Old Roots, New Shoots? Making Europe’s Food Production System More Environmentally and Socially Sustainable

As the EU is reforming its agricultural policy and has published its Farm to Fork Strategy for a healthy and sustainable food system, there is no better time to demand food policies that are socially sustainable too.

The Commission has made its environmental ambitions heard, but very few measures have been announced to protect the farmworkers, often undocumented, who work and live in terrible conditions, and on which our food production relies heavily.

Recent research shows that the factors leading to the exploitation of agri-food workers are complex and vary across EU countries. Slow Food International, in partnership with the Open Society European Policy Institute (OSEPI), Oxfam Italy, and the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute launched a discussion about the policy options available to the EU to tackle this deep-rooted issue.

Photo by meriç tuna on Unsplash

An online conference took place on 8 September 2020 of which a summary of the most insightful points is given below.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP): both a driver of farm labor exploitation and an important tool for its eradication

Olivier de Schutter (UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights) highlighted that there is a deep relationship between the abuse faced by farmworkers and the model of agricultural production that we have been encouraging for 60 years.

“The CAP budget of 68 billion euros is a very significant amount of money, but it cannot be used to give subsidies to employers who abuse farmers’ rights. And yet, the money goes to the largest farms, which by definition, need to recruit the most seasonal workers, often at very low cost.”

It is clear to Slow Food farmer Stefano Vegetabile that the current CAP does not value small-scale farming, which focuses on biodiversity, and is totally ill-equipped to support it. On the other hand, the CAP reform was seen by many speakers as a true lever for change. Indeed, the CAP’s “conditionality” measures mean that a certain budget is allocated where farmers respect environmental standards. This same system should be extended and make the receipt of CAP money conditional upon social safeguards as well, a demand strongly supported by S&D Member of Parliament Maria Noichl.

Image credit Lukas, from Pexels.com

Whose responsibility is it?

The conference addressed the recurring question of who bears the responsibility to act. Giorgia Ceccarelli from Oxfam Italy and co-researcher of the report Do we need an EU Ethical Food Label?, found that while food labels and certifications can help improve the traceability of supply chains and fight Unfair Trading Practices (UTP), they are not a silver bullet in tackling exploitation. The responsibility of safeguarding farmworkers’ conditions cannot rely solely on better-informed citizens.

Research by OSEPI finds that one of the root causes of farmworker exploitation in the EU relates to supply chain dynamics; in essence, the pressure that industry and retail groups put on farmers leads to an unfair distribution of profit and power along the supply chains, resulting in the compression of workers’ wages and rights. Several organizations are therefore advocating for the EU to enforce mandatory due diligence to be performed by companies to ensure environmental and human rights standards in supply chains.

Enforcement and Informality

One significant difficulty in this issue is the great vulnerability and insecurity that farmworkers face, especially if they are undocumented. As MEP Maria Noichl reminded, this is further compounded by gender inequalities as a large part of the workforce consists of women. The informal nature of the work relation renders the enforcement of legislation particularly difficult, in part due to a flagrant lack of resources for regular inspections to be carried out.

Enrico Somaglia from EFFAT concluded, “farmworkers showed great dedication to their job during the peak of the Covid-19 crisis; it is time for us to ensure their safe working conditions.”

Slow Food is heavily invested in tackling the unfair working conditions of farmworkers. The “narrative label” developed by Slow Food aims to provide holistic and complete information to citizens and enable them to choose food that is environmentally and socially sustainable. In addition, Slow Food is working with its Migrants Network coordinated by Abderrahmane Amajou, to foster intercultural collaboration and empower migrants through food.

The Italian Slow Food Youth Network is also fully engaged in the #dietacaporalatofree campaign to raise awareness about the infiltration of the Mafia into Italian agriculture. Finally, Slow Food advocates daily for a transformation of our food system, through policy, grassroots work, and education.

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