Food sustainability: a failed promise?

The European Commission has so far failed to respect a commitment it took on the sustainability of the food system. It is a theme of concern for an overwhelming majority of European citizens: A recent Eurobarometer poll reports that 95% of EU citizens personally consider it important to protect the environment, and that almost one quarter are particularly concerned by our consumption habits.

In 2012, the European Commission announced the launch of a ‘Sustainable Food Initiative’ and in 2013 it undertook the publication of a Communication on the issue. A Communication has no direct consequence, nor is it necessarily followed by a Commission proposal; it is simply a document stating the urgency of dealing with a given issue.

To this day, the Communication remains a failed promise. Does that mean that food sustainability is no longer a priority? Does it suggest that there is no collective commitment and overall strategy to move towards a sustainable food and farming system in Europe?

The website of the Commission today states that the Communication on the Sustainability of the Food System will be postponed until the end of 2014 or early 2015. The ball is now in the field of the new Commission. It would be a shame if the Communication would not see the light of day.

Food sustainability has major economic, environmental and social implications. It suffices to think, for instance, of its impact on agro-biodiversity. As reported by economists, each year, the European Union loses 3% of GDP due to the loss of biodiversity, which translates into a cost of €450 billion, year after year.

The relevance of food sustainability is also clear to citizens across Europe, as was shown by the over 600 responses that were received for the consultation on the sustainability of the food system. The responses were submitted by, amongst others, more than 80 associations, more than 60 NGOs (including Slow Food) and more than 350 citizens. Responses spanned all EU Member States, as well as many other countries and globally representative associations.

When the Communication kept being postponed, Slow Food, Friends of the Earth Europe, Compassion in World Farming and IFOAM EU, together with other partner organizations, repeatedly demanded the publication of the document, whilst encouraging a coherent and holistic approach in the analysis of the sustainability of our food and farming systems.

To this date, the only tangible result has been an ‘impact assessment’ on one aspect of food system sustainability, that looks at how food waste might be tackled and reduced through the EU policy framework.

However food waste was only one of the issues included in the consultation that was completed by many people across Europe. Indeed, the Commission asked for advice on the following issues: improving technical knowledge on the environmental impacts of food; stimulating sustainable food production; promoting sustainable food consumption; reducing food waste and losses; and improving food policy coherence. We hope that interest shown by the more than 600 responses to these themes will not be reduced to a mere impact assessment on food waste. In a world where one billion people are starving, the issue of food waste is undeniably critical. Yet, reducing food waste is not the key solution for a shift towards a sustainable food system: it’s one symptom of a sick system.

Slow Food will continue to insist, together with all partner organizations, on keeping the debate on the sustainability of the food system alive. It is a debate that must reflect the complexity of the food system: it should consider food production, distribution and consumption; it should examine options that enable conscious consumer choices towards sustainable diets, including a reduction in the consumption of animal-based foods, a preference for products supporting high-quality pasture based production and an increase in plant-based foods; it should account for the extraordinary heritage of agro-biodiversity in Europe, a heritage that is at once cultural, environmental and economic; it should recognize the role of agro-ecological approaches and the contribution of small-scale artisanal farmers in protecting this biodiversity, as well as the added value of production systems that respect animal welfare.

The new Commission must not shy away from this debate.

The European Union aims to offer the world an example of a sustainable vision for the future. If the European project is unable to meet this challenge or fails to keep its promises, the political, economic, environmental and social consequences will be major.


Marta Messa

To find out more, read here the letter sent by 35 Members of the European Parliament to the Commission requesting the publication of the Communication.


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