Amid growing food insecurity and climate breakdown, the EU must ensure healthy and sustainable food is accessible and affordable for all.
When we think about food, we immediately imagine positive images of our home country’s typical recipes, family gatherings, delicious taste and associated smiles. Yet we increasingly also think of negative ones: hunger, droughts, floods, animal suffering and difficult work conditions.
Food is essential for our health and wellbeing but science tells us that our current food system is a major cause of malnutrition—from lack of essential nutrients to excess calories—and disease, as well as environmental degradation. It pollutes and overuses water, contaminates and impoverishes soil, contributes to one-third of global greenhouse-gas emissions and drives biodiversity loss.
This all translates into poorer yields for farmers, communities with lost livelihoods and medical professionals struggling with more obese children and unhealthy adults. On top of that has come the crisis in Ukraine—a major supplier of grains now forced to halt exports, prompting fears of massive disruptions to global food supply chains.
This evidence has been acknowledged by international agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, and food systems clearly need to be transformed. Even the European Commission is planning a legal framework for a sustainable food system by the end of 2023, as part of the Farm to Fork Strategy. The strategy recognises that ’moving to a more plant-based diet with less red and processed meat and with more fruits and vegetables will reduce not only risks of life-threatening diseases, but also the environmental impact of the food system’.
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Transforming a system is however not easy, especially doing it right. We need to take a multi-actor and holistic approach—taking into account the social, environmental, economic and health aspects of food, as well as the synergies among them—if we want to move away from business-as-usual. Finding the best leverage points is fundamental, so we can put pressure on the right spots and trigger systemic change as quickly as possible. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’, stresses that the time remaining for action is short.
In this context, public procurement of food can be a game-changer. Linking production and consumption, it can influence and change both demand and supply.
Public authorities have the mandate to ensure the health and safety of their citizens. So, public money should be spent to provide healthy, fairly produced and environmentally sustainable food which is accessible and affordable for all.
The Farm to Fork Strategy underlines the importance of public procurement to promote healthy and sustainable diets, affirming that the commission will ’set minimum mandatory criteria for sustainable food procurement’. It says: ‘This will help cities, regions and public institutions to play their part by sourcing sustainable foods for schools, hospitals and public institutions and it will also boost sustainable farming systems, such as organic farming.’
The newly-formed Buy Better Food campaign, an advocacy coalition for better public food procurement, highlights the centrality of the latter by amplifying good practices already in place. Several local authorities and organisations around Europe are working to provide healthier food for their citizens—including more fruit, vegetables and pulses, less and better meat and fewer products rich in sugar, salt and saturated fats.
At the same time they are seeking to ensure the social and environmental sustainability of the products they procure, increasing supply from organic production and using shorter supply chains. For example, all school meals in Mouans-Sartoux in France are organic, while Copenhagen has attained 90 per cent of this goal across its whole public sector.
All of this comes with many challenges, especially due to the lack of policy cohesion, of monitoring and evaluation, and of structured exchange of knowledge and experiences. To counter these, cost should no longer be the only parameter for awarding public contracts, public-procurement elements within the new sustainable-food framework should be rendered obligatory and context-specific conditions (for instance, food freshness) allowing the inclusion of locality considerations in tenders should be explored. The campaign thus advocates European mandatory criteria on public food procurement which can support national, regional and local governments facilitating the transition to a healthier food system for people and the planet.
The recent crises, from the pandemic to the war in Ukraine, are revealing the fragility of our food system, highlighting once more the urgent need for transformation towards a more resilient and sustainable system providing healthy food for all. We have only around ten years to make the changes needed to ensure we do not exceed the 1.5C global temperature rise from preindustrial times set in Paris in 2015, thereby putting our systems under even greater pressure than they are experiencing today.
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It is time to act, and change the game.