When the European Commission publishes a communication, it sets down a stepping-stone that shapes the direction of policy making in the years to come. So when the Commission announced a forthcoming Communication on Sustainable Food, many associations and citizens welcomed the news. For the very first time, it seemed the EU was attempting to adopt a broader approach, addressing the food system as a whole.
In 2013 the Commission launched the public consultation: a questionnaire that citizens, associations, universities and the like could fill in to outline their take on the sustainability of the food system. Over 600 responses were submitted from associations (including Slow Food), NGOs and citizens.
Despite initially casting the net wide, it seems the Commission has now decided to boil down the question of food sustainability to the issue of food waste. Food waste is a pressing issue: it is estimated that between one third and one half of all food produced around the world is lost or wasted (i.e. up to 2 billion tonnes of food). In the EU, unless action is taken, food waste is expected to rise to about 126 million tonnes a year by 2020. Meanwhile over 840 million people worldwide (12% of the world population) are undernourished, and over 200 million are obese.
However we cannot mistake food waste as being the compass to achieving a sustainable food system. Rather, food waste is one of the symptoms of the current food system. Food is wasted in such quantities precisely because the current food system treats food as a simple commodity.
For cross-cutting issues it is necessary to use cross-cutting tools. In doing this, it is fundamental to use a holistic approach: curbing food waste is but one of the goals that must be pursued as part of an overall strategy that takes all the other elements into account simultaneously, including biodiversity, small-scale farming, energy efficiency, short food supply chains, sustainable consumption habits, traditional knowledge and education.
Whilst we welcome the intention of the Commission to curb food waste, we encourage the shift to a holistic approach to food sustainability, as well as to policy making. Currently, different elements of the food system continue to be regulated separately by different policies and by different authorities within the EU institutions, with contradicting results. If we are truly striving for a sustainable food system, it is necessary for European policies to formalise and structure their sphere of action, expressing a more holistic vision through an EU Common Sustainable Food Policy.