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How resilient is Luxembourg’s food system?

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Published on Tuesday, 05 May 2020

Moments of crisis like the current one sparked by Covid-19, engage social, economic, cultural and political institutions of a society and stress-test their resilience. In such times of upheaval, individual and collective food supplies become primary concerns.

In recent weeks, we witnessed momentary shortages in Luxembourgish supermarkets, closure of retail food stores for small producers such as markets, groceries or on-farm shops and a surge in online shopping.

This shows how artificial the sheer abundance of food we consider ‘normal’ is, relying on complex, international logistics and long food supply chains with many intermediaries. It also comes at the price of extension of seasonality by imports from afar, and a preference for monoculture over indigenous crops. This abundance concentrates Europe’s intensive horticulture in Mediterranean countries, contributing to impoverished soils, extensive watering and the precarity of seasonal labour.

How resilient is Luxembourg’s food system when international supply chains are disrupted? Which vulnerabilities transpire, even in the wealthiest of Western European food-secure countries? The rapidity with which borders closed, even inside the Schengen space, draws focus to national performances and the question of food sovereignty.

Food Sovereignty: Where does Luxembourg stand?

Food sovereignty is characterised by the largest possible diversity of produced food and by the highest degree of autonomy possible from international imports and transportation through local options. Luxembourg is predominantly a grassland region, lending itself to cattle grazing – only ruminants can make grass ‘edible’ to humans –, even though a remarkable diversity and density of mainly vegetable production is possible on comparably small surfaces, but requires higher manpower and watering infrastructure. Still, agroforestry (combined crops, trees, pasture and domesticated animals) is rare. In terms of food self-supply ratio, Luxembourg produces 114% of its beef needs, 99% of milk, 67% of pork, but only 35% of eggs, 3-5 % of vegetables, 1.4 % of chicken and < 1% of fruit. In the transformation sector, the vast majority of goods are imported. Though this is changing, it falls short of national demand.

© BY-ND Caroline Schuler, 04.2020

In food sovereignty processes, social movements, civil society initiatives and coalitions of the willing among larger food actors play a key role in advocating ecological, ethical and qualitative production methods. Yet, inventories and collective harvesting or foraging are rare. Zero waste movements, public fridges with restaurant surpluses, community gardens in urban settings etc. are not yet common. There are increasing partnerships with wholesalers, public out-of-home-catering and commercial restaurants as well as retailers to buy local produce with ethical and ecological added value. Private households access such produce in their local supermarkets, local markets, farm outlets, or via weekly food subscriptions or yearly memberships in community-supported agriculture groups. There is also growing interest in heritage seeds, especially in horticulture. These initiatives show Luxembourg’s potential for greater food sovereignty.

As a small country, Luxembourg would be suitable for shorter supply chains and could adapt to changing circumstances, but only if the food supply is steady and diverse. On one hand, small producers experience fluctuation and cannot consistently guarantee supply to corporate clients. But cooperative-run platforms or food hubs grouping a number of small producers could function as a one-stop-shop for wholesalers. On the other hand, larger companies in Luxembourg offer commercial partnerships to producers who agree to invest in missing products or production lines. These initiatives would benefit from a market stretching across the Greater Region and beyond. This would have to go beyond nationalistic and protectionist understandings of regionality. Current research shows that apart from fish, chicken and tomatoes, all reviewed product categories (in descending order: milk, wheat, potatoes, beef, onions, carrots, pork, apples, eggs, green beans, peas, salads, courgettes, pears, cucumber, strawberries) are already being produced in sufficient quantity to meet and surpass the Greater Region’s out-of-home-catering sector’s needs for self-sufficiency. Yet, only a minority of these products are currently served in local canteens – indicating that food sovereignty is mostly a logistic and political issue of supply chain management, market orientation, price policies and national legislative regulations.

Need for change on many levels

Experts point to the need for an agricultural model based on diversified agroecological systems, reducing external input, optimising biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility and secure livelihoods. However, Luxembourg lacks the manpower needed for such a system, particularly since farmers leading main businesses work 60 hours per week on average. In a transition to more resource-friendly and diversified production systems, a greater workforce and knowledge-pooling is key. If there were more market incentives and political warranties for farmers, such undertakings would be less risky.

As high-quality, ethical and sustainable local food is made available and becomes the norm, consumers will develop more sensitivity for local contingencies, ethical and high-quality, organic food, seasonality, etc. This virtuous loop could be enhanced through mandatory Education for Sustainable Development programmes teaching historical and current food imperialism in the Global North. A more socially and environmentally just and resilient food system means that consumption could be reduced to an appropriate proportion. Ethical, sustainable, responsible, healthy food production and consumption choices are not an imposed austerity constraint, but a conscious pleasure of ‘clean’ and tasty food.

State-run labels that certify various types of quality can enhance food literacy and more sustainable purchases in private households or procurement behaviour among public buyers, but only if they are transparent about added value, and backed by laws that make such criteria mandatory. Stringent and encompassing governmental action could act as a lever in transitions to more resilient and sustainable food systems. Democratic and accountable governments promote a self-motivated and well-informed population, which internalises these facts and thus tends to act more responsibly.

Food Policies: A Way to Facilitate a Sustainable Food System?

Conditions are then ideal for a deliberate shift towards effective multi-level governance of food systems. Social movements, entrepreneurs and civil society can innovate and bloom. As success grows, emerging local food initiatives can move in from the margins and engage with formal legislative processes at national and EU level. A Common Food Policy would prioritise experimentation in its diverse forms through complementary actions and coherent food policies at EU, national, and local levels. Food Policy Councils are recognised innovative and efficient tools for multi-scale food policy and governance. Luxembourg is currently founding the first Food Policy Council on national level.

The multi-stakeholder platform will allow independent cooperation among equal partners from the three sectors of Luxembourg’s food system: Policy and administration; Research and civil society; Production, transformation, gastronomy and trade. This cooperation aims at shaping Luxembourg’s food system in a more sustainable way.

Such a system is socially just, ecologically regenerative, economically localised, engaging a wide range of actors. It provides high-quality, ethical and sustainable food security for its entire population, by shortening supply chains in a (trans)regionalised and cooperative way. Its relative food sovereignty is based increasingly on local diversification, innovation, and collective learning processes.

Practices of diversified agroecological farming are most adapted for resourceful food and farming systems with low vulnerabilities, as are cooperative food hubs, initiatives for direct marketing among producers and individual consumers, but also political decisions for public tenders. Of course, Luxembourg alone cannot achieve the considerable societal challenges involved in shifting its food system, embedded in EU and global intricacies. But because of its small size and its unique multi-cultural population, it can provide a favourable site for experimentation with sustainable innovations at local or transregional levels. Luxembourg can build a multi-stakeholder-lead effective food policy and use its political and economic international weight to push best practices forward.

First published in the Luxemburger Wort on 25 March 2020.

by Rachel Reckinger, Department of Humanities.

More information on her project: food.uni.lu