2022 Regional Sweden – Opening speech from Janez Potočnik

2022 Regional meeting Sweden

Thursday, Dec 01, 2022

On Thursday, December 1, 2022 the Forum moved to Sweden for our regional event. The Forum Chairman Janez Potočnik welcomed delegates to the conference and below you can read his full speech.

Dear friends, welcome to another edition of the Forum for the Future of Agriculture. I am delighted to be talking to you in Sweden present in person.

As you know, the Forum has this constant ambition to bring all of us together, policy makers, farmers, NGOs, industries, and academics to see if we can find ways to break down our silos and transform our food system, together.

My address might sound to some not very food system and agriculture related, but believe me, it is. One of the main problems leading to the absence of taking into account trade-offs, synergies, and potential multiple benefits, is exactly based on the narrow optic and silo approach we tend to apply in our thinking and policy making.

In the past months, Covid-19, now war in Ukraine and a summer packed with extreme weather events have shaken the world’s commodity chains. Shortages, and fears of shortages, are stretching European economies. Such system shocks echo deeply. Most developed economies, and the Euro area, are experiencing inflation at historical levels. All the governing bodies are focusing on providing stability, on addressing the energy, food, materials crisis and improving security provision, trying to improve strategic autonomy of Europe. We must admit, they do not have an easy task.

Despite all these acute challenges we are facing, now would be the worse time to call off the Green Deal, an ambitious and necessary strategic policy framework, addressing the chronical challenges we face … and it would also not be a good time to question the good intentions and the vision included in the Farm to Fork document. Taking painkillers to remove the acute pains will not heal chronical diseases, rather hide them, and make them worse.

The COVID crisis and the war in Ukraine have clearly accelerated the need to transition our food system to one that is robust, sustainable, that restores and preserves biodiversity, reduces emissions, sequesters carbon, and provides affordable, nutritious food for us all.

We cannot overstate the role natural resources play. Natural resources provide the foundation for the goods, services and infrastructure that make up our current socio-economic systems. Access to, use and benefits from natural resources have been in human history always closely related to the level of the achieved wellbeing, but also to stability, security, conflicts, wars … Just think about land, water, oil and gas, minerals, precious metals, and I could continue. We can see that also as a consequence of the terrible war in Ukraine.

But we know from the International Resource Panel’s work that extraction and processing of materials also drives all aspects of the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.

It is responsible for 50% of global climate change. It also causes over 90% of global land-related biodiversity loss, and water stress – more than 80% related to biomass and economic sectors extracting and processing biomass like agriculture, forestry, and ocean activities. Natural resource industries are also behind one third of global pollution. Trends are alarming: material use, everything extracted from the earth, has tripled since 1970, and without transformative change – it will double again by 2060. Current use of natural resources is linked to deep inequalities – high-income countries, where we are lucky enough to live, consume a big share of the benefits, while low-income economies are burdened with negative impacts of extraction and processing. In overusing Earth’s resources, and by distributing the benefits unfairly, our economic model is taking far more than the planet can sustainably give.

And what about Europe. We are, despite all sustainability related efforts, still clearly overshooting planetary boundaries and living out of the safe operating space. For years it is also known that European economy is very import dependent and fragile when it comes to energy and materials – everything so important for our economic success and wellbeing.

According to Eurostat EU dependency on energy imports did not substantially change over the last decade. During that period, the EU’s net imports of energy have been greater than its primary production; in other words, more than half of the EU’s gross available energy was supplied by net imports and the dependency rate exceeded 50.0 %. Russia being the major provider.

But also, for most of the critical materials Europe is import dependent – I remember analyses from my days in EC, that for 54 scarce and economically important raw materials, Europe in its entirety depends 90% on raw materials imported from outside Europe. More recent data are showing that of the 30 raw materials that the EU classifies as critical, 19 are predominantly imported from China. Prices of resources in the long term are increasing, in a short term they are volatile and share of the material costs in total costs of manufacturing industry has in recent decades increased.

In short, resource use and management are not only critical from the environmental impacts point of view, but also important for our competitiveness, also the competitiveness of the food industry and farming.

We learned also that success of energy transition depends on securing the access of increased material needs. Commission President von der Leyen was clear in the State of the Union Address: “There are some hard facts: without secure and sustainable access to the necessary raw materials, our ambition to become the first climate neutral continent is at risk.” While EU Commission is preparing its renewed regulatory view on critical raw materials it would be important to avoid replacing one dependency with another. Our effort should not be only focused on securing access to critical raw materials, but it should be in the first place about managing all materials and all natural resources, more responsibly. This includes biomass, metals, non-metallic materials, fossil fuels – everything extracted from the earth, as well as land, and water. This is the only way to meet impact targets set in climate, biodiversity and pollution and avoid all potentially related problems.

When analysing what would need to be done to make EGD implementable in a global environment Systemiq, Club of Rome, and OSF in International System Change Compass identified three major blind-spots, very much present also in the corporate sector and even in the civil society.

First, lack of holistic system change approach. Leaders lack capacity or knowledge of how to translate system change visions into their concrete policies/investment structures which ends in conflicting actions, policy logics that hinder real transformation. In the case of climate change, the prevailing focus on reducing the carbon emissions and disregarding questions like resource and biodiversity implications, overconsumption, inequality, air pollution, water crisis, … is potentially leading to trade-offs and future lock-ins, instead to synergies and multiple-benefits.

Second, lack of going to the roots of the problem – addressing the drivers and pressures. We lack focus on natural resource use as well as market signals leading consumers and producers’ behaviour. Our current system does not incentivize sustainable resource use, in fact quite the opposite. The signals we receive tell us that it makes most economic sense to destroy nature – trees are only worth something when they become timber. This is incredibly difficult to reverse since we have become so used to not valuing nature. We desperately need to shift economic signals to producers and consumers, otherwise, while we call citizens to act responsibly, we are asking them to behave irrationally, against all the economic behavioural theory.

And third, lack of demand side focus. Policy attention, also in climate efforts, is mainly given to the supply side of the economy, to the cleaning of the existing economic system. It is lacking the attention to the demand, consumption side. For example, it would be in vain to decarbonize the production of steel, as important as it is, if it is used to produce under-utilised cars and houses, which contribute only to traffic and property market bubbles, not to real social prosperity.

All this is unfortunately more or less set aside in good times, since it is either difficult to comprehends or it is simply against existing interests and misleading contemporary economic trends.

Climate COP has just finished. If sharing loss and damage is a major success, then we know that from the real goal perspective – limiting future warming – COP was a failure. One could only hope that with the recognition of responsibility and willingness to share the burden we have created conditions to focus on real drivers – current economic system. The only way to unpack climate efforts and make them effective, is to stop ignoring the inherent wastefulness of production and consumption systems, in particular in high-income countries, and integrate commitments limiting material and consumption footprints in NDC’s.

Standards and behaviour patterns linked to the current economic model were set by high-income countries, including Europe. Also, the benefits of natural resource over exploitation have mainly landed in our countries. We are thus ethically bound to show we are willing and able to change a reality we have created, and to lead the essential transition – at home and globally. While the responsibility for the past is clear, responsibility for future is of course shared … but only by leading that transition, only by looking first in the mirror, we would give nobody an excuse to repeat some of the mistakes done in the past and avoid collective failure.

I applaud the phenomenal amount of work that is being directed towards innovation to reduce the impact of our current system, but without full scale systems change, these innovations will not even touch the sides of what is needed to meet our climate and biodiversity targets.

The problem is that humankind has never separated out economic growth from ever-rising demand for resources. As a result, we are now overstepping planetary boundaries, and locking ourselves out of the safe operating space in which human societies evolved.

Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who governs the country of Dubai, reportedly said, “My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, and my grandson is going to drive a Land Rover, but my great-grandson is going to ride a camel.” When asked why, he responded, “Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times. Good times create weak men, weak men create hard times.”

Bad times and all the challenges we are currently facing should be a clear and convincing lesson we should finally understand. The best and only way to avoid or at least minimize any potential future crises, be it related to security, environmental sustainability, social fairness and equity, or economic success, is to systematically strengthen collective resilience. Not only in bad times, but also, and in the first place, in good times.

Farmers, producing the food in more ecologically responsible way and protecting their most precious resource, fertile soil, are best prepared for the harsh weather events. During the summer like it was this year, when the floods and droughts were almost more frequent than normal days, they were rewarded. While output of farmers was affected by many, it was less affected by those keeping their soil healthy and resilient. And they were also less in a need of otherwise well justified public support … which should be an important message also for policy makers where to strategically channel their public funds.

Resilience can only be achieved through collaboration and holistic approach. We need to move from an economy exploiting humans to an economy serving humans. We need to move from an economy considering humans as external and superior to Nature, to an economy acknowledging that we are embedded with Nature.

In the next Global Resource Outlook 2024, IRP will follow the wellbeing logic and redefine sectors as systems. Instead of optimising economic output, we will focus on systems that provide a societal function, human needs (like nutrition, mobility, shelter, essential consumer goods, and their supporting systems such as water and energy). This will allow cross-sector innovation and shifts to a more future-fit business models.

Changing our relationship with natural resources – with nature – is ultimately an economic, security and resilience imperative. This relationship is not stable, nor balanced, and it will be resolved with either collective wisdom and effort, or in a hard and painful way … The best way to minimize potential future crises, be it related to security, to environmental sustainability, to social fairness and equity questions, to health-related challenges, or to economic success, and also to deliver the EGD vision, is to systematically strengthen our collective resilience. In good times and in bad times.

Dear friends, finally, in the spirit of working together, I would like to take a moment to thank the wide variety of partners who come together to support the Forum and join the conversation on these crucial topics: the founding partners: The European Landowners’ Organization (celebrating this month its 50th anniversary) and Syngenta; our strategic partners: The Nature Conservancy, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Cargill, WWF and Thought for Food; Our international partner: The Chicago Council of Global Affairs, our supporting partners: The Friends of the Countryside, John Deere, Pepsico, Nestle, Indigo, The Rewe group, SYSTEMIQ and the RISE Foundation, and now also our first tech partner – Microsoft. Also the Czech Presidency for their auspices attributed to our event- you will hear more from Ladislav Miko -being now in Canada for the COP15. And of course, I would like to thank the Forum’s team for bringing us together today. If anyone, it is me being aware of the amount of their invested work … with smile and without a single complaint.

I wish you a fruitful conference and since today we entered the month of December, let me be the first wishing you a healthy and happy 2023 and to see you in person in March in our main event in Brussels.

Thank you for your attention.

Click here to view videos from the Sweden event.
Click here to view the agenda and speakers bios from the Sweden event.

More blogs & summaries

2024 Annual Conference summary – Inspirational talks

Sharing journeys towards a sustainable future

2024 Annual Conference summary – Session 4 and closing

How to fund the transition?

2024 Annual Conference summary – Session 3

What levers can the EU pull to deliver systemic change and what did we learn?

2024 Annual Conference summary – Call to Action progress

Call to Action progress report

2024 Annual Conference summary – Session 2

The need for systemic change

2024 Annual Conference summary – Introduction and session 1

Restoring the opportunity for food system transformation

2024 Research lessons to inform future CAP reform event summary

Enhancing agricultural sustainability via trade policy

Responses to our Regenerative Agriculture survey

Forum update July 2023

2023 Regional Event Spain event summary