August 10, 2022

Old roots, new shoots? Making the European food production system more environmentally and socially sustainable

As the EU reforms its agricultural policy and has published its Farm to Fork Strategy for a healthy and sustainable food system, there is no better time to demand food policies that are also socially sustainable.

The Commission has made its environmental ambitions heard, but very few measures have been announced to protect agricultural workers, often undocumented, who work and live in terrible conditions, and on whom our food production depends heavily.

Recent search shows that the factors leading to the exploitation of food workers are complex and vary from one EU country to another. Slow Food International, in partnership with the Open Society European Policy Institute (OSEPI), Oxfam Italy and the Migration Policy Center of the European University Institute launched a discussion on the policy options available to the EU to tackle this deep-rooted problem.

Photo by meriç tuna on Unsplash

An online conference took place on September 8, 2020 of which a summary of the most insightful points is given below.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP): both a driver of the exploitation of agricultural labor and an important tool for its eradication

Olivier de Schutter (United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights) pointed out that there is a deep connection between the abuses suffered by agricultural workers and the model of agricultural production that we have been promoting since 60 years.

“The CAP budget of 68 billion euros is a very large sum of money, but it cannot be used to give subsidies to employers who abuse Farmers’ Rights. And yet, the money goes to the biggest farms which, by definition, need to recruit the most seasonal workers, often at very low cost.

For Slow Food farmer Stefano Vegetabile, it is clear that the current CAP does not value small-scale agriculture, which focuses on biodiversity, and is totally ill-equipped to support it. On the other hand, the reform of the CAP was perceived by many stakeholders as a real lever for change. Indeed, the CAP’s “cross-compliance” measures mean that a certain budget is allocated where farmers comply with environmental standards. This same system should be extended and also make the receipt of CAP money conditional on social guarantees, a demand strongly supported by S&D MEP Maria Noichl.

Image credit Lukas, from

Who is responsible?

The conference addressed the recurring question of who bears the responsibility to act. Giorgia Cecarelli of Oxfam Italy and co-researcher of the report Do we need a European ethical food label?, found that while food labels and certifications can help improve supply chain traceability and tackle unfair trading practices (UTPs), they are not a magic bullet to tackle exploitation. The responsibility for safeguarding the conditions of agricultural workers cannot rest solely with better-informed citizens.

OSEPI research reveals that one of the root causes of the exploitation of agricultural workers in the EU is linked to the dynamics of the supply chain; Essentially, the pressure exerted by industrial and retail groups on farmers leads to an inequitable distribution of profits and power along supply chains, resulting in squeezing of wages and workers’ rights. Several organizations are therefore advocating for the EU to impose mandatory due diligence to be carried out by companies in order to guarantee environmental and human rights standards in supply chains.

Enforcement and Informality

A significant difficulty in this area is the high vulnerability and insecurity faced by agricultural workers, especially if they are undocumented. As MEP Maria Noichl reminded, this situation is further aggravated by gender inequalities, as a large part of the workforce is made up of women. The informal nature of the employment relationship makes the application of the legislation particularly difficult, partly because of a flagrant lack of means to carry out regular inspections.

EFFAT’s Enrico Somaglia concluded: “Farmworkers showed great dedication to their work at the height of the Covid-19 crisis; it is time for us to ensure their safe working conditions.

Slow Food invests heavily in the fight against the unfair working conditions of agricultural workers. The “narrative label” developed by Slow Food aims to provide holistic and comprehensive information to citizens and enable them to choose ecologically and socially sustainable food. Additionally, Slow Food works with its network of migrants coordinated by Abderrahmane Amajou, to foster cross-cultural collaboration and empower migrants through food.

The Slow Food Italian Youth Network is also fully engaged in the #dietacaporalatofree campaign to raise awareness of mafia infiltration in Italian agriculture. Finally, Slow Food advocates daily for a transformation of our food system, through policy, fieldwork and education.

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