On World Food Day it is key to rethink priorities and put food security and sustainability at the top of EU agenda, says EESC

Recent events caused by COVID-19, extreme weather due to climate disruption, cyber-attacks and Brexit demonstrate the need to rethink priorities and improve the resilience and sustainability of EU food systems by reinforcing its autonomy. Food security is not a given for many EU citizens.

The EESC, in its own-initiative-opinion on Strategic autonomy and food security and sustainability[1] to be put to the vote at the EESC's next plenary session - 21-22 October - proposes a definition of open strategic autonomy applied to food systems based on food production, workforce and fair trade, with the overarching aim of ensuring food security and sustainability for all EU citizens through a fair, healthy, sustainable and resilient food supply chain.

In the EESC's view, an open strategic autonomy and the sustainability of food systems are best guaranteed by developing a tool box that includes risk management measures to help food supply chains to deal with extreme situations, allowing authorities, farmers and industry to take immediate action.

The EU has to come up with very concrete plans in order to quickly respond to events like power and network failures or cyber-attacks cascading out of control due to dependencies. For example: a city that needs to be under lockdown for several weeks, a power failure that lasts for several days, a food company or retailer being cyber-attacked.

Within the Farm to Fork strategy, the European Commission is developing an EU contingency plan for food supply and food security and an associated EU food crisis response mechanism. This should help increase the awareness of risks and include the identification, assessment, mapping and monitoring of key risks through the stress-testing of critical systems at EU and Member State level and help to implement measures which will solve the faced problems.

Making food production, working conditions and fair trade sustainable

According to the European Commission, "open strategic autonomy" is the EU's ability to make its own choices and shape the world around it through leadership and engagement, reflecting its strategic interests and values. It enables the EU to be stronger, both economically and geopolitically, by being[2]:

  • open to trade and investment that helps the EU economy to recover from crises and remain competitive and connected to the world;
  • sustainable and responsible, taking the lead internationally to shape a greener and fairer world, reinforcing existing alliances and engaging with many partners;
  • assertive against unfair and coercive practices and ready to enforce its rights, while always favouring international cooperation to solve global problems.

In the opinion of the EESC, for an "open strategic autonomy" to become effective in the agri-food sector, there need to be: more diversified food systems; a strengthened agricultural workforce especially by attracting young people and ensuring decent working conditions and remuneration and trade policies aligned with EU food sustainability standards.

In order to improve the coping mechanisms, there is a need to develop existing food systems and at the same time diversify food systems, including business models for farm shops, urban farming, vertical farming and the "local-for-local" approach in general. This requires a wider application of research and innovation by farmers and growers and should help minimise the risk of "food deserts" and production specialisation. At the same time, the advantages of the efficient distribution system from farms to processing and markets should be strengthened.

To ensure the long-term production of sufficient and healthy food and viable livelihoods it is also important that natural resources are used in a sustainable way, preserving soil and water resources, combating climate change and biodiversity losses and protecting animal welfare.

Farms and fertile agricultural land and water are strategic assets and must be protected across the EU: they constitute the backbone of our open strategic food autonomy, stressed EESC rapporteur to this opinion Klaas Johan Osinga.

The CAP plays a vital economic, social and environmental role here in maintaining the strategic production capacity, food safety and security. It should stabilise markets during crises while providing a safety net for farmers and processors protecting the environment, the climate, workforce and animal welfare.

Finally, the EU needs to ensure that borders are kept safely open and that workforce together with logistics are kept going for food production and distribution ("green lanes") both within the EU and towards third countries. This requires a strong mechanism of coordination between the Member States, the EC and third countries.

[1]            EESC opinion Towards a Fair Food Supply Chain (not yet published in the OJ)

[2]            Trade Policy Review, EC