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Healthy #food choice, waste, the role of agriculture and food policy. Should the government interfere more?
Gardening & Agriculture Gardening & Agriculture Vegetables

Making our food more sustainable: especially not this way

There will be a roundtable discussion in the Lower House (Netherlands) about the sustainability of our food system. Good news for anyone hoping for a more sustainable food policy, you might think. However, there is some criticism about the content of the interview.

Good news for anyone who thinks politics should be more concerned with the sustainability of our food system. The permanent Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality is drawing up a whole afternoon this afternoon for a roundtable discussion on 'sustainable and healthy choices for consumption'. The committee will discuss with no less than fourteen experts about the promotion of healthy choice, food waste, the role of agriculture and food policy in general.

The hearing offers a unique opportunity to impress MPs on the need to really make a living from a sustainable food policy. But is that going to happen next Thursday? I have my doubts. I already read the position papers of the speakers and noted three notable misconceptions that the committee could mistakenly see as the way forward. I will discuss them below, but will also pay attention to the bright spots that I found in a number of contributions - points of light that point the way forward to an actual change.

Two people at a agricultural field

Misconception 1: In particular, the government should not interfere too directly with a sustainable food policy

A striking number of speakers embrace the concept of the food transition as the way to a more sustainable food system. Such a food transition is a 'bottom-up movement', in which the government needs to do nothing more than connect food entrepreneurs, train professionals and 'organize' transition tables.

Remarkably enough, PBL Netherlands Bureau for the Environment (PBL) has questioned this approach and states that 'at present there are no measurable trends showing that the goals will be taken from the transition agenda'. The PBL states that the trend can only be reversed if we realize that 'painful' choices are made. Sustainability is not a technical, but a political problem; the government has a 'key position' in this.

"If that consumer makes sustainable choices, then the food system will automatically become sustainable"
cucumber, tomatoes, vegetables on display
Consumption sociologist Hans Dagevos joins in and complains that politics issues issues such as eating less meat too quickly as 'sensitive' or 'controversial' and does not dare to take effective measures. Conclusion: recognize that sustainability is a political, not a technical problem, and do not get away from the political choices that go with it.

Misconception 2: Consumers are the most important players in the chain

Many speakers have a firm confidence in the ability of consumers to send the food system in the right direction. If the consumer makes sustainable choices, the thought seems to be, then the food system will become sustainable. The speakers are wary of 'restricting freedom of choice' in the case of food and state that 'sustainable and healthy choices are not programmed in the same way as with sustainable energy.'

Fortunately, among the speakers there are also critics of this approach. For example, Lucas Simons of New Foresight states that it is an 'illusion' to think that the consumer will bring about the transition. He argues for a more active government to send the consumer in the right direction.

Anyone who seeks pleas for strong government control is strikingly not with transition experts, but with health scientists such as Maartje Poelman from Utrecht University. Poelman states that 'structural, universal (preventive) measures aimed at the entire population (for example, reducing salt content in soup, a soda tax) lead to more health gains than an approach in which the individual's own responsibility is central (eg individual dietary advice). "Conclusion: set the standard for the consumer's sovereignty: let companies and government restrict and control choices.

Misconception 3: No laws stand in the way between dream and action

Perhaps it is because no lawyers have been invited, but in the position papers I find little sense of the way in which competition law makes sustainability more difficult. Competition law is based on an economical worldview in which consumers and producers always find each other in a perfectly competitive market with complete information. This has led to the current situation, in which sustainable food is a niche product for a limited group of consumers, who pay a bit more for a product that is often only a bit more sustainable ('fair trade', 'better life', etc.).

Who wants the market to do more, agreements between companies must be allowed.

However, competition law is mainly concerned with consumers; not about the environment or animal welfare. The government sent a bill to the Council of State two weeks ago to circumvent the competition rules through a kind of generally binding declaration of sustainability agreements between companies. But the bar for this is high and it is questionable whether such legal measures will not meet with objections from Brussels. Conclusion: the sustainability of our food requires a review of competition law and its interpretation by the national and European cartel watchdogs.

Let's take stock: this hearing offers a unique opportunity to get the Lower House to understand the need to change our food system. But I think that most participants in the conversation have too great faith in the invisible hand of the market, the opportunities of new technology and the possibilities of a 'bottom-up' food transition. This brings with it the danger that the committee members see this hearing as an encouragement to lean back and let society do the work.

However, those who look at the position papers with a sharp eye will see that there is an undercurrent that does not go along with this discourse. These are the people who argue for an agricultural policy towards a food policy, which show that market parties are trapped in profit-driven behavior and that show that most consumers do not come to a healthy choice on their own. It is also the people who argue most clearly for a government that actively and compellingly acts where necessary, and steering and facilitating where possible. For such an active attitude we need MPs who sit on the edge of their seats and realize that they themselves have the key to a better food system.
Yellow combain mowing a cornfield

By: Herman Lelieveldt