Speech by President Séamus Boland on EU food sovereignty

Speech by President Séamus Boland on EU food sovereignty

Conference on 'EU food sovereignty: the role of agriculture, fisheries and consumers', Santiago de Compostela, Spain, 26 September 2023

Dear Minister of the Region of Galicia, ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

It is with great pleasure that I would like to welcome you to this conference organised by the Civil Society Organisations' Group of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). We are privileged to hold this event in Santiago de Compostela, a city of great historical and religious symbolism, which in the 12th Century A.D. became the capital of the Kingdom of Galicia. The name 'Galicia' was actually taken from the Celts, who lived in the far West of Spain, as they lived in the far West of France (French region of Brittany). And I have to admit that as an Irishman, I do feel very much at home with these green cliffs and hills here in Galicia! And in reading a little on the history of Galicia, I see that apart from our common Celtic ancestors, we also share a turbulent history marked by conflict over identity and the search for autonomy!

The city of Santiago de Compostela itself, has for centuries been a symbol of identity, religion and influence. It played a key role as a stronghold in Northern Spain, during the Crusades against the Moors. Even today, the pilgrimage road, which in the English language is known as 'The Way of Saint James', still attracts over 200,000 pilgrims every year. Tourism has become a significant industry for this region, which is poetically known as 'The country of thousand rivers'.

However, it is not for tourism, but more for the fishery and agricultural industries that we are here today, discussing the topic of food sovereignty. Traditionally, Galicia has depended on agriculture and fishing. Today, fishing is a major economic sector in the region. This fully justifies our decision to discuss this topic here, during the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the EU, instead of in Madrid.

However, we would not be here at all, without the very significant assistance from the Galician Regional Government, which among other things, has made available to us this lovely venue. We are most grateful, both for your generosity and for your active participation. I would also like to warmly thank our Spanish delegation within our Group, which organised this event in collaboration with our Secretariat. All have worked very hard!        

I would now like to turn to the substance of the topic that we will be discussing today, namely: 'EU Food Sovereignty: the role of agriculture, fisheries and consumers'. This is a very complex subject with a great many policies, sectors and actors involved. This conference will explore how we should deal with current and future challenges to European food production and supply, while at the same time providing consumers with healthy and sustainably-produced food. We will debate how all EU citizens, including producers, distributors and consumers, benefit from a fair, healthy, resilient and sustainable food chain.

These are fundamental issues, which echo the original objectives of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), set up six decades ago. The original CAP objectives remain valid: food security and affordability, fair living standards for farmers and fishers and stable and reliable markets. However, today's food sovereignty, through both the CAP and European fishery policies, also correctly include the environmental and social dimensions. Crucially, consumers are now viewed as active protagonists.  

There have of course been numerous global crises, such as the Climate emergency, the Covid-19 pandemic, food speculation and the multiple repercussions of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, including the weaponization of food. Together, these developments have demonstrated the necessity for European food sovereignty – but one which maintains very high global safety standards. In my opinion, these crises have also brought to light three dimensions to the debate surrounding food sovereignty and I would like to share my thoughts with you.

Firstly, I believe that many Europeans have finally woken up to the real value of food. This is much like the revelation of the importance of primary care workers, that we experienced as a society during the Covid-19 pandemic. Restoring the value of food, is of course one of the objectives of the EU's Farm to Fork Strategy (F2F). The strategy aims to reshape supply chains and to deliver real improvements in producer's incomes and livelihoods. At the same time as respecting the environment and giving consumers more choice on quality food. There is no doubt that Europeans are paying increasing attention to the health, social and environmental dimensions of food production, supply and consumption. It is commendable that more and more consumers are beginning to intrinsically value food and to move beyond perceptions and calculations based solely on price.

The second aspect that I would like to highlight, is that of proximity. Clearly, the subject of food sovereignty has local, national and international dimensions. The external dimension, that of EU trade with third countries, will never cease to be hotly debated!  However, the reason that I am stressing the issue of proximity, is because consumers are increasingly seeking out local production with shorter supply chains. Interestingly, an article in the Irish Farmers' Journal published in July, referred to research by the Irish Food Board, which revealed that 90% of consumers prefer to support local fruit and vegetable producers. In addition, the overwhelming majority of respondents were of the opinion that locally produced fruit would be tastier and of better quality. So what we are seeing, is more citizens seeking out local farmers and cooperatives. Consumers are increasingly investing their time and money in the circular economy and in alternative farming, such as allotments, urban and vertical farming. These actions successfully contribute to both the diversification of production and to resilience in the food sector.

Similarly, in the fishing sector it is small-scale fishermen and fish farmers who supply local communities. Indeed globally, 80% of motorized fishing vessels are less than 12 meters in length, which automatically renders them as 'local producers'. However, being in Galicia, I would also like to stress the importance of the long-distance fishing fleet for the EU, which creates employment and wealth not only in the Member States, but also in third countries. Our Group Members will have the opportunity to see this reality tomorrow, during our visit to the port of Vigo.

My third and final point relates to the necessity for greater cooperation across actors, sectors and policy areas. Ultimately, the future of the food sector will depend on working together - producers, retailers, policy-makers, environmentalists and consumer organisations - to effectively address and remedy the numerous challenges. Progress is still required to encourage more women and young people into food production. It is also imperative to better cooperate in order to ensure fairer food prices, fairer wages, climate adaptation subsidies and seasonal worker rights. We must jointly move supply chains away from 'just tin time', towards 'just in case' scenarios. And we should aim for inclusive food policies, which enable even the most vulnerable in our societies, to also take advantage of sustainable and healthy food systems. It is also time to develop a long-term vision for the EU fisheries sector. This vision should build on existing European efforts on biodiversity, sustainable food policy, health and well-being, good working conditions, sustainable rural and urban development and strategic autonomy. Working together, among actors and policy areas, we must commit the EU to decarbonising the fishing sector, in order to deliver on the European Green Deal and to implement the 2030 Agenda.

Ladies and gentlemen, before bringing my introductory comments to a close, I would like to highlight that none of the changes I have mentioned this morning, could have occurred without the active and cooperative role of all food producers. This includes farmers and fishermen, farming and fishing communities. Speaking from experience as a small-scale farmer myself, it is not easy to adapt and to change farming methods, in order to fulfil the long-term sustainability criteria that Member States have agreed to. Similarly, it has not been easy for fishing communities to accept and to live by decisions on fishing quotas. However, the primary food producers have played their role and have worked together with the environmental and consumer sectors, in order to find joint solutions.

Ultimately, Europe's food sovereignty will be determined by the decisions of individuals, communities and organised civil society. All of us here today fall within one or more of those categories. We are consumers, marine and land farmers, environmentalists, SMEs, representatives of the social economy, etc. Our challenge, will be to continue to find the unifying elements among us, so that European food sovereignty is truly resilient, with fair, healthy and sustainable food chains. Thank you for your attention.  

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Speech by President Séamus Boland on EU food sovereignty