Carlo Petrini and Olivier de Schutter Discuss the Future of Food in Europe

07 Apr 2022

On March 31, Slow Food Europe and IPES-Food hosted their first in-person event in Brussels since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out: a dialogue between Carlo Petrini, president of Slow Food, and Olivier de Schutter, co-chair of IPES-Food: “COVID-19, the war in Ukraine and rising food prices: how can we transform food systems in the face of constant crises?”.

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Carlo Petrini & Olivier de Schutter

As industry lobbying against the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy for a transition to sustainable food systems has intensified these past weeks with the war in Ukraine, a conversation between these two pioneers of the idea of a Common Food Policy in Europe is more relevant than ever. The dialogue was moderated by Madeleine Coste, policy officer at Slow Food Europe, and was followed by a question & answer session with the public, and a delicious plant-based meal provided by Jules Lavergne of Soûl

At 6.20 pm sharp, the conversation kicked off with the question that is on everyone’s mind: “What worries you the most about the current situation caused by the war in Ukraine?” 

Olivier De Schutter reminded the audience that the whole food supply chain in EU countries was heavily dependent on fossil fuels, from the production of fertilisers to the transport of foodstuffs. And indeed, since the price of fossil fuels started rising already in 2020, food prices have been following a similar trend, pushing EU countries to use a huge share of cereals to produce biofuels.  “We don’t have a problem with food shortages in Europe, our dependence on fossil fuels is the real problem, which is why we must uphold the EU Farm to Fork strategy as the only valid strategy for the EU which must reduce its dependence on nitrogen fertilisers”.

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Carlo Petrini, Olivier de Schutter & Madeleine Coste

But while being an ambitious and crucial policy for the future of food in Europe, the EU Farm to Fork Strategy also comes with its own flaws, one being “the lack of involvement of civil society”, as pointed out by Carlo Petrini:“We want to be in charge of our food, we want to decide what we eat, and we can’t accept intensive agriculture any longer”. For the Slow Food President, the most important change that needs to happen is the transformation of the agricultural systems, which must include a strong focus on food education. Without it, the whole society will not be able to play a part in the change. “Change is always producers oriented, but it is a mistake, because it is for our common interest. Climate change will still be happening when the war in Ukraine is over and we must act now, to avoid a huge global catastrophe”. But where to start? Petrini has the answer: supporting the development of local economies, eating less meat and reducing food waste.

Yet, the urgency to transition towards sustainable food systems is being progressively set aside by European countries and EU institutions in favor of the narrative pushing for an intensification of food production to compensate the disruption of agricultural commodities imports. But as we previously reported, the reality is far more complex, and increasing food production will not solve any current crises (food, energy, climate) on the mid-and-long term. “These days we hear that we should produce more. But what? Corn for feed? No, basta (“stop”in italianwith corn! We need to reduce food production. Industrial meat producers want political and financial support, but they don’t need support, they need to reduce their production!”. Petrini concluded: we need to fight to get our food sovereignty back.


Food sovereignty is about building resilient and strong food systems, that are not prone to being easily disrupted by any international crisis.The war in Ukraine, just like COVID-19 before it, have shown us that our food systems are very fragile”, highlighted De Schutter, “At EU level, we need ambitious targets, we need the European Commission to lead us in the right direction”.

National and European policymakers hold a great responsibility in driving the change in the way we produce and eat food, although many of them try to assign it to their citizens: “Policymakers often point fingers at individuals, telling them have all the information they need to make better food choices. But food choices are not only a result of information access. They are also highly influenced by the food environment[1] we live in”. Indeed, there is clear evidence proving that daily food choices are not only based on the best available information: “While the potential to exercise individual agency is not in doubt, food choices are constrained and shaped by a whole range of physical, economical, political and sociocultural influences, most of which are beyond an individual’s control”. According to the Food Policy Coalition (which Slow Food is a member of), putting the responsibility on consumers focuses only on symptoms (people’s food behaviours) rather than addressing the root causes (the overall contexts in which people make their food choices).

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“More food labelling is not enough, it will not lead to any structural system change”, asserted De Schutter. And for a structural change to happen, food prices on the market must be adjusted. “Cheap food is unhealthy and it destroys the planet, but good food is more expensive and a lot of people cannot afford it. If social and environmental damages were reflected in the final price of food, meaning if we start taking agrobusiness for their externalities, we would see change happening“. De Schutter’s statement echoes the findings of a report on the cost of pesticides to European societies which estimated that in 2017, European societies paid around €2.3 billion for costs associated to pesticides use: water decontamination, greenhouse gas emissions, farmers diseases caused by these chemicals, etc. “If pesticides companies were held accountable for the various detrimental impacts of their products and had to pay for associated costs, this industry could simply not survive economically”, the report observed. When the agrifood industry starts integrating the real cost of their polluting business to society, we will be able to make food available to everyone.

Good, clean and fair food should not be a privilege, it is a human right: “Food is not supposed to be cheap, it is supposed to be fair”, observed Petrini, before delivering words of caution: we must fight for a change of our food systems, but we must fight with joy! “Tonight, the message is clear: we have to change the world through “felicità” (“happiness” in Italian). We have to lead the happy fight, towards sustainable change. And we can do that through food!”

[1] food environments can be seen as the spaces in which people make decisions about food: what to take, where to buy it, where to cook it, and when, where and with whom to eat it.

 

To learn more on the topic of EU food security and the Farm to Fork Strategy, read our analysis and check out Slow Food’s position!

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We’re calling upon the global Slow Food family to support Ukraine through:

  • Supporting those who have stayed behind to protect their lands

  • Creating matching opportunities between Ukraine & EU

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