Wednesday

14th Apr 2021

Food chain complexities raise questions about the way Europeans eat

  • Growing middle classes in China, India, Brazil and Russia mean there are more people with more money to spend on food. (Photo: EUobserver)

The relationship between Europeans and their food is growing in complexity, governed by cultural, social and economic factors and influenced ever more by unpredictable weather patterns and the rising middle class in Asian countries.

Just ten years ago, food price stability was not an issue, the effects of climate change on food supply was similarly not recognised while obesity was only just beginning to impinge on society's consciousness.

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  • Within Europe, the big food-related problem is obesity but policy-makers have only been slow to take it seriously. (Photo: EUobserver)

"It is a rule of life that only when we have realities sharply coming up, is it a reality for us also in our minds," says, Dr Christian Patermann, director of food research at the European Commission.

Now policy-makers are beginning to ask whether Europeans can continue to put the food that they have become accustomed to on the table.

"Will we be able to consume and eat what we want in Europe? That is a key question," says Patermann, who was participating Friday (9 September) in Poland in a conference on food in the 21st century.

Today Europeans are used to eating what they want, when they want. Local seasonal availability is no longer a factor as global trade streams ensure a product is on the supermarkets shelves all year round. And swathes of mass-produced products are available relatively cheaply.

Additionally, Europeans, coming from a rich industrialised region, have been accustomed to eating as though their consumption does not have effects elsewhere, as though their consumption takes place in a food vacuum.

But now there is increasing competition from other regions for the same sources of food. Growing middle classes in China, India, Brazil and Russia mean there are more people with more money to spend on food. Including for energy-intensive land-gobbling produce such as meat.

"Their emerging middle classes dramatically increase the demand for food, fibre fuels and feed, whether we like it or not," says Patermann.

In addition to the increased demand for food made on "the decreasing or stagnating offer of arable land", there is the question of the effects of climate change on supplies.

Professor Mieke Uyttendaele from Belgium’s Ghent University says that one of the projects she works on is "one of the first to connect food scientists with climate change people."

Extreme weather patterns, such as flooding or drought, thought to be caused by climate change, wreak havoc on food supply chains and send prices rocketing.

Between 2007 and 2008, the combination of bad harvests and the effects of using land to grow biofuels saw wheat prices jump 120 percent driving people from Egypt to Bangladesh and Haiti to the streets in protest. Closer to home, record drought and wildfires last year in Russia led it to ban grain exports, leading to soaring prices.

When it goes wrong

European consumers are part of the fully-fledged and complex global food chain. When it works, it is easy to forget what it means to have produce from far-away places available to buy so shortly after it was harvested.

When it goes wrong, its labyrinth complexity is exposed. And it went wrong this summer when there was a an outbreak of the deadly bacteria E.coli in Germany.

Beans and seeds coming from Egypt were eventually pinpointed as the source of the outbreak which left 50 dead and thousands more ill.

As the German authorities desperately struggled to locate the problem, people began to ask themselves why it was proving so difficult.

"Food markets have consolidated into the hands of a few large corporations that deal in tremendous volume," Wenonah Haute, from Food and Water Watch Europe said at the time.

Larger volumes and longer supply chains, in turn, make trace-back more difficult and put a larger number of consumers at risk if there is an incident of microbial contamination somewhere in the system.

Obesity

While global market factors have a role in whether we can get the food we want and the price we pay for it, our lifestyles and the vast processed-food industry have had a more insidious effect on our health.

Within Europe, the big food-related problem is obesity but policy-makers have only been slow to take it seriously.

Over half of adults living in the EU are now overweight or obese, while the same can be said of one in seven children, according to recent figures by the European Commission and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

"When you consider that some politicians are overweight themselves and the fact of the financial crisis, [obesity] is simply not on their radar, says Professor Mike Gibney of University College Dublin.

This phenomenon, beginning to put a huge strain on health systems due to secondary complications such as diabetes, is thought to be a factor of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles coupled with greater consumption of high-calorie but 'empty' foods.

According to Professor Erik Millstone from Sussex University, "food and agricultural systems should be reoriented to provide incentives to industry to produce quite differently."

He points out that the nature of risk assessment has to change, noting, for example, that the risk of consuming food additives has traditionally been assessed in terms of toxicology. But food additives can actually also mean an increase in fat and sugar intakes.

Millstone says a system should be set up whereby the food industry has a stake in well-being of its consumers.

"What about risk. What do we accept? As low as reasonably possible?", says Uyttendaele. "It is determined by cultural factors, by previous events, by location, your context, your willingness to pay."

Uyttendaele was referring to the risks associated with the global food chain and importation of food.

But it is a question that policy-maker are slowly realizing refers to all aspects of what we Europeans consider to be good food and diet.

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European Food

Europeans’ relationship with food is getting increasingly complicated. Other regions in the world are competing for the same produce, extreme weather is affecting harvests and driving up food prices. Experts question whether we can blithely continue to consume as we currently do. But changing food habits – a product of cultural, sociological, economic and ideological factors – is likely to be tough. EUobserver analyses the latest food trends in its September Focus section.

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