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Encouraging EU shoppers to make the right choice: ‘Food sustainability is in consumers’ hands’

The consumer is integral to the success of a healthy and sustainable Farm to Fork strategy. How is the European Commission supporting shoppers to make better diet choices?

The European Commission’s Farm to Fork (F2F) Strategy, unveiled in May 2020​, aims to engage all players along the supply chain – from, as the name suggests, farm-to-fork.

In an effort to improve human and planetary health, the Commission has set a host of actions directed at the agricultural sector. These include reduction targets for chemical and hazardous pesticides, and fertilisers, as well as improved animal welfare.

On the fork side of things, targets will be set to reduce food loss and waste, and plans are underway to bring in a mandatory and harmonised front-of-pack (FOP) labelling scheme.

Is this enough to ensure consumers are onboard with the strategy? Because as MEPs argued at a European Food Forum (EFF) event last week, much of the success of the F2F lies in consumers’ hands.

Voting with wallets​

According to Italian MEP Herbert Dorfmann, a member of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development (AGRI) and a Rapporteur on the F2F Strategy, the consumer plays a key and very influential role when it comes to improving the food supply chain.

While acknowledging that “there is a big responsibility on the whole chain,” ​Dorfman insisted the main responsibility lies with the consumer. “This is extremely important. We have, unfortunately…too many consumers who are declaring openly that they would like to support a more sustainable food chain, but once they go to the supermarket, they do not do this.” ​

Indeed, consumers have suggested they want to vote for sustainable food with their wallets. A survey coordinated by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) last year revealed that two-third of people are willing to change their diets for environmental reasons.

However, a range of factors, including price, lack of knowledge, unclear information and limited choice, were preventing them from eating more sustainably.

At the same time, transformation will only occur if the consumer is onboard, Dorfmann suggested. Consumers must be willing to buy organic products, products from countries with more sustainable agricultural practices, and willing to pay more for greater information on-pack, we were told. “Only [then], will we come to a more sustainable food chain.” ​

The MEP continued: “I think we need to insist [on] this. We need to look how we can inform the consumer better and how we can educate the consumer better about nutrition and about sustainability in the supply chain.” ​

‘Our knives and forks are the mightiest weapons’​

Voting with our wallets, or rather, fighting the climate change battle with our knives and forks, is also key to the Strategy’s success according to MEP Anja Hazekamp, a member of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) and F2F Rapporteur.

For Hazekamp, our current food system is a ‘ticking time bomb’. “Yes, we have a long way to go, but we don’t have any time to waste,” ​she told delegates at the EFF event. “We are in the middle of some serious crises here: the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, the health crisis.” ​

Commenting on the ‘shared responsibility’ players have along the supply chain – including the European Commission, the European Parliament, Member States, producers and consumers – the MEP said ‘we have no choice’: “We have to change.”​

Hazekamp continued: “For those of you that don’t want to wait, and [want to] start the food revolution sooner than the whole process of the F2F Strategy, remember that our knives and forks are the mightiest weapons that we have to fight climate change, diseases, animal suffering and biodiversity loss. It is high time we started using these weapons efficiently.”​

Growing demand for sustainable food with FOPs​ So what can be done at a regulatory level to boost consumer demand for sustainable and healthy food?

“The F2F Strategy is the theory, and we need to pave the way for a successful, sustainable European food system,” ​said German MEP and ENVI member Christine Schneider. “To become successful, we need to take along everyone involved in the whole food supply chain.”​

However, Schneider stressed, it is the consumer that plays the ‘key role’ here. “With their consumption behaviour, consumers will determine the cause of the development of our food system.” ​

Increased focus is therefore required on encouraging consumer purchasing decisions, we were told: “How can we stimulate and encourage consumers to contribute their part?​

“The demand for sustainable food will not grow with binding requirements and bans. Every consumer choice should be based on an independent and autonomous decision. And to be able to make this choice, we need intelligent but easily understandable labelling.”​

Technology has the potential to play an instrumental role here, suggested the MEP. “To me, the only way to provide all information on nutrients, origin, animal welfare, CO₂ footprint and so on, is with…digital additions.​

“If you can check how many steps you did during the day, we will find a solution to present all necessary, and maybe even more, information to the consumer via an app on the phone.”​

Of course, ‘binding requirements’ and ‘bans’ are integral to the F2F Strategy. But only if we incorporate farmers and consumers, Schnieder concluded, ‘will we manage to move towards sustainable foods systems’. “We need to work together and we need to pull in the same direction.” ​

Commission has ‘big agenda’ for consumers​

Although not on the agenda for 2021, the European Commission has big plans for consumer interventions, said Nathalie Chaze, Director of Food Sustainability, International Relations, at the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE).

“The Commission will be working very actively on the consumer side as well, because we believe the consumer should be given the opportunity to make healthy choices, but also [they have a] very powerful ability to influence the market.”​

This is where food labelling comes in. The Commission has identified ‘a number of initiatives’ on food labelling, the Director revealed, adding that unlike a number of FOP schemes currently on the market, the EU’s harmonised label may not focus on nutrients alone.

“We are developing initiatives on labelling…in order to make the healthy choice the easy choice, so that [consumers] have the possibility to make informed choices about the products they buy.” ​

Chaze continued: “But we are also working on a more complex labelling initiative, which is a sustainable labelling framework to give…comprehensive information to the consumer about how the products they purchased were produced.”​

The European Commission plans to roll out its mandatory, EU-wide labelling scheme by the end of 2022.

“It’s not all about labelling,” ​stressed Chaze. Education also plays a big part, as do third country supply chains and combatting food crime. “We will look at setting minimum mandatory criteria for sustainable food procurement and of course we will scale up the fight against food fraud to achieve a level playing field.”

 

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