Agricultural, manufacturing and retail partners within the European food sector have collaborated in a joint declaration of some 32 sustainability policy recommendations for European lawmakers. Ben Cooper reports.

The participation of all sectors of the food chain in addressing sustainability challenges is vital if effective and ‘sustainable’ solutions are to be found. The same could equally be said of how the food sector engages with government. And just as the particular needs, requirements and priorities of different stakeholders sometimes make collaboration harder to bring about, finding unanimity in terms of advocating policy direction can also be challenging.

With that in mind, the Joint Declaration submitted by a group of food industry stakeholders, along with others, late last month might be said to be a considerable achievement.

The declaration, entitled ‘Actions towards a more sustainable European food chain’ has been signed by three key industry groups, Food Drink Europe, Eurocommerce and Cope-Cogeca, representing respectively manufacturers, retailers and farmers.

Other industry groups to have participated in the process include the Liaison Centre for the Meat Processing Industry in the European Union (CLITRAVI) , the Federation of European Specialty Food Ingredients Industries (ELC), the European Retail Round Table (ELC) and the European Community of Consumer Cooperatives (EURO COOP ).

It has also been supported by two major NGOs, namely WWF and EFFAT, the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions.

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By GlobalData

As industry itself looks to form partnerships with other stakeholders to address sustainability challenges, the aim of the Joint Declaration is to encourage policymakers to adopt a similarly “cohesive” approach to “safeguarding the sustainability of food systems for future generations”.

The partners are not short of ideas. As the European Union Commission prepares the publication of its Communication on the ‘Sustainability of Food Systems’, the Joint Declaration comprises some 32 policy recommendations relating to economic, social and environmental sustainability.

“What we want is a more joined up approach by policymakers viewing all aspects of food sustainability looking at all three pillars,” Tove Larsson, director of environmental affairs at FoodDrinkEurope, tells just-food.

The Declaration has evolved from discussions within the Stakeholder Dialogue Group on Food Sustainability, established in September 2013.

This group includes some 18 organisations and companies from across the EU food chain, most of which are also members of the EU High Level Forum for a Better Functioning Food Supply Chain, convened by DG Enterprise in 2010 to follow the implementation of recommendations drawn up by the High Level Group on the Competitiveness of the Agro-Food Industry. The latter, made up of representatives of selected Member States, the European agro-food industry, professional associations and civil society groups, had between 2008 and 2010 devised a roadmap of key initiatives to boost the competitiveness of the sector.

The aim of signatories, Larsson continues, is to raise the profile of sustainability considerations within this process.

“Sustainability has not been at the forefront so far,” Larsson explains. “That forum started out mainly to address the competitiveness of the food supply chain so what we wanted to do here is to put sustainability more firmly on the agenda. It has been there but it hasn’t been as up front as it maybe should have been. In that forum, you have fairly high-level involvement from the different commissioners, but what we’ve seen is that the DG Environment is not part of this formal engagement, so we wanted to have them step in more firmly in this process.”

Larsson says DG Environment has been very “enthusiastic” regarding the food industry’s joint policy recommendations and has been “looking forward” to the publication of the declaration.

She also stresses the timing of the Declaration to coincide with the apparently imminent European Commission Communication on the ‘Sustainability of Food Systems’. “What we wanted to do here is to ensure that we are able to [communicate] what are our views about what we think policymakers should be looking at in the context of this upcoming communication, whenever it comes out,” she says.

Recommendations aimed at encouraging policymakers to adopt a more ‘joined up’ approach are arguably far more likely to be viewed credibly if they come from a food supply sector that is itself speaking with one voice.

The groups involved have of course been working for some time on individual sustainability platforms, which involve their own actions as well as their own particular government relations and lobbying activities. However, Larsson believes bringing this broad constituency to a point where it can engage with policymakers on what is effectively a united sustainability agenda, agreeing on definitions of the primary issues and solutions, makes it an extremely significant landmark in terms of inter-stakeholder collaboration.

In her role, Larsson also heads up the FDE’s food waste initiative, Every Crumb Counts, launched last year. This initiative was an example where such inter-stakeholder collaboration was not possible to achieve. In spite of “numerous discussions”, Food Drink Europe could not persuade Eurocommerce to join the Every Crumb Counts programme. Given the critical role the retail sector must play in any concerted attempt to tackle food waste, it was a weakness in the programme and was something, Larsson concedes, that FDE “regretted”.

That weakness, however, certainly does not pertain here. Having a “food chain approach” to the Declaration is “hugely important”, says Larsson, adding that it would be difficult to mount such a holistic engagement on EU sustainability policy “unless we have everyone from agriculture, to processing and the retailers” involved. “We cannot address this in isolation.”

Furthermore, Larsson says the engagement of WWF in developing the recommendations had been “crucial” and describes the WWF’s involvement as “very constructive”. WWF “was one of the most engaged partners”, she adds.

Larsson believes the involvement of WWF and EFFAT, which contributed on aspects within the social pillar, is critical both to the credibility and the effectiveness of this move.

The ‘Actions towards a more sustainable European food chain’ document is, of course, just that, a document. And it is seeking to stand out in a place which is, as anybody who has accessed the European Union ‘Europa’ portal will testify, not short of documents. However, Larsson believes the Declaration to be a very important “first step”.

It could also be said not only to have taken the food sector’s active involvement in Europe-wide sustainability policy to a new level, but also marks a new high point in terms of partnership and cooperation between the diverse elements of the food supply chain.