Annual Conference summary – Second session

How to build a more resilient & sustainable food and agriculture system: what have we learnt from the energy crisis that enables us to overcome the challenges and exploit the opportunities?

Friday, Apr 07, 2023

Opening the discussion, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, Director Strategy and policy analysis, DG AGRI, European Commission, pointed out that the EU had been very good at delivering food security for its citizens, but at the expense of the environment and climate. Remedial action was now necessary.

Policy makers have a role to play by setting a clear direction, supporting key stakeholders to invest in that direction, incentivising farmers to develop more environmentally friendly practices, helping to enhance and scale these up and encouraging production of different foods and crops. This requires collective effort. Millions of farmers and key actors in the food chain are already implementing change, but “we should accelerate the transformation”.

She and her colleagues are examining how the Common Agricultural Policy could play a bigger role in supporting farmers on their journey to sustainability. This involves assessing the wider policy mix and considering services such as vocational training and advice and tools to de-risk the transition.

The pandemic and the war in Ukraine had highlighted the importance of food security and confirmed the resilience of Europe’s food chain, but exposed some weaknesses, including dependency on imports ranging from fertilisers to fossil fuels.

Shari Rogge-Fidler, President and CEO, Farm Foundation, called for “radical domestic and global collaboration” involving multi-stakeholders. She identified three essential ingredients, with farmers at the core: a policy environment that encourages rather than inhibits progress; robust markets that enable change; and empowerment of farmers “to continue to innovate, to feed and clothe the world”.

That collaboration, she pointed out, would be needed in the US between public institutions and the private sector to use constructively the “tsunami of money” the Administration is investing. The volume of funding requires extra staff to handle the complexity of implementing the new initiatives, highlighting the problem of labour shortages at both farm and government level.

Professor Tim Benton, Research Director, Emerging Risks; Director, Environment and Society Programme, Chatham House, focused on market incentives. “They do not reward sufficiently either sustainability or resilience.” Many of the properties of a resilient food system are discarded “because they are not economically incentivised within the system”. To remedy this market failure, requires different forms of regulation and a systemic response covering trade, production and repurposed subsidies, with taxes and incentives in the right place.

This calls for a “whole of society approach” and alignment of thinking and policy on health, sustainability, climate, farmers’ livelihoods and consumption for a nutritious diet – a difficult challenge since most government structures are not designed in such a way. However, just as events in 2022 had forced open a political window stimulating the EU to intervene in restructuring energy markets from the perspective of public good, he suggested, the same could apply to food.

Eva Weijber, a farmer and landowner from Sweden, explained that creating good farming conditions for the next generation was in her and her two sisters’ veins. “My view is that we don’t inherit the land from our parents. We manage it for our children.” Working with photosynthesis, their plants bind tonnes of carbon dioxide and produce food, energy and oxygen. Farmers can contribute even more to a sustainable world with the right tools and financial incentives to shape profitable and healthy businesses, she insisted.

Instead, farmers face “too many rules and legislation that affect us negatively” by taking up time and money that could be used more productively. She urged policy makers to provide “long-term commitment and less legislation”. That could include rewards to farmers for storing carbon or developing energy production using grassland and other energy crops to make bioenergy.

A speaker from the floor endorsed Ms Weijber’s view, assuring the panel farmers are “ready, able and willing” to change, but needed incentives to do so.

You can watch the whole event and exclusive interviews with the speakers on our videos page.

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