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Tassos Haniotis: Climate change and food security need to be tackled in tandem


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Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, a resurgence of health expert opinion (welcome, among other reasons, in view of the impact of anti-vaccination attitudes…) contrasts with the debate around food.

True, the response of the global food system to the crisis has so far been in sharp contrast to the price spike and food panic of 2010. In general, with supplies ample, stocks high and prices modestly affected, constraints in trade flows have been limited.

The health crisis did not turn into a food crisis. The EU food system has a lot to be proud of, as its response to the crisis reflects a sophistication, innovative spirit and openness built over many years. Whatever path the recovery from this crisis takes, the experience gained, especially the boost in digital solutions, will be part of it.

Unfortunately, the pandemic seems to have triggered a resurgence of the polarisation in a debate around two global challenges that need to be solved in tandem: climate change and food security.

On one hand, the crisis is used as proof that "food systems are broken" and policies around food are a "catastrophe". This view uses climate change as the opportunity to change things in a direction driven by pre-fixed ideas, regardless of the broader context.

Yet you do not need to be organic to be sustainable, you do not need to be small to be environmentally friendly, you can eat meat and still care about the planet.

Nothing in the real world is as absolute, and the capacity of an apparently "broken" food system to respond to the crisis makes a mockery of such an extreme position.

On the other hand, the crisis is also used as the pretext to turn food security into an anti-globalisation platform.

Solutions which are legitimate in addressing domestic demands (eg, by strengthening the domestic production potential or encouraging innovative local networks) are presented as the magic wand that would solve real and perceived problems of globalisation.

But food security is, above all, a global challenge that "food-sovereign" solutions can only make worse.

The food system has genuine shortcomings, but they are part of a much broader, complex picture.

Even before climate change took centre stage in the EU public debate, it had become clear that, in all basic human needs - food, shelter, clothing, energy, transport - we are rapidly moving from solving economic and social problems at the expense of the environment towards potentially solving economic and environmental problems, yet with often increasing social tensions.

If not all is broken, and not all is local, then what?

In this polarised debate, the same arguments are trotted out even when the situation differs. Arguments repeat numbers out of context, with the aim to scare rather than convince.

This approach will not do. Giving the impression of a 'silver bullet', it fails to address the fundamental problem of polarisation between food security and climate change.

To get both sides of the debate and the wider public on board, we need concrete examples that convincingly address how both challenges can be tackled in synergy at a global level. Both challenges are joint and global; so should be their solution.

Tassos Haniotis is director of Economic Analysis, Directorate General for Agriculture, European Commission

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