The right to healthy and affordable food

Is healthy and affordable food possible for all Europeans? This is a question I have been thinking about a lot. The EU recently closed a loophole to ban different food quality standards for Western and Eastern Europe, but access to healthy, sustainable and affordable food is still a privilege in Europe. Can anything be done about that? I have a conviction, that without addressing the wide availability of junk food, we cannot create a sustainable food system. Without closing the gap between the healthy, the sustainable, and the affordable food we can only change a small segment of production and can only have an impact on a tiny part of the market.

The EU`s ambition is to fight climate change by fixing the food system, and it wants to start the job with an ambitious new framework for research and innovation. I went to a conference in Bulgaria to learn more about this and came back inspired but not satisfied.

Reform of transformation?

The EU recently launched a research framework called #FOOD2030 which has a systemic approach to nutrition and food production. The`food systems`approach covers the complex relationships between food production, climate change, healthy nutrition for all and biodiversity. By driving down food prices, we have externalised a lot of factors that will need to be tackled to create a sustainable food system. Cheap food means effective agriculture but ineffective and unhealthy food systems. Health and sustainability are externality to industrial agriculture but not to food systems.

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The question of reform or transformation was posed to the EU representatives, and the answer was prevalent in the profile of the speakers and the panellists: there is a political will to transform the food system at EU level. What will be realised of this is, of course, dependant on the member states and non-state actors: mainly municipalities and businesses.  The conference showed me that there is a lot of data and valuable research available, but real commitment to act is shown only at the EU and at the municipal level.

Food poverty or poor food? Which is the real issue in Europe?

Judging from the interventions, the climate impact and ecological footprint of the food industry is a massive concern at the policy level but on the ground, the practical concerns are poverty, junk food and obesity. `The roots of obesity and food poverty are the same` – says Martin Careher, professor of food and health policy from The University of London, a fierce opponent of food banks. Banning, or taxing junk food does not address neither the problem of unsustainable production nor food poverty or obesity. It will just mean that poor people will rely more on food banks or go hungry more often. Making healthy food more affordable, and matching minimum income across Europe with healthy food prices is what would solve the problem. This requires clear policy frameworks and massive intervention in the market. Until price differences are subject to market rules and companies can create artificial price difference on industrial and organic products, they will play with that and cover up the fact that `cheap` food is really expensive.  Greenpeace’s campaign to increase public funding for plant-based meals and reduce meat and dairy consumption in schools is a good initiative to change that.

Where can I get these carrots for Copenhagen?

Almost every panel had an inspiring presentation from a municipality or a research about a successful city-based approach.

We learnt that Copenhagen procures more than 80% of its food from organic sources, and the current challenge is reducing meat and dairy.

Cities across the world organise and work on improving their food systems. The new urban-rural geography is developing synergies between stakeholders and policy domains. There is a need for a food system approach to connecting producers to consumers with an emphasis on the nutrition/health aspects. As a place of food production, rural is now embedded in the urban.  Short food chains like food boxes and other cooperative approaches are currently available for the wealthy but it does not have to be like that. There are initiatives across Europe that look at inclusiveness and make agro-ecological food much more affordable. More research is needed into distribution systems and logistical systems esp at small and medium scale, to understand better how to tackle food poverty. 

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Careher had also said that an `Energiewende scale of transformation` is needed in the food sector and it is needed now. The German energy transition to renewables was a result of massive market interventions by the federal government. At the conference, I missed the commitment, innovation and inspiration from member state governments to match the ambition of the FOOD 2030 framework. Thankfully, there is already a growing movement out there, looking at practical solutions to provide healthy, sustainable and affordable food to all.

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