can help shape consumer preferences and bring market value to the efforts made by farmers.

A better understanding of food’s impact on the environment and the people producing it can help shaping habits and preferences. (Image by Anna Kaminova on Unsplash).

Fair food policies

Regardless of where you look along the food supply chain, widespread and deep changes are needed to address systemic injustices. It will require addressing power imbalances by empowering weaker actors and challenging the concentration of power in the hands of very few corporate giants (from seed and agri-chemical corporations to wholesalers and retailers). This has long been a taboo, but slowly, things may start to change.

The Covid-19 crisis shed a light on the unfair treatment of agricultural workers, just as the EU’s Farm Policy was being discussed. This unlocked a door, opened wide by social justice advocates, i.e. the idea of “social conditionality” in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), in other words the tying of the receipt of CAP subsidies to the respect of basic social rights and labour regulations. Such a clause was included in the European Parliament’s position on the CAP after much pressure from organisations like EFFAT. Promoting closer cooperation between national labour inspection authorities and agencies responsible for CAP payment, wider options for sanctions against employers violating workers’ rights and mandatory vocational training are other aspects that could improve the social sustainability of the current food system from field to shelf.

A certain momentum is actually gathering on this area in both the European Parliament and Commission, who seem ready to talk about social actions in food and agriculture policy,” says Spahn from EFFAT, who also points out that “the key obstacle here is really the national governments in the Council who, so far, have opted for a continuation of status quo.” 

At the other end of the food chain, some policy movements may also be coming to address the social misery caused by unhealthy food environments, but change is too slow. While recognising the need to create ‘healthy food environments’, the Farm to Fork Strategy proposed scant concrete solutions. Besides only seeking voluntary industry commitments, the Commission merely committed to acting on public procurement, regulating health claims, and food labelling. Creating sustainable food environments will require much more than that, for example tackling the pervasive impact of advertisement and other marketing techniques, or to redirect public subsidies away from the agricultural commodities that fuel the obesity crisis and towards those foods we should eat more of, i.e. seasonal fruit and vegetables. 

Making healthy and sustainable foods more affordable is one way policies can shape food environments in line with EU objectives. (Image by Alicja Neumiler).

A sustainable and fair food system, as promised in the Farm to Fork Strategy, can only be achieved once policy puts people before corporate profits. Cheap food cannot come at the cost of the wellbeing and safety of food and farmworkers, and citizens consuming the food. Such a system only benefits corporate shareholders, while taxpayers and workers will pay the bill for the hidden costs of this exploitative system. 

An EU agroecological food system is only possible when the health and fair treatment of farm and food workers is prioritised alongside food environments making healthy and sustainable food choices accessible and attractive to all.

This article was written in cooperation with Giulia Tarsitano, Food Policy Manager for Euro Coop and Arnd Spandt, Political Secretary for Agriculture for the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT).

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 last in a series telling the story of agroecological farms throughout Europe and beyond. Browse through the rest of the series, showing what an agroecological future for Europe could look like, and why it’s a desirable path. 

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