A fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system in Europe. That is the aim of the European Union's Farm to Fork Strategy. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated once again how important it is to have a sustainable and robust food system.
Short chains and regional quality products are important concepts in that European food policy, based on the idea that they can contribute to a sustainable and robust food system with farmers receiving a fair price for high-quality food produced with respect for nature and the environment.
But how economically and ecologically sustainable are these regional and traditional products and short chains actually? Do the European quality logos on the regional French cheeses, the Italian ham, the Spanish salami and the Dutch 'Opperdoezer Ronde' potato really contribute to a sustainable and robust food system, and to what extent do these quality systems provide an economic advantage for food producers? And what can policymakers, governments and partners do to increase the economic, ecological and social sustainability of short chains and regional products? These are the questions that the large five-year European Strength2Food project should answer.
In the project, 13 knowledge institutions from Europe, Thailand and Vietnam work together with 12 social partners. In Italy, for example, there is collaboration with Coldiretti, an organisation representing farmers' interests, and a large food company, Barilla. In Croatia, an important supermarket chain (Konzum) is a partner in the project.
'In the project we combined quantitative analyses of the economic aspects with case studies of products, for example of the Opperdoezer Ronde in the Netherlands,' says Liesbeth Dries, who is working on Strength2Food from AEP. 'The combination of quantitative research with case studies and of academic partners with stakeholders is the most important strength of this project, because it provides a broad and diverse picture.'
'On the one hand, we have outlined the broader general picture of the economic and ecological impact of short chains and the European quality systems for regional products. On the other hand, the researchers within the project worked with stakeholders on concrete practical cases. For example, instruments have been developed with which schools can easily determine the nutritional value, costs and CO2 emissions of school lunches. This helps them to offer healthy and sustainable school lunches with regional food.'
'There was also, for example, an initiative in Newcastle where the university set up cooking classes and Fish Supper Clubs together with a progressive restaurant, Harissa Kitchen Seafood. In addition to the direct economic, social and environmental benefits for the local economy and fishing community, these initiatives also provide important lessons for situations, regions and markets elsewhere in Europe. As far as I'm concerned, this evolution towards research carried out in conjunction with partners is a very important development,' says Dries.
Strengthen rural development
She herself was involved in the quantitative analyses into economic aspects. This did not lead to an unambiguous picture. 'European protected regional products yield a higher price for the producer, but there are often also higher costs, for example because more labour is needed'. The same can be said of short chains in which producers can obtain a higher margin that would be absorbed elsewhere in the chain, but this is also associated with higher costs because, in addition to production, other tasks such as marketing and transport are also involved. The sustainability picture also did not prove to be unambiguously favourable for both regional products and short chains.
The Strength2Food project was followed with great interest by the European Commission. 'The results are of great importance for the new European agricultural and food strategy', says Dries. 'It helps to make even better use of quality logos within Europe to strengthen rural development, especially in disadvantaged areas'. According to her, Strength2Food also helps to identify scaling up strategies and new growth markets for quality food products.