Food & Agriculture Questions and Answers

What Does Food Sovereignty Mean to You?

small farm

The food we eat comes from an agricultural system that impacts prices we pay for food, wages paid to workers, the taxes we pay and the quality of our food and at the most basic level, the capacity to have enough food to eat.

Agriculture is a big part of Europe’s GDP, and it plays an essential role in our culture and landscape. Done right it can protect our environment and maintain thriving rural economies, keeping employment up and rural poverty down – including in related processing, transport and retail sectors. Corporate control of agriculture and concentration of power among fewer and fewer companies puts all this at risk.

Food security means having enough food to eat, but it says little about how it is produced or where. Food sovereignty says we have a right to define, protect and regulate our own food systems and trade, rather than feeling at their mercy. It puts those who produce our food at the centre of decision making instead of pressing them to grow more but earn less. Food sovereignty puts sustainability and justice first, rather than seeing them as optional add-ons we somehow can’t afford.

Read the key proposals for a new sustainable CAP by Food & Water Europe as part of the Food Sovereignty Platform.

How Does European agriculture impact the environment?

Bad agricultural practices hurt the environment wherever they happen. For example:

  • Intensive grain and soya monoculture use huge quantities of fertilisers, fuel and other chemical inputs.
  • Industrial livestock production dumps the tonnes of effluent which it generates onto the soil.
  •  Thirsty intensive fruit and vegetable production uses vast amounts of water for irrigation, often in dry places that can ill afford it.

On the other hand, sustainable family farming can help maintain a healthy and rich environment through good agronomic practices (like rotation of crops, polyculture which combines livestock production and crops, good soil husbandry, using and developing locally adapted crop varieties, etc). Good farmers care for the environment as custodians of our future food supply.

Are Food Prices Fair?

No. While the prices we pay are often high, the price paid to farmers (called the farm gate price) is very low, sometimes even below what it costs them to produce the food we need. What’s worse supermarkets chase bigger profits by continually pushing down the prices they pay to farmers while pushing up the prices we pay in the shops. It’s a race to the bottom that’s hurts us all, and it can’t last. We need to learn to stop wasting so much food, stop using biofuels to run our cars and pay a reasonable price for real food so farmers are supported and can do the right thing for us all.

Isn’t there a Ban on GM Food and Crops in the EU?

There is no ban on GM food or crops in the EU. Like many other markets, including Brazil and the United States, European law requires new crops to be approved to enter the market. The Precautionary Principle (which says if there is a risk of serious harm, then dangerous action should be avoided) is a key part of European law. Since the science on GM crops is not as clear as the industry claims application of the Precautionary Principle means that fewer GM crops have been approved in Europe than in other countries, but Europe imports a good deal of GM commodities, proving there is no ban.

All a company has to do to sell an authorised GM product in the EU is to put a proper label on it. The problem for the GM industry is that informed shoppers around the world don’t want to buy GM food. Fortunately for us in the EU labels help us see where the GM ingredients are so we can avoid them. This is the real reason so few GM products are seen on European supermarket shelves – companies don’t make products they can’t sell.

How Can We Feed the World without GM Crops?

UN agencies, scientists around the world and academics all agree: GM technology does not fix the problems driving hunger. For example, GM crops do nothing to address the poverty that prevents people from buying the food we already produce. Instead, these crops foster dependence on corporations and jeopardise the skill which farmers have in adapting varieties to suit local conditions and tastes. We’ll need these skills and experience as we try to adjust to our changing climate. GM crops do not increase yields, yet they do increase chemical use, so they take us in the wrong direction. In fact, a 2014 study by the University of Minnesota found that better use of existing cropland and water could feed another 3 billion people.

Industrialised countries also waste a huge amount of food, and this has to stop. Food waste is not only costly for households, it squanders the increasingly precious fuel, fertiliser and feed used to produce it.

In fact there is good reason to believe that GM simply does not work the way the industry claims — the rapid rise of superweeds and superbugs are a clear warning that complex systems throw up unexpected results.

The good news is that non-GM plant breeding and farming techniques — from the ingenious system of rice intensification that dramatically increases yield by altering the way plants are managed, to agroforestry, to high-tech plant development like Market Assisted Selection to so-called snorkel rice that thrives even in floods — science and good farming together are producing strong results. People are hungry today, and GM’s promises for a distant tomorrow are not enough.

Will food prices still be high with GMOs?

Yes. Food prices have been rising steadily despite the widespread use of GM crops in countries like the United States. This is partly because so much of the crop is diverted into fuel, but it’s also because despite decades of research costing millions GM technology has only managed to produce a few industrial monocrops like soya and corn. If GM crops were going to make food cheaper and feed the world, it should be working by now. Instead the fixation with GM solutions for the future is stifling other kinds of research and investment that could be working today.

How Are Small Farms Better than Factory Farms?

Efficiency is a comparison, so to determine how efficient anything is we have to understand what is being compared. The real question we need to ask is, “Efficient at what?” Industrial monocultures and factory farms may offer a small number of people a marginal increase in profit due to economies of scale, but these operations are far less efficient in other terms. Communities suffer horrible health impacts of aerial spraying of soy crops to produce feed for Europe’s factory farms, which are bad for the animals in them, the people who live nearby and the smaller more-ethical farmers who are driven out of business. In these ways, factory farms are far less efficient at creating the kind of future we want and need, and Europeans need to stop exporting the damage caused by our desire for cheap food.

Why Aren’t Fish Farms Green?

Many people reject the factory farm model which crowds animals together in totally unnatural conditions and uses antibiotics and industrial feed to push animals as hard as possible to produce more food more cheaply. Fish farms use exactly the same ideas and practices, it’s just harder to see. Wild fish that are already overfished are harvested for food, or, even worse GM soya is moving in as fish feed. The drugs used to keep the fish healthy and to kill the parasites which are exacerbated by overcrowding wash into surrounding waters affecting a wide range of ecosystems. Harvested fish is packaged in enormous bulk and shipped to distant grocery stores and restaurants.

Despite the promises that fish farming provides clean, green food, in reality it threatens to worsen food insecurity in developing countries by taking the fish which people need for food and turning it into industrial feed. Despite industry promises of more jobs in fragile rural areas, fish farming in fact aims to decrease human effort over time as aquaculture efficiency gains in aquaculture mean that more fish can be grown for less work. Factory farms at sea are not the answer to our future food needs.

Don’t Supermarkets Help Hardworking Families?

Supermarkets are not charities; they exist to make money for their shareholders. Over the years supermarket competition has concentrated the market into the hands of fewer and fewer huge companies, forcing smaller companies out of business to the detriment of local economies.

For years supermarkets have been engaged in a race-to-the-bottom business model that competes for customers with the lure of low prices and choice. In order to maintain profits in this high-pressure atmosphere, supermarkets are forced to limit their costs. They do this by squeezing suppliers, including pressing farmers to earn less by supplying special offers for which they are not compensated. These hardworking families are not helped by supermarkets, but are often trapped in supply contracts which they need to survive. Supermarkets also use loss leaders (selling products as less than cost) to attract customers, but these costs are made up elsewhere, including through heavily promoted impulse buys of “buy one, get one free” offers that result in products too often ending up in landfill.

Choice is often an illusion, too. It is far more cost efficient for supermarkets to be supplied by a few companies rather than many, so the seemingly vast array of products on shelves is in fact often produced by a handful of conglomerates.