Daily CSR
Daily CSR

Daily CSR
Daily news about corporate social responsibility, ethics and sustainability

Globalization, food security and sovereignty: Is European business ready to stand up?


Food has always been one of the main sources of concern for humanity. Even now, despite the fact that the world is moving forward with resolving food issues, the problems of food security and sovereignty remain in all corners of the planet, including Europe: about half a million people there do not have regular and sufficient access to food. Are European food producers ready to solve the problem?

The issue has many reasons, including general well-being of the population and affordable prices. At that, one of the contributing factors here is the growing imbalance in the agricultural trade. Dependence on imports is growing along with the pace of globalization, but trade relations are not always ideal.
Here, for example, is the global market of wheat, a staple that forms a significant proportion of the nutrients intake. The imbalance on the global market is obvious as the main wheat exporters are Russia, the USA, Canada and the European Union.
The shortcomings of the uneven distribution have clearly manifested themselves recently when Russia, the largest exporter of wheat, sharply limited supplies due to the coronavirus crisis. As a result, the market experienced a turmoil, resulting in jumping prices and panic buying: «In just a few weeks, shippers booked out all of the 7 million-ton quota set through June», Bloomberg reported.
The danger of inability to provide for own needs, particularly in terms of food, is obvious. What would happen if the largest exporter kept the grain quotas? Situations like this raise problems for countries and their agri-food actors, and, despite their apparent prosperity, European farmers are among those the most vulnerable in this game.
Globalization and trade imbalances, combined with the necessity to meet domestic needs and standards, pose a great challenge for both the local industry and the local consumers. The European Union is known for its stringent agricultural requirements: for example, the new Farm to Fork agricultural strategy, in line with the EU Green Deal, implies 20 to 50% cut for the use of various agrochemicals. It is obvious that the Union cannot insist on the same measures for agri-food importers to the EU, and this is already causing considerable concern among policymakers: “We must avoid that production moves to other regions whose environmental standards don’t comply with our requirements,” said German agriculture minister Julia Klöckner.

The fresh fruits and vegetables market is one of those who are keenly aware of the impending danger. This is especially evident in Belgium, which, despite its small size, is the EU’s fifth largest importer of fresh vegetables and fruits.
Most of this production comes from developing countries with cheap labor and lower agricultural requirements, which, as mentioned above, the Union cannot control. As a result, local producers are forced to fight for their customers, while making a lot of efforts to be in line with the local requirements. The latter often becomes a significant obstacle: “Old-fashioned regulations are hampering technological evolution. That's because of legislation. If it were, we could move to growing 70 to 80% of organic products in a protected environment,” says Dominiek Keersebilck of Belgian fruit and vegetables cooperative REO Veiling.

Is it worth for such companies to go on, then? Definitely yes, because the recent coronavirus crisis showed the danger of the system: supplies were partly disrupted and local retailers faced a shortage of certain imported vegetables. What will happen with the local import-dependent market if a new threat arises? REO Veiling is well aware of this danger: the company intends to continue its activity and bets on technical development, increasing the economic value of its region: “The West Flanders Agro-Food complex… has vast technical know-how. That's in addition to the presence of REO Veiling. We are an important player in the fresh goods market. These factors ensure that Flanders has an unprecedented economic added value”, tells the company’s CEO Paul Demyttenaere.
Sugar production in France is another market that is yet to solve the problem of balancing “green” requirements with the necessity of maintaining a stable production. Local manufacturers, already knocked with a recent market turmoil, faced a new problem this year: French farmers now have to deal with the spread of beet yellow virus, transmitted by aphids. «Fighting the disease has become harder since the European Union widened a ban on using neonicotinoids - insecticides blamed for killing bees - in 2018», Bloomberg via Yahoo Finance noted. The situation had threatened the new sugar beet crop, but the French Ministry of Ecology decided to exceptionally authorize the use of neonicotinoids for beet cultivation only.

The European media, and, particularly, the French ones, essentially caricatured this measure as an ideological battle between proponents of profit at any cost and preachers of straightforward introduction of organic farming without any transition periods: it was “a bitter dispute between environmentalists and farmers and embarrassing politicians who have championed ecological causes”, as the FT put it. Consequently, this attack put at stake the reputation of local sugar producers, and so it would become a danger not only to the industry, but to the environment as well.

However, the two positions presented in the media were far from the human and economic realities. Indeed, neither of them meets the basic imperative of food security: sustainable and locally controlled production of food that is affordable and accessible to anyone. And, jokes aside, it’s not easy as farmers often have to choose between eco agriculture and farm productivity.

The only realistic solution seems to be that of a gradual transition from an ultra-intensive model, using artifices with little concern for ecosystems, to a model that can ensure large scale production while reducing nuisances as much as possible. An optimal path would be to ensure both the nurturing task of feeding the humanity with growing numbers of people while respecting the nature and guaranteeing a decent life for all the actors in the chain, starting with the farmers.

This seems to be the way chosen by Tereos, one of the largest sugar producers in France, who is particularly keen of winning the challenge of sustainable agricultural ecological transition.

To achieve the goal, the cooperative is gradually introducing a modern approach that encourages its adherents to use high-tech sensors (on tractors, by drones, by satellites) and innovative agriculture techniques. This good practice is progressively enabling the farmers to analyze the cultivated areas in detail, thus strictly providing the necessary quantity of inputs in the right place, at the right time. Successful implementation of this policy of responsibility allows the farmers, and Tereos in particular, to achieve the goals by securing the constant and optimal supply of healthy products to meet the growing demand, while employing fewer chemicals with fewer negative side effects and less expense for farmers.
As a result, tackling potential disasters while implementing green requirements is progressively becoming a walkover for the cooperative’s farmers: the company is upgrading its skills regarding the environmental and food quality issues, while combining them with advertency to the activities of the group in general and to each of the cooperative farmers in particular.
Another sector that touches a similar concern of meeting everyone’s needs for healthy diet is the market of vegetable protein meat substitutes. Some might think that wheat and pea-protein steaks are not that important for the food sovereignty, but numbers suggest otherwise. More and more Europeans opt for meat substitutes, and the Vegan Society expects a significant growth of the market by 2025. One of the main principles of food sovereignty puts the right to sufficient, healthy and culturally appropriate food for all individuals, people and communities, and in this context, it is necessary to ensure access to a variety of foods that meet different needs.

The United States leads on the market for meat substitutes and is determined to conquer foreign markets. The European plant-based meat industry, meanwhile, has just passed the initial stage of development, but local manufacturers are already forced to make considerable efforts in the fight for their place in the sun. This situation potentially infringes on food security: we have already considered the problem of dependence on foreign companies, and this is of great importance in the context of growing awareness of necessity of alternative proteins. A challenge that France, for instance, is taking seriously as part of its post Covid-19 recovery plan.

The main issue, however, lies in the contents of these foods and their market positioning. The problem is that the meat alternatives market is regulated less than that of convenient meat, which gives a lot of leeway to manufacturers. Many popular companies make ambitious statements оf health benefits brought by their food-tech products, but do they really care about the health of their customers?

“[Popular foreign-owned pea- and soy-based meat alternative brands] are highly processed and incorporate purified plant protein rather than whole foods, contain similar levels of calories and saturated fat as beef burgers, and have much higher levels of sodium and iron”, reads a study by Nuffield Council on Bioethics. The main point for them is to mimic meat, and a pile of highly processed ingredients is not an obstacle in this quest: “If you’re eating a whole food diet that’s wonderful, and we applaud that, but that’s not realistic for most people”, decisively states an American-based alternative meat producer.

So, does that mean that it is not realistic for the majority of European consumers to eat clean and simple veggie meat of their choice? No at all. “For us, the importance of creating a plant-based core meal solution doesn’t mean that it has to be similar to meat”, says David Cygler of Epi&Co, a clean-label meat alternatives brand. “It’s a clean label range with good healthy ingredients and anybody can eat it… We wanted to create an alternative meat product, which is plant-based and could be used in the way you would use meat at home, but in different shapes and formats”. With the Alsace-based production site and a short list of ingredients all made in Europe, these products present a green and accessible alternative for anyone, from supermarket shoppers to communities like schools, businesses, retirement homes and others.

It turns out that solving the riddle of providing yourself with clean and affordable food is not an easy job when it comes to the entire continent. However, more and more European companies are ready to stand up, and their consequent actions create a base for food security and sovereignty. The process of building a solid foundation is not always smooth, but nobody is going to give up. And it means that local residents can be sure that their rights, as well as access to safe and sustainable food, are secure.