Champion of the right to food Olivier De Schutter tells Nick Hughes why it’s time to change a system that is failing citizens and the environment.
Olivier De Schutter is a man not afraid of a challenge. The lawyer, who has spent much of his career defending the economic and social rights of some of the poorest and most vulnerable, most recently in his role as UN special rapporteur on the right to food, is now looking to shake up the controversial budget-sucking behemoth of EU law – the Common Agricultural Policy.
The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), of which De Schutter is co-chair, is co-ordinating an alliance of 200 farmers, NGOs, academics and scientists in their call for the EU to adopt a new Common Food Policy after claiming that current policies are failing on sustainability.
“The main problem with the CAP is that it is still an agricultural policy in name and nature,” says De Schutter. “The policies governing food systems – CAP, trade, environment, health, food safety – are disconnected from one another, and too many priorities fall through the cracks.”
IPES-Food recently convened alliance members at a forum to design a comprehensive set of policy proposals that address the perfect storm of challenges facing the food system, from the disappearance of small farms to rocketing rates of obesity and the impact on climate change and biodiversity loss of current methods of food production. A final report setting out a EU Common Food Policy is due to be delivered to policymakers in late 2018.
But can De Schutter and his cohorts have any real expectation of success given the powerful vested interests that are set on maintaining the current production-focused system of subsidies and incentives that has produced plentiful supplies of cheap food, albeit, many experts agree, at a significant cost to the environment, public health and livelihoods?
When we meet before De Schutter’s keynote address at the Food Ethics Council’s recent Future of Food event, the cerebral Belgian is surprisingly buoyant about the prospects for the adoption of an EU Common Food Policy, despite the many obstacles it will face.
He notes that the European Economic and Social Committee, a consultative body of the EU made up of employers, workers and civil society organisations, has endorsed a proposal to convene the first food policy council at the EU level, probably some time in the autumn. Once such a council is convening on a regular basis “it will be very difficult for the other institutions within the EU to ignore the messages that come out”, according to De Schutter.
He does, however, accept there is likely to be resistance to the idea of a Common Food Policy, or else a risk that the process will be appropriated by “dominant actors” in the current low-cost food economy, such as big corporations, economic institutions or political groups, which have an interest in ensuring the status quo is maintained.
As befits a lawyer, De Schutter chooses his words extremely carefully, but he says enough to suggest that he doesn’t trust the retailers, processors and agri-food businesses that have helped shape the current food system to deliver the outcomes needed to move towards a fairer, more sustainable alternative.
He says there are “structural determinants” that make it very difficult for the business sector to make the shift at the scale required, citing the “financialisation of the economy” as a key barrier to change. Specifically, De Schutter says that pressure to deliver shareholder returns, CEO reward schemes that incentivise short-term profits over long-term sustainability, and global competition are symptomatic of the “lock-in” to the current system. For this reason, he is deeply sceptical of the impact that corporate social responsibility commitments can have on “the race against the degradation of ecosystems and the growth of obesity rates”, and believes that politicians and governments must intervene “to align economic incentives with sustainability requirements”.
Such pessimism is likely to frustrate certain businesses which have worked hard to significantly change how they operate with the aim of improving health, the environment and communities at home and overseas. However, De Schutter’s point, one senses, is not to denigrate such efforts but to highlight that in isolation they will be insufficient to deliver the kind of transformational change the food system needs if it is to sustain ecosystems, health and livelihoods long into the future.
He is also deeply concerned by the industry trend towards supply chain consolidation that he believes is likely to exacerbate current imbalances in the food system. In the past year, the UK has seen the merger of its biggest food retailer, Tesco, with its biggest wholesaler, Booker; the proposed merger of the number one and two supermarkets, Sainsbury’s and Asda; and most recently a buying deal struck between Tesco and the French retail giant Carrefour under which the pair will use their combined purchasing power to lower prices for consumers. “As long as the prices are low the imbalances of power in the food system will not be addressed,” says De Schutter. “And if farmers are cheated by, for example a big retailer or food processor then the competition authorities shall not worry too much because ultimately it benefits the end consumer with cheap food.”
De Schutter is not anti-enterprise per se. He champions the diversity of the private sector and in particular the smaller food entrepreneurs and middle-sized companies “who are doing very interesting things and innovating in food systems”.
Many of these companies are part of the alliance supporting a Common Food Policy. But more than any group of businesses, De Schutter believes, it is citizens who have the agency to change the food system for the better. He talks about the need for people to undergo a kind of “spiritual conversion” so that they understand they are participating in and shaping food systems by the choices they make. “People now not only feel disempowered and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task but they also feel that the system is not in crisis because they don’t see what is happening behind the scenes and what is being prepared for the future.
“What is important now is that people have choices to make given the growth of alternative food networks and short food chains, so it becomes a duty for them to reflect about their choices.”
De Schutter is not alone in identifying a growing social activism around food that leads people to make more conscientious food choices, be it for the health of their kids, concern for the environment or a desire to reclaim power in shaping food systems. “The motivations are different but the potential for activism is more important than ever,” he says.
Whether this “citizen awakening” can drive real systemic change remains to be seen, but De Schutter insists that future food policies must be shaped democratically, not by lobbyists, and says a key priority for a Common Food Policy is that it is “owned by the people”.
The issue faced by De Schutter and others who advocate for food systems is that the dominant narrative – that by producing standardised, safe food cheaply and at scale we can feed a growing population – is so simple and easy for policymakers to digest that it will take a similarly compelling narrative to convince people of the necessity to change the system, despite mounting evidence of the urgent need to do so.
De Schutter acknowledges the dilemma: “We need a narrative that redefines what we expect food systems to deliver and for the moment we don’t have that. If we continue to fall into the trap of thinking that cheap food is the solution we will lose.”
Shortly after our conversation, De Schutter delivers a passionate, compelling speech to an adoring audience packed full of advocates for food systems change. When he receives a similar ovation from the food “establishment” whose inertia he is trying to break, De Schutter will be well on the way to cracking his biggest challenge yet.