Event Report – Sustainable Food: A Systems Approach for EU Policy
On 19th November 2019, the White Rose Brussels office held its ‘Sustainable Food: A Systems Approach for EU Policy’ event at the Renaissance Hotel, in the heart of the European Quarter. Chaired by President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of York, Professor Charlie Jeffery, the event saw expert academics from the White Rose universities present from three areas of the food system from the global context to agriculture and trade. We heard from, Professor Sue Hartley OBE, Director of the University of York Environmental Sustainability Institute and former advisor to the European Commission’s Food Safety Authority, Professor Peter Jackson, co-Director of the University of Sheffield Institute for Sustainable Food and chair of the current SAPEA expert working group for sustainable food, and Professor Fiona Smith, professor of International Economic Law, N8 Chair in Agri-Food regulation and Associate Director for the University of Leeds AgriFood Supply Chains, Global Food & Environment Institute. Nick Jacobs, Director at IPES-Food, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, also presented, arguing the need for a ‘Common Food Policy’ within the European Union. Unanimously, the broad panel asserted the urgency of an integrated, transparent and systematic approach to tackling the increasingly pressing global challenge of food security.
In his opening remarks, Professor Jeffery highlighted that the White Rose universities of Leeds, Sheffield, and York were all founded for public good and social benefit, and therefore have a duty to harness the knowledge from within these institutions to address the societal challenges that we face. With a rapidly increasing global population and more frequent extreme weather conditions due to climate change, developing sustainable food systems is a major challenge moving forward. He added that research is most effective when there is interdisciplinary and cross-institution collaboration, and that neither traditional disciplinary structures nor any single university can provide the answer to these challenges. Whilst Brexit poses a direct threat to such strategic interactions, he stressed that the White Rose universities are committed to continued close collaboration with their EU partners.
Our first speaker, Professor Sue Hartley, illustrated the role of agricultural landscape management in a sustainable food system. Climate change, along with energy, water and food cannot be viewed as isolated issues, as they all drive and impact each other. Sue demonstrated the possibilities of successful agricultural land reform through several examples of ‘win-win’ solutions. For example, a study conducted by the White Rose Sustainable Agriculture Consortium found that building leys into farms improved the soil’s fertility and biodiversity, whilst also increasing the crop yield. Sue’s vision for the future, in which ‘we can’t grow our way out of climate change,’ involves incentivising farmers financially for achieving the objectives set out in the environmental plan.
Our second speaker, Professor Peter Jackson, reiterated the urgency of addressing the challenge of food security. Peter shed light on the progress of the SAPEA report ‘Towards an EU sustainable food system’ for the European Commission’s group of chief scientific advisors, due to be published in March 2020. The report’s purpose is to provide the evidence in order to identify ‘workable paths’ towards their goal. Leading us through the preliminary findings of the report, Peter strongly emphasised the importance of a systems thinking approach, one that is interdisciplinary, integrated and cross-sectoral, which recognises the complexity of the entire food system. Moreover, he highlighted coordination and leadership as key to effective governance of the currently ‘highly fragmented’ food system, requiring both ‘top-down’ policy approaches and more experimental ‘bottom-up’ approaches.
Professor Fiona Smith presented the trade perspective within the food system. She argued that food supply is controlled by global value chains, which are sustained by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other trading regulations. New trade agreements have facilitated a growth in the trade of agricultural products, which tripled between 2000 and 2018.
However, Professor Smith outlined several of what she believed were trade risks linked with sustainable food flows. Notably, that the current rise in nationalism and trade wars poses threats to the stability of trade agreements and the global value chain by increasing/decreasing tariffs on products from a specific geographical location. In terms of sustainability, Fiona warns that the proliferation of private standards of sustainable policies means that there is less capacity to realistically measure how sustainable a product is and to hold companies to account for this – made more difficult by the complexity and number of actors within the supply chain. Blockchain was proposed as a possible solution, enabling more traceability throughout the chain.
Our final speaker, Nick Jacobs, outlined the impacts of agriculture: environmentally, such as land degradation due to extremely high pollution; socio-economically, hitting farmers and low-income citizens particularly hard; and on health, such as obesity and the cost of EDC exposure. Nick underlined that these interconnected problems require simultaneous solutions through a Common Food Policy. To read the report on the Common Food Policy, including IPES-Food’s 84 concrete proposals, click here.
During the panel discussion, our speakers were pressed by the audience on all areas of the food system from the resilience to new challenges of our current global structures , new innovative technical solutions and more specifically about the future of GM by Yorkshire and the Humber MEP Shaffaq Mohammed, who counts the White Rose universities among his constituents. Leonard Mizzi (DG DEVCO, European Commission), who is currently working on their ‘Farm to Fork’ policy, was interested in Nick and Fiona’s perspective on how we balance a broken global food system and break down the global value chains. Fiona noted the difficulty in doing so whilst large corporations drive the system. A way of embedding sustainability within the system would be to encourage farmers to become involved in fair trade, but large corporations are moving to privatise fair trade and set their own standards (as with sustainability). Furthermore, she added that sustainability chapters in FTAs often cannot be enforced in trade disputes. Nick developed these ideas, stating that carrying intra-regional trade (such as in Africa) through big initiatives is not a viable option as they encourage governments to bring in foreign investors without considering the impact on local people.
As concluded by Professor Charlie Jeffery, it was apparent throughout the event that a more integrated, transparent dialogue throughout the entire food system value chain is required to facilitate a transition into a sustainable food system. The EU is one of the current structures that can pave the way with integrated policies for genuine change, and once again Charlie reaffirmed the White Rose universities’ commitment to working with the EU to tackle challenges that transcend national borders, with research excellence at the core of this partnership.