The role of farmers and their cooperation with other food chain actors in delivering on Farm to Fork sustainability objectives

By Christiane Lambert, Copa President

The Farm to Fork Strategy published in May 2020 has outlined the vision for the future of the agri-food sector of the European Commission. The success of this Strategy depends to a large extent on the role and work of farmers in Europe and their cooperation and collaboration with other actors in the sector, all along the food chain.

Therefore, it is fundamental that the policy formulation and implementation of this strategy supports farmers and their cooperatives’ economic sustainability, improves the functioning of the markets while contributing to a more economically, environmentally and socially sustainable agri-food sector.

The diversity of the European farming must be recognised as well as the numerous production methods which bring additional benefits from a sustainability point of view.

Our farmers are the carriers of so much responsibility when it comes to achieving the goals of this Strategy. Hence, it is necessary that their views, their problems and their own long term sustainability be reflected in legislative proposals steaming from it. Proposing targets is one thing, but if we want to achieve them we need a collaborative environment, one where policymakers come together with all relevant stakeholders and where the dialog and communication is focused on tangible and workable solutions, not rhetoric or ideologies.

The most recent COVID-19 crisis has put additional emphasize on the importance of collaboration and of a well-functioning food supply chain. The pandemic has brought a new reality to our daily lives, as well as to the activity of European farmers, agri-cooperatives and more globally of the actors involved in the food chain. Nevertheless, and despite the COVID-19 pandemic, we have, together, been able to maintain supply, thus ensuring food security for our fellow citizens. When it comes to improved sustainability first of all farmers cooperation is of paramount importance. European agri-cooperatives with their interlinked value-adding activities involved in the production, aggregation, with their investments in processing, distribution, and even disposal or re-use of by-product or waste that originate from agriculture can support their farmers in being more efficient and sustainable in many sub-systems (e.g. farming system, waste management system, input supply system, etc.). Further on, an improved cooperation with the food and drink industry can only enhance this. Farmers shouldn’t carry all the whole weight and the cost of the necessary transition towards a more sustainable food system.

It is key that food and drink companies whose business models and sourcing of ingredients depends on farmers work be more involved in facilitating such transition and helping farmers make the necessary investments.

If the food and drink industry and the retailers cooperate with the farmers to ensure that the additional economical return created by the added value of more sustainable products is equitably distributed along the chain, this could certainly encourage the creation of more sustainable products. For example an enhanced cooperation between the retailers, the processors and the farmers through the exchange of information on consumers demand could limit to the maximum the last-minute cancellation of orders to limit food waste. Such cooperation could allow to fix strict sustainability requirements for the importation of plant-protein needed (both for food and feed) that the EU is not able to produce itself. Together we would have more bargaining power and we could easier push for stricter sustainability criteria for those imports.

It is also important to underline the role of consumers, who have the power and the responsibility to help farmers in such sustainability transition, they say they want to see.

Unfortunately, what we often witness is that what the citizen says it wants, the consumers is not ready to pay. Enhanced communication and improved dialogue, bringing consumers and farmers closer together could certainly help with this.

Farming is a complex job, which depends on numerous variables, some of which farmers often cannot control themselves, like climate or market hazards. While some other sectors can implement changes easier, it is important to remember that farming has been constantly changing to respond to market and societal challenges. However, to answer challenges such as food security or climate change and their effects on land and rural communities, changes require as step by step approach, with adequate time for adaptation in order also to secure farmers’ incomes. Cooperation between food chain actors in delivering on Farm to Fork sustainability objectives and achieving fairer food chain is of paramount importance. Farmers are already working to make these transitions successful. They deserve consideration, attention and recognition.