THERE is justified concern over the growing reliance on food banks in the UK and across the European Union. We should consider it as a symptom of a broken food system which requires a complete overhaul. Not only do we need a food policy in the UK but also across the EU, where often prosperous farmers will get £322bn over the next seven years, while the most deprived get a meagre £3bn.
Today, nine million EU citizens depend completely on food hand-outs from Brussels, mostly in countries with poor welfare systems. In the UK, it is a tribute to our society that, in large part, churches and charities such as the Trussell Trust are shouldering the responsibility.
However, a recent survey for the BBC Panorama programme Hungry Britain found that 140 local authorities are now subsidising food banks.
At the Liberal Democrat spring conference in York last weekend, a policy motion was passed calling for a review into the causes of the present situation, including an examination of the effect of benefit cuts. Many involved in food banks – such as the one in a Methodist hall in Sheffield I visited recently – report that delays and suspensions of benefit payments have caused a significant increase in those relying on food banks.
The Lib Dem motion accepts the need for reform of our welfare system, the importance of encouraging the long-term unemployed back to work, and that the case for reducing welfare dependency among long-term recipients of benefits is strong.
However, the motion adopted almost unanimously at York goes on to highlight the effect of tightening welfare payments, of delays in payment of benefits and the increasing use of sanctions, combined with rising food and energy prices. These all impact on the most vulnerable members of society and undermine the principle of the welfare “safety net”.
A little time ago, the vicar of one of our towns said: “My parishioners are so poor that they cannot afford to eat well, and so they eat cheaply and badly.” He was referring to the obesity, diabetes and early death which results from a poor diet of fats and processed meat.
Not for nothing did Jamie Oliver base his first Ministry of Food training centre in Rotherham, where cheap and healthy eating is now taught to the most needy.
The priority of the European Union should be to protect the right of its citizens to nutritious and affordable food. Because of the problem of livestock competing with humans for food, there is an increasing emphasis on the need to reduce meat consumption in the EU, as well as promoting a fairer balance between farmers and the consumer.
Such a policy must address all of the important aspects of sustainable food practices, including the fair pricing and value of food; the protection of biodiversity and natural resources such as water and soil; food distribution; packaging and food waste as well as economic aspects, such as the development of local economies and small-scale production.
There are also important cultural issues, such as the protection of traditional knowledge and species.
Next month the European Commission will publish a Green Paper on sustainable food, which will shape policy in the coming legislature. There are concerns that this will focus mainly on food waste, which although a significant problem in the EU should not be used as an excuse not to tackle the main barriers to a truly sustainable food system.
In advance of the publication of the Commission’s paper, I have organised a major conference in Brussels looking into food policy. The main speaker will be Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s food rapporteur, who champions its ten-year campaign that stresses a universal right to food. As vice-president of the European Parliament responsible for human rights, I believe that the UN’s message is a timely one. The current levels of food poverty and malnutrition in Europe are unacceptable. According to the Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Yves Daccord, food aid in Europe is on a scale not seen since the Second World War.
Food banks are not a long-term solution to this food crisis. Now is a time for forward thinking and a European food policy which benefits the consumer above all and ensures that all EU citizens have access to healthy and affordable food.
Edward McMillan-Scott is a Liberal Democrat MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber and Vice President of the European Parliament for Human Rights and Democracy.