Agriculture has always been one of the pillars of the European economy thanks to a long agricultural tradition, as well as natural, infrastructural and human-related advantages. The industry is developing constantly, with EU trade in agricultural products more than doubled between 2002 and 2019.
At that, the European agriculture has been rather volatile in recent years regarding some issues, namely, the food security, sovereignty and competition.
The first one raises significant concerns and paints a worrisome picture, says the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO): “The progress in reducing undernourishment and food insecurity has not only slowed but has virtually halted in the past three to four years – even reversing slightly in several countries of the ECA region”. In other words, the number of people without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food is not declining but even growing in some countries.
The next two questions regarding sovereignty and competition are closely related. In the context of globalization and from an economic point of view, it is profitable to import food that is cheaper than products made locally. Numerous food trade deals also contribute to this. However, can the money saved really pay off the danger of dependence on the import of strategic goods, risk for local producers and inability to control production? Dependence on imported resources is not a good idea, but dependence on someone else’s desire to supply you with food is even worse.
As was singularly highlighted during the COVID crisis, globalization has its limits, and when we step over the lines, we encounter unexpected and often unpleasant consequences. “One root of public discontent with recent trade deals like CETA is that they touch upon issues that go far beyond tariffs and quotas. Some of these issues – such as regulatory co-operation, good regulatory practices and rules on data flows – risk undermining consumer protections if not handled carefully. Moreover, these trade agreements do not give EU citizens the impression that they are crafted for their benefit,” notes the European Consumer Organization (BEUC), reflecting on consequences of globalization.
Problems often give rise to actions, and our case is no exception. Together with their governments, European businesses are standing up for the food safety and sovereignty interests, keeping with the times and solving local and international problems. Let’s take a deeper look at some particular issues, which they are facing.
One of the important questions related to food security and sovereignty is the preservation of local production by rejecting dependency on remote and unaccountable corporations. Indeed, the basic definition of food sovereignty emphasizes democratization of production and prevailing local rights when it comes to controlling the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution. Often it appears that it cannot be done at a level higher than the level of local farming, but in fact it is not.
Here, for example, the meat market. The industry continues to grow, but policies of many leading meat producers and exporters are doubtful: for instance, Brazil, the biggest exporter of beef and veal in the world in 2017, is often criticized for its cattle industry which is strongest in the central states of the country and has caused a lot of deforestation. Is it fully appropriate for those who want to be sure in the origin of the food they buy? And is it really possible to rely on overseas supply from remote food companies in cases like this?
HKScan, a Nordic food company engaged in meat production and processing of raw materials, is tackling this problem. The company is developing its production in the European market in accordance with an operating model that split the business into separate units depending on the region, answering to customer and consumer needs related to the responsibility and transparency of the food chain. Another important step is HKScan’s service where consumers can directly view the monitoring of the food they buy. Not only such actions contribute to the food security in the region, but also ensure people’s right to make their own choice and indirectly influence the market as the information provided allows them to make important decisions related to their food preferences.
A somehow similar problem exists in another agricultural sector, namely, in the potato growing market. The area of potatoes in the EU has been in long-term decline, with about one-third (37.3%) less potatoes harvested across the EU in 2018 (compared to 2000), says Eurostat. At the same time, the global potato market is clearly characterized by Asian dominance, with about one third of the world’s potatoes produced in China and India. In the same China, potato production from 2000 to 2018 increased from 13.26 million metric tons to 17.98 mmt. The EU does not import much of potatoes yet, but the figures clearly indicate a potential problem.
Dutch Aviko, one of the four largest potato processors in the world, set to tackle the problem after deciding that capacity expansion is a logical step to take to play in on this. The Netherlands-based company, founded over 50 years ago, is present across the continent and focuses its sales efforts in Western Europe, Asia, and South America. At the same time, the company is directing a significant part of its efforts to European production, continuing expansion in the region: for example, in September last year, plans were announced to build a new potato processing plant in Belgian Poperinge. In addition, the company actively involves small and middle-sized farmers from Northern France, helping to maintain geographical diversity within the continent and leveraging the maintenance and preservation of food self-provisioning of the EU.
This cooperation helps Aviko solve another important problem, this time related to the food sovereignty. Farms producing potatoes in EU are typically very small, says Eurostat, and small size means bigger vulnerability. At that, the concept of Food Sovereignty, voiced by a group of scientists in the Encyclopedia of Food Security and Sustainability, emphasizes the social importance of protecting less-advantaged farmers, and calls to “inventing equitable and socially just forms of economic organization… creating free time and livelihood security for farmers”.
In line with the idea, Aviko creates potato growers’ committees (ATC in the Netherlands and Producteurs pour Aviko in France), which preserve interests of the farmers and leverage their development. The opportunity to be heard strengthens farmer’s role in the food chain and contributes to safeguarding farms that are at the root of the entire industry.
Another agri-food producer, the multinational French sugar cooperative Tereos, which brings together 12,000 sugar beet growers, faced a comparable problem several years ago. Then, similarly to the potato farmers, many small and middle size sugar beet farmers had been severely hit by market fluctuations after the end of the European sugar quotas’ regime. The European sugar industry was in a phase of crisis, with a drop in the production of raw materials and by-products, following the abandonment by the EU of its quota policy that guaranteed prices and production outlets to farmers.
This crisis has been notably reflected in the closure of a number of sugar factories owned by major sugar producers in France, with social consequences resulting in collapse of associated farms. Tereos, however, refused to step back, and did not close any factory. The company has built an ecosystem in which suppliers, plants and subcontractors interact, and now is trying to preserve it with its development and investment strategy. Building on its transformation plan, Tereos managed not only to save, but also to increase the sown area for this year. Being a modern co-operative structure with shared governance, the company applies this strategy not only in France, but in all countries of its presence. The sugar manufacturer considers the food sovereignty an international, rather than a regional concept, and sets up an equal and fair approach for all its farmer partners wherever they are.
Here, for instance, the activities of Tereos in Brazil. Its contribution to the country’s food sovereignty is somehow different than that in Europe due to some local circumstances. The fact is that one of the main issues related to the food sovereignty is sustainability. As a rule, it requires modern technologies and knowledge, access to which, however, can be hindered in some developing countries, and Brazil is no exception. Tereos is working on this problem by introducing innovative environmental solutions. This enabled Tereos to take out a sustainability-linked loan in 2020, a premiere case for the country’s sugarcane industry. Additionally, the sugar group is committed to build capability and to develop people, and is therefore inviting soon-to-be graduates to share the knowledge with them, thus contributing to the spread of best practices across the country. As a result, the cooperative handles two issues in a single throw: it introduces a modern sustainable approach and ensures social inclusion, which is yet another element of the food security and sovereignty system.
The democratic strategy and modern technologies are not the only components of Tereos’ contribution. Its strategy is also based on a diverse product range, which includes not only sugar, but other vitally important products, such as baby food ingredients or dietary fibres. Securing its European production sites, the cooperative contributes to the food safety and independence, and ensures access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. At that, a never-stopping research on sources of protein, such as protein crops, peas, algae, biomass and other components responds to increasing demands for accessible and healthy products made locally. Indeed, the food security is not about the free access to food only; the products must meet people’s dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life, and the continuous R&D process guarantees it.
In the difficult context of the COVID-19 crisis, sovereignty suddenly becomes very concrete. By making it possible to fill the shelves of the stores, companies like Tereos ward off a situation when the sanitary crisis is coupled with a food crisis.
It will take a long time to list all the cases, but the basic idea is already visible. The food security and sovereignty go hand in hand, and each case reflects the interconnectedness of all components of the chain. Originally defined in verbal form, these concepts are now gaining momentum in action day by day. European companies are rising to respond to the calls at a time when there is an awareness of the limits of globalization for what is essential for a country and a population. These actions are internationalist in their essence, and provide a framework for understanding and transforming new and basic concepts for food and agriculture.