In recent weeks, farmers and farm workers in European countries have begun protesting against rising costs, limited subsidies and the effects of extreme weather exacerbated by climate change that are weighing on their incomes and the entire food sector. But why should you care? In this article, Rikoto expert Gert Engelen explains how these issues affect each and every one of us.
A sustainable food system is built on four foundations: farmers who produce quality products, buyers and distributors who can sign contracts on favourable terms, citizens who can choose sustainable foods as consumers and a supportive government policy that enables and incentivises.
Let us start by looking at the farmers. Belgian farmers are among the most professional and productive in the world, but their average age is over 55. What is needed to give young farmers a perspective for the future? Farmers not only provide us with quality food – they are also the best guarantee of animal welfare and good management of soil, land and nature. If there are no more farmers, their role will be taken over by the retail trade and the food industry. This shift is already visible. However, it is not certain that contract labour is the best guarantee of a future-oriented and robust agricultural policy that is in balance with all the interests of society. Farmers know better than anyone how they can help protect the environment while producing food. And they are willing to do so. But they need to be recognised and properly rewarded. They also need long-term economic stability. Society is demanding an agricultural model based on regenerative or agro-ecological principles. And yes, we are going to need technology as well. If we maintain our intensive and land-based livestock farming, the nitrogen problem will not be solved. But there is a price to pay.
Who should pay for this? The retail and food industries operate in a hyper-competitive environment. The lowest price is the main driver. In this race to the bottom, there are very few winners other than a small number of shareholders. How can we move towards a business model that considers the true costs that are incurred in the production, processing and distribution of food, including the environmental and social costs? Knowledge institutions such as Wageningen University are developing calculation tools that make the true costs visible. However, the next step is crucial: how to ensure that the true costs are distributed in a balanced way and shared by all players in the chain, from producer to processor to retailer to consumer. The market does not have an answer to this question. We see far-reaching power concentrated in the hands of retailers and the food industry, leaving farmers in a weak position to negotiate. So this needs to be addressed and needs to be corrected. It is in the interest of those involved in the market to find quick solutions to ensure that they continue to supply agricultural products. Farmers, agrifood companies and retailers could engage in discussion and cooperate to determine the minimum and collective floor that everyone must respect. They will have to agree on an equitable distribution of the costs of these measures. Europe has recently made it possible for such agreements to be made through an exemption from competition law. So what are we waiting for?
These agreements need to be anchored in a forward-looking public policy that responds to challenges such as health, economic inequality, climate and biodiversity. The Flemish government has developed a policy framework that could make a difference in the form of the Flemish Food Strategy. The Farm to Fork Strategy within the European Green Deal is also ambitious. Unfortunately, translating these ambitions into a legal framework that ensures farmers are properly remunerated for their products and services is likely to take many years. It would make farmers less dependent on subsidies. It would also free up resources and enable work on the transition to a sustainable food system, helping to solve challenges such as climate change and biodiversity.
Bold decisions are needed. For example, the European market needs to be protected from cheap imports from other regions. Given the geopolitical crises in the world, this would also contribute to European autonomy in food security.
What about citizens in their role as consumers? Will we all have to pay more for the food we buy? Yes, a little bit more. Today we spend a relatively small proportion of our budget on eating (13.9% according to Stabel). When you buy sustainable food, you are also buying good health and an environment worth living in. It is not that difficult. Nor does it have to be expensive to find solutions for vulnerable groups that promote solidarity and dignity. The transition will have to be both environmentally sound and socially inclusive.
This opinion article first appeared on 2/02/2024 in The standard.