Reports show that European Union exports of agri-food products are up in the last year; in the year 2020 the EU was positioned as among the world's biggest exporters of agri-food products. Europe is known for fine food exports such as pasta from Italy, wine and beef from France, and confectionaries from Germany. These products, however, are not produced from raw agricultural materials solely coming from within the EU, in fact, the EU has become the third largest food importer after the US and China, according to Eurostat, upwards of 40% of EU agricultural imports are raw vegetable products.
What does this mean? The EU imports significantly more raw food products than it exports, whereas EU food exports are mainly processed and targeted at wealthier consumers. While the EU is considered a leading exporter of agri-food products, this, in reality, gives no indication that the EU is accomplishing internal food security.
The World Wildlife Foundation calls this pattern of exporting high-end products while importing a significant portion of raw food products, highly unsustainable. The food that the EU exports is for luxury, while the countries inside the EU, with few exceptions, are wondering how to do agricultural production to meet the needs of their citizens. The Netherlands, for instance, is an exception because of its emphasis on agricultural technologies, green farming, and its ideal geographical location, both because of its ports as well as the gradual warming of this northern location.
In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the EU will have to seriously reconsider what it means to have a sustainable food system. Prior to the war, Ukraine was a major exporter of barley, soybeans, oil, sunflower, wheat, and maize, and in some estimates, was capable of feeding 400 million people. Famous products from Europe, such as pastas, breads, confectionaires, and spaetzle, are produced from wheat imports, Ukraine being a major importer country to the EU. This goes to show that while the EU is well known for its food exports, much of the raw materials that are imported could suddenly be in jeopardy and therefore send the agri-food economy into sudden crisis.
While the EU assesses how to bring equilibrium to their food systems, there are propositions to convert grazing and forest lands into agricultural lands in order to increase food production. However, given this approach to scaling up food production, the EU may well contribute to deforestation, draw on more natural resources, and may toxify water and land with chemical-assisted agriculture.
The EU food solution will likely not revolve around increasing food production but will require fundamentally shifting consumption and waste patterns. The World Wildlife Fund cites that the average EU citizen wastes upwards of 173 kg of food per person per year. Additionally, 15% of food is lost or wasted immediately following harvest. While the EU seems self-sufficient in terms of the agricultural economy, a simple investigation reveals that self-sufficiency has much more to do with the day-to-day use of materials than it does with a calculation of export sales.
This problem of consumption and waste is not something to pass by, it will require a restructuring of industrial and consumer habits. Usually, only in the instance of hardship is a country or an individual able to transform their consumption patterns. For instance, individuals around the world will delay turning on their heat in the wake of the war in Ukraine and its effect on fuel prices. The fact of higher fuel prices demands that people share more and waste less.
In the wake of rising fertilizer and transportation costs, as well as food supply shortages, both industries and consumers will be compelled to change their patterns of consumption and waste over time. On an industrial level, food producers will need to reevaluate where the raw products are coming from, and how to use and preserve more food; on a household level, individuals will be required to waste less, given the increasing cost of food.
It is becoming more common that only the rich have access to fresh food in the absence of any real solution. This statement is underlined by the fact that fertilizer is becoming an expensive commodity for farmers, especially without government subsidies. Added to the normal cost of producing food, imported fertilizer will drive up the cost of food, making it a reality that only the rich will have access to fresh food.
At this point, the EU has not reached a level of food crisis, but even in a country like France 10% of its citizens rely on food banks, a higher portion than in the US. The burgeoning European food crisis is at the pivot point between wants and needs. For now, business as usual may continue to cover up the fact that sustainability is a long way away. As the world enters a state of apparent climate change, the values that rule the economic world will eventually forgo the wants of people in order to address the basic universal need to access food.