A fair EU food system

Sustainability is at the centre stage of this European Commission’s programming period. The EU Green Deal is its flagship initiative which promises to set out the path to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by the year 2050. One of the instruments at the heart of this deal is the EU Farm to Fork Strategy – a comprehensive strategy which addresses externalities and inefficiencies all along the food supply chain, from food producers and manu­facturers, all the way up to retailers and consumers.

The strategy recognises that farmers, sellers, or consumers acting in isolation will not bring about a real change. Rather, the Commission aims to facilitate the transition for all involved, suggesting that this will ultimately make the EU food system fairer, healthier and more environmentally friendly.

The topics covered range from reducing pesticide use in farming, promoting healthier food options, better nutritional information, and a code of conduct for EU businesses working in the food system, among other proposals.

First and foremost, such a strategy should be welcomed as something that would help boost sustainability practices in EU member states. All actors within the EU food system must understand the important role they play in creating a sustainable market which also ensures healthy lifestyles for consumers. Businesses must in turn take aboard this social responsibility and look towards adapting their usual business models to account for a new green reality.

Nonetheless, there are certain points within the Farm to Fork strategy which need to be considered more carefully. Proposals such as nutritional information being inserted into restaurant menus, for instance, risk going beyond the actual scope of the strategy, by harming the restaurant experience.

The Farm to Fork strategy is being framed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to ensure reliable food supplies across Europe. What the strategy fails to recognise, however, is the severe economic hardship that the pandemic has created for businesses in the hospitality industry. This is especially so in southern Europe, where countries depend on this industry proportionally more to provide jobs and growth. Requirements such as the above will not only harm the restaurant experience, but will actually introduce additional costs for businesses, most of which are small or micro enterprises.

If food waste were a country, it would be third highest emitter of greenhouse gases

Concerns on potentially higher costs for businesses can be found all along the supply chain. For instance, the stra­tegy pushes for a greater focus on organic farming but assumes that the typically more expensive organic products will be sold at conventional prices. With space at a premium in our country the same weights cannot be placed on such focuses on all member states. Unless the necessary financial support is provided, as well as the differing situations in each member, such an expectation is unrealistic, especially for EU businesses competing with non-EU imports.

If farmers are not able to meet the sustainability targets set by the Farm to Fork strate­gy, this may result in a reduction in supply of quality and sustainable produce due to lower yields, which would impact the affordability of primary products available to food and drink manufacturers, who would have to increase imports, thereby negating some of the environmental achievements this strategy envisions. This potentially raises operational costs and subsequently, consumer prices.

The Farm to Fork strategy also addresses an important issue, which is food waste reduction and prevention within the supply chain. This is especially important if the strategy is to properly tie into the EU’s circular economy action plan and the wider United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

We have become increasingly aware of the impact that food loss and waste have on the environment. Staggering statistics indicate that if food waste were a country, it would be third highest emitter of greenhouse gases, right after the United States and China. According to the UN, food waste and loss contributes to around eight per cent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Any meaningful strategy that seeks to improve the sustainability of Europe’s food system and reduce its impact on our climate needs to adopt food waste reduction and prevention as key priorities. This should include a review of existing EU food policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy, which is known to generate excess supply of certain food products, leading to waste, as well as common EU rules on food donations.

Aside from this environmental impact, there are serious economic concerns surrounding food waste. It is estimated that around 88 million tonnes of food is wasted in Europe every year, costing member states €143 billion – money that could have been used for much more productive practices than simply throwing away food.

One also must consider how this strategy relates to other aspects of food production, such as packaging. The Commission has promised to revise legislation to improve food safety while increasing the use of new and greener packaging solutions made of reusable and recyclable materials. It will also work on similar policies to help cut down on single-use materials in the food service sector.

It is crucial that these changes have no significant negative impact on food quality and the shelf-life of our pro­ducts, and are introduced in a gradual approach to allow businesses to move to alternative products that are commercially available and cost-effective.

The EU Farm to Fork strategy can be considered an important step in the right direction, yet any measures must be pro­perly assessed in advance and taken in consultation with interested stakeholders to avoid unnecessary burdens being placed on businesses, especially smaller ones that might not be able to cope with excessive bureaucratic and financial obligations. It is only by taking into consideration the needs of all actors involved, including businesses, that we can really foster a fair and sustainable EU food system.

Finally, the Farm to Fork strategy should not just be about policy and legislation, but should also include proactive voluntary initiatives to address the issue. From a local perspective, the Malta Business Bureau is already taking this issue very seriously.

It is implementing several initiatives on this front, from collaborations with educational institutions to deliver sustainable food service, to general awareness raising campaigns among employees on the value of food and the importance of food waste reduction. We have already kickstarted the discussions on the Farm to Fork strategy and we look forward to further reaching out to key actors in this important area.

Simon De Cesare, president, Malta Business Bureau

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