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From Farm to Fork: Moving to short food chains

From farm to table: Turn to short food chain

The current COVID-19 crisis shows that the European food system is inelastic, exposing the fragility and inequality of the system. On one side of the world, agricultural products are "disappearing" due to market and seasonal factors, while on the other side of the world, countries are experiencing food shortages because food can no longer cross national borders.

In this case, the launch of the farm-to-table (F2F) strategy represents an important opportunity to profoundly reshape our relationship with food and design a new reality for our food system: one that will increase health The link between food, social equality and sustainable food production. Achieving this goal and supporting the transition of global food to a food system that is beneficial to people and the planet requires a holistic vision and coordinated actions throughout the food supply chain. This means handling food activities throughout the food chain; from farm to table.

The F2F strategy is an important part of the European Green Agreement and an important part of the broader goal of turning Europe into a climate-neutral continent by 2050. Since the strategy is conducive to the ambitions of short-distance distribution routes, this crisis provides an interesting background, revealing many dysfunctions of our current food systems in the local and global food chain.

Special attention to narrowing the gap between producers and consumers-a key aspect of the F2F strategy-raises the question of why there is a lack of clear goals that specifically focus on the importance of shorter food chains? This strategy is essential to prepare for fundamental changes in our food system. In the current situation, this means that European institutions must prioritize improving the food chain and take concrete actions on how to put the development of short supply chains higher on the agenda.

Food waste-the food shortage paradox

In this crisis that we are all experiencing, it is hard not to become more aware of the staple food of human survival: food. The public is aware that our food supply is under pressure, which has translated into extreme and highly unsustainable consumption patterns: panic buying and hoarding lead to empty supermarket shelves, often disastrous.

However, these concerns about food insecurity and shortages in rich countries are mostly irrational, because these subjective experiences contrast sharply with the increase in food waste in many countries around the world. COVID-19 has caused the level of food waste in wealthy economies to increase from around 30% to 40% (that is, wasted food as a percentage of total food produced, distributed, and consumed).

One reason for the rising level of food waste is that traditional big buyers-such as chain restaurants-suddenly stopped farmers' orders. As a result, EU farmers have been trying to find alternative distribution channels for their surplus food and have to throw away their agricultural products. In the United States, farmers have to watch their fresh produce rot in the fields, while French dairy farmers have to deal with large amounts of surplus cheese. The system is like this, otherwise the large amount of food that could have been sold to consumers is rotting, but people are still starving. This is a huge paradox, indicating that serious turbulence is needed in food logistics. People are forced to question the true meaning of "the fairness of our food system" and the lack of providing consumers with appropriate information about the food supply in our own country.

Enter another era of unsustainable food systems

Seeing that our globalized food system is unsustainable, we need to accelerate the transformation of food. This is nothing new. In the dominant traditional food system, food flows through a long and complex food chain, resulting in an astonishing number of packages. Although global supply chains have experienced brief interruptions due to unsustainable food consumption patterns, food continues to flow in large quantities along these supply chains. It is only now that we are in this crisis that this malfunctioning and lengthy food system has become apparent. The pandemic has added fuel to the fire by disrupting the current food supply chain (including the flow of food)-but these problems are not new.

Dutch case: Eat more fries to save potatoes

As the world's largest potato exporter and one of the major potato producers in the global food chain, quarantine restrictions have dealt a major blow to the Dutch potato industry. With the closure of hotels and restaurants around the world, Dutch potato farmers are facing the problem of not being able to sell their products. With the sharp decline in the value of potatoes and supermarkets prioritizing contracts with foreign potato suppliers over domestic products, potatoes are trapped in farms across the country. In particular, due to declining demand, a large amount of potatoes that are usually processed into French fries lack destinations. Processors that mainly supply these potatoes to food service buyers do not have the infrastructure to quickly switch to retail.

This led to a national campaign to promote the consumption of surplus potatoes with the motto "Save potato farmers and eat more fries".

Well, the government is taking action to increase public awareness of this country’s issues, which is really great. However, eating more fries every week will not work. More importantly, it puts the responsibility for the wider food waste problem in society to consumers. This is a worrying issue and requires more than just temporary publicity activities.

This case shows us the fragility of the food supply chain and the urgent need for structural changes in our agricultural landscape design methods. It shows the current gap between primary producers and final consumers that the F2F strategy needs to address.

Uncertainty and "food insecurity"

We urgently need to rethink our food supply chain, and the F2F strategy is the perfect stage to explore the possibility of supporting short-distance distribution routes.However, whether short food chains and local agricultural products can really feed the world is another area of ​​controversy. In addition, the fundamental transformation of the food system into a short food chain may lead to food insecurity in poor countries. Especially in the African continent, many countries are highly dependent on imported food, and a shorter food chain will also deprive them of their ability to produce and export. However, we have seen that in crisis situations, the long and complex food chain becomes increasingly unstable. The uncertainty of the COVID-19 era is high, which also means that the future of our food supply is full of unknowns. The recent changes in the EU food market's highly dependent staple food export policy have exacerbated this feeling of "food insecurity". One example is Cambodia and Vietnam banning the export of rice to feed the local population.

The fear of long food supply chains may be another turning point in food behavior changes and consumer awareness.

The effect of social innovation on short supply chains

In order to avoid food shortages, direct selling platforms from producers to consumers are gaining momentum. The group purchasing structure of agricultural products is operating at full capacity and is overwhelmed by demand. Another example of this increase in demand in the Netherlands is Rechtstreex, an innovative social food company that can buy groceries online from local farmers, growers and producers within 50 kilometers of the city of Rotterdam.

Social entrepreneurship programs such as this show that under the pressure of the crisis, the use of short supply chains and online delivery methods perform well. The growth of local food demand and the further development of alternative distribution channels prove the potential for new local business models to expand. These short food chain projects have also added important social benefits to our society. They connect consumers with local agricultural products and create more social cohesion (which is essential to keep us strong in times of crisis). In addition, the number of middlemen is reduced through direct sales from producers to consumers, which makes it easier to set up reusable packaging or logistics without packaging systems. What a win-win situation!


Is this a turning point in the fundamental changes in our global food system? Will this new model of food convenience and local food safety continue, or is it just a temporary consumption trend? What role will short food chains play in food security during and after COVID-19? More importantly, what is preventing the EU governments from taking direct action to support smallholder farmers, prioritizing local food, and avoiding food waste in key steps?

Many questions remain unanswered, but one thing is certain: As part of the “farm to table” strategy, knowledge of the COVID-19 pandemic should be reflected in the way we shape our food systems in the future.

This crisis provides an opportunity to start improving our food system: a system driven by fairness, stability and increased self-sufficiency.

This is a wake-up call for all EU governments-the way we produce and consume food has run out of control. Now is the time to make important changes for the long-term transformation of our food system, to get rid of the dominant business-as-usual food system that is not functioning properly. Let us choose a joint transformation path that supports the development of short food chains and begin to design a food system that can respond more quickly to future shocks and climate change

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