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Building sustainable food supply chain

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15th-Jul-2017       
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Olivier De Schutter, Oscar Rivas and Karin Nansen :
Once again, the debate on reforming the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has got off on the wrong foot. After indications that CAP spending might be scythed to plug the black hole left by Brexit, we are talking once more about the size of the pot - and not what it should be used for.
Another CAP reform could come and go, therefore, without focusing on the critical question of how to put EU and global food systems on a sustainable footing in the face of climate change, ecosystem degradation, pressures on farm livelihoods and a rising obesity epidemic.
That is why the 'European Soya Declaration' is such a breath of fresh air. The German-Hungarian initiative, tabled earlier this month and up for adoption by EU agriculture ministers on 17-18 July, calls for a series of steps to increase European protein feed production (particularly soy) and to diversify agriculture in the process. As well as identifying major potential for increasing soy production in Central and Eastern Europe, the Declaration insists that soya imports - which will still be required to meet European demand - should be drawn from certified sustainable production systems. The Declaration may be imperfect, and is yet to receive the formal endorsement of agriculture ministers. However, it is highly promising for several reasons.
Firstly, because it refocuses our attention on the problematic division of labour in global food systems. Europe is highly dependent on soy imports to feed its livestock. Demand for soy requires a production area outside Europe equivalent to 90% of Germany's entire agriculture land. 73% of these soy imports come from the Southern Cone of South America, mainly Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.
The expansion of GM soybean monocultures in these regions has led to deforestation, biodiversity loss, displacement of small-scale farmers and diversion of land away from local food needs, as well as increased use of pesticides, contaminating the water of nearby populations and putting their health at severe risk.
The individuals and communities facing these threats - the 'Pueblos Fumigados' - have joined the voices of peasant movements in Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina to denounce these trends - taking their message as far as the National Institution for Human Rights in the case of Uruguay. These are the systematic impacts of export-led commodity production, and Europe - as a major consumer of those commodities - therefore has a responsibility to address them. Secondly, the initiative is promising because it represents bold, transitional thinking. Although the Declaration does not address the CAP directly, it is highly relevant to the debate, and shows the kind of evolution needed in EU agricultural policies. Rather than shifting subsidies between different sectors or regions, or cutting away red tape, the Declaration is about sparking a major shift in the dynamics of global supply chains and the industrial production model they underpin. It maps out a set of integrated steps to plan the land uses, the production patterns and the food systems that we want in Europe and beyond.
This kind of thinking is needed to break the current deadlock, where subsidies can be used to prop up ailing sectors, but longer-term planning is conspicuously absent. Indeed, these changes cannot take place overnight, and must be carefully sequenced to avoid sudden shifts that would be economically damaging for importers and exporters alike.
However, the Soya Declaration is only the first step. It provides a glimpse of the kind of thinking that must ultimately drive a new round of CAP reforms and reshape food and farming systems in Europe and beyond.
While sustainable feed chains are a good starting point, further steps are urgently required to reduce the environmental and health impacts of the livestock sector. Industrial livestock production continues to be plagued by poor animal welfare conditions, water and soil pollution due to high manure levels, and the rising threat of antimicrobial resistance due to excess use of antibiotics on farms. A wholesale shift away from this model is urgently required, including steps to support those diversifying their production and practicing sustainable small-scale agriculture.
Ultimately, total livestock production and consumption in Europe must also be reduced. Animal protein makes up about 60% of European dietary intake. In November 2016, 24 MEPs proposed reducing EU consumption of animal-based foods by at least 30% by 2030 in order to help meet climate targets and address the chronic health conditions linked to high animal-protein consumption.
In light of these challenges, it is necessary to think beyond CAP reform and to develop ambitious, joined-up policies for sustainable food and farming systems. This vision is what underpinned the joint declaration from Friends of the Earth Europe and more than 100 civil society groups in March 2017, and IPES-Food's call for a 'Common Food Policy'.
The context of budgetary cuts makes the Soya Declaration and further moves in this direction all the more relevant. Transitioning to sustainable food systems is one of the great challenges of our time. Showing how this challenge can be addressed head-on, with ambitious and integrated actions, may be the best way to justify the CAP budget and to ensure that well-resourced EU policies for food and farming systems continue into the future.
(Olivier De Schutter is UN special rapporteur on the Right to Food (2008-2014) and co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). Oscar Rivas, former Environment Minister of Paraguay. Karin Nansen, chair of Friends of the Earth International & founding member of REDES/ Friends of Earth Uruguay).

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