COVID-19 and the European food sector: What's next?

kirjoittanut Dirk Jacobs

Deputy Director General | FoodDrinkEurope Dirk Jacobs

It is reassuring to see that, throughout Europe, supermarket shelves remain stocked. Even if there are occasional reports of logistical hick-ups and hoarding waves, supplies are typically replenished within 24 hours.

Behind this is an essential network of food supply chain operators, fully dedicated to solving logistical and operational puzzles, adapting rapidly and flexibly to changing demand, new requests and channels, and which relies on efficient collaboration by all in the food supply chain.

European food supply systems are showing their teeth like never before, and how!
In recognition of the fact that our food supply chain would not function without its largest ‘assets’: the grocery store employee, the food factory worker, the farmer, the packager, the truck driver and many others (in Europe, at least 40 million of them altogether, if not many more), we at FoodDrinkEurope have put further weight behind our #FoodHeroes campaign.

Like #HealthcareHeroes, #FoodHeroes deserve the greatest respect, appreciation and moral support for the hard work they do. This is duly recognized by Europe’s food and drink industry leaders.

Because workers need to be able to continue working in a safe and protected working environment at all times, FoodDrinkEurope has also teamed up with European Social Partner EFFAT (the trade unions) to provide guidelines to protect the health and safety of our factory workers during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Besides producing food, many workers and companies are showing solidarity and have taken initiatives to support the health sector in the fight against COVID-19, e.g. by switching production to make alcohol gels for hospitals; donating protective (surgical) masks, gloves and sleeves to hospital staff; donating food, meals and medical nutrition; and providing humanitarian and financial support to local and international organizations.

It is an especially proud time to be working for the food sector!
It is important that the health crisis does not turn into a food crisis or an economic crisis. Whereas the food and drink supply chain continues to prove its resilience in supplying sufficient quantities of food, this is not always a straight-forward exercise these days. FoodDrinkEurope and its members are working around the clock to address, solve and avoid labour shortages, border disruptions, trade barriers and food losses.

While much uncertainty and lack of predictability remains, there is an immediate need to help out affected food sectors, e.g. in the form of crisis management measures, private storage schemes, export credits, extraordinary grants, loans and other forms of financial support, and other safety nets.

The overall negative economic effects on parts of the sector are slowly starting to become visible, particularly for those companies that have seen market channels such as HORECA (hotel – restaurant – café) and food service shut, those who have had to drastically reduce production capacity due to workforce shortages, those who lost sales contracts and those whose export markets have completely collapsed.
As much clarity, relief and support, particularly for those affected, will be needed as the global economy is likely to run into a recession.

The importance of open and fair trade for resilient and sustainable food security cannot be stressed enough. As recently acknowledged by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), “millions of people depend on international trade for their food security and livelihoods”.

Without global trade, we in Europe would not have access to commonly consumed food and drinks such as coffee, bananas, chocolate and rice, and we would also likely experience challenges in ensuring adequate supply of quality raw materials such as soy, wheat and cocoa.

Similarly, without trade between the Member States in the EU Single Market, Polish citizens would not be able to enjoy Spanish oranges; Germans would not have access to French camembert. Upholding trade and maintaining free movement of food and drinks in the Single Market is key.

Especially in these times of unprecedented crisis, unjustified protectionism and "gastro-nationalism" ('Buy local') could jeopardize food security and consumers’ diverse access to and choice of food and drinks.
The current crisis has shown the world’s vulnerability, not only regarding population health but also in political, economic, social and environmental terms. Whereas we knew that “business as usual” could not be sustained already before COVID-19, now, it is even more apparent.

We cannot afford to lose sight of the major challenge ahead of us: how to ‘re-boot’ our economies and societies in such a way that it becomes sustainable for all and we reach climate neutrality? There is no doubt that the objectives of the European Green Deal and the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy in delivering on climate neutrality and more sustainable food systems remain relevant, arguably more than ever before.

Valuable lessons can be drawn from the COVID-19 crisis in relation to food security, which needs to be reflected appropriately in these policy flagships. For example, it is an opportunity to appreciate that Europe’s food systems may not be as “broken” as some perceive; that the food sector is indeed an essential and strategic sector for the EU and should be considered as such in policy-making; and that shelf-stable food products have proven to play an important role to play in ensuring food security, safety, nutrition and durability.

‘Post-crisis’, a “green (sustainable) recovery” seems the logical way forward, provided it takes everyone along and leaves nobody behind. Particularly the food SMEs, farmers and HORECA which are struggling to keep their heads above the water need immediate liquidity support to avoid bankruptcy, first of all, and longer-term economic assistance measures will be needed to support the wider economy.

A strong role should be envisaged for ensuring food and nutrition security, during and after recovery, to ensure that vulnerable populations are able to access the safe and affordable quality food Europe is known for.
Equally, the crisis presents a unique opportunity for companies in the food and drink sector to lay the groundwork for a new reality of sustainable production and consumption. Businesses may wish to review their operations thoroughly and hold them critically against the lens of sustainability – economically, socially and environmentally – in a world of changing consumer demand, preferences and perceptions.

The emergence of previously underexploited market channels and segments (e.g. online, direct delivery); and possibilities for innovative business models are there. Making bold business decisions to accelerate the greening transition, investing in societal and digital innovation, forging strong partnerships in the supply chain, applying even more citizen-centric focus throughout company operations are all examples hereof.

Now is a great time to see where we can do things better – boosting our excellence, resilience and sustainability for the years to come. I am convinced we can get stronger out of this!

Dirk Jacobs is Deputy Director General / Director of Consumer Information, Nutrition & Health at FoodDrinkEurope. ETL is a FoodDrinkEurope member.
Text published originally by Dirk Jacobs on April 22nd 2020 in LinkedIn


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