How can our food systems become sustainable? Farmers and civil society actors are developing creative approaches especially at the local level – and want to scale them to impact the European Union policy level.
At first glance, the answer to the problem looks like an oversized rake. A young woman is standing in the metal doorway of a greenhouse holding a tool with wide metal prongs set in a narrow wooden frame. She explains that this “Grelinette” can be used to loosen the soil in an ecologically sustainable way and ensure that insects are not driven out of the soil layers. The young woman is part of the community-supported gardening project "PeterSilie", which grows vegetables on the site of a former market garden near Marburg and now supplies around 100 households in the surrounding area. Today, she is presenting this approach to a group of people who have one thing in common: They are striving to make food systems more sustainable – locally and internationally.
"In France, there is a website where you can download the instructions to build a Grelinette for free," says Ann-Marie Weber, one of the organizers of this meeting, in front of the greenhouse. The participants from France nod in agreement. "This is very inspiring," says one woman. Ann-Marie Weber is pleased. The aim of this meeting is to create synergies in order to promote sustainable food systems and establish networks.
What can a sustainable, fair food system look like? All over Europe, people are addressing this question and coming together to form community farms, food councils or food co-operatives. However, such local solutions can also work elsewhere - if the actors network accordingly. We are supporting three partners who have set themselves the task of networking and disseminating these solutions.
Ann-Marie Weber has been working to support sustainable change in her region since 2005. While climate change, land policy and the like are increasingly challenging our food systems and requiring sustainable solutions. key questions are becoming clear: How can people who engage in this area shape local food systems? How can they become visible as political actors? And where do they need to start working together to make a real impact?
Through transformational education on food and agriculture, Ann-Marie Weber and the local collective “Kollektiv von Morgen” want to promote sustainable initiatives and raise people’s awareness for the topic. But this task is not always easy: "There is a lack of social appreciation of food both in educational work and in production. There is an increasing polarization when it comes to food production and consumption and there is a lot of black and white thinking. It's a rather hostile climate for dialogue," she explains. Nevertheless, for her, exchange is the key lever for sustainable change: Weber wants to create spaces where people can come together and learn from each other. "This also includes enduring contradictory opinions. For example, I would also very much like to work with conservatives in the region and foster measures to build trust," she says.
This works most effectively through bringing people together directly. Many farmers are already developing creative solutions to current challenges, especially at the local level, and can thus become active drivers of transformation – for example in terms of financing models. Ways to successfully facilitate access to land can be seen directly on site. While the coommunity-supported garden project bought a former market garden as an association with the help of direct loans and now manages it as community property, the Seelbach goat cheese dairy takes a different approach. Claudia Smolka takes her herd of goats to graze on a nearby nature reserve, helping maintain the area in a natural way and restore its biodiversity. With her herd, she moves through mossy valleys between steep slopes – ideal for goats that like to climb. Smolka receives financial compensation for this initiative directly from the responsible municipality – a comparatively direct source of funding for the farmer. Ann-Marie Weber also sees the advantages of such ideas. "If you work locally or regionally, you can get the ball rolling faster than at a national or European level," she says.
Matteo Metta, who works for the organization "ARC2020," believes that such approaches need to gain visibility on the political stage before they can unfold their political power on a larger scale. "At the moment, the biggest fish are eating the small ones," he says. "But only because the small approaches are often decentralized and not interconnected."
"We want to develop the food systems of the future and rely on approaches that already exist on the local level."
This imbalance is particularly important in view of current developments in Brussels. Until recently, a milestone for sustainable food systems in Europe was on the horizon as part of the EU's Green Deal: The European Commission's Sustainable Food Systems Law. The law was intended to create a coherent framework on food systems for the first time. "This would have given us the necessary framework for sustainable agriculture – currently, European agricultural policy hardly gives small and medium-sized farms a voice," explains Matteo Metta. But now this project seems to have disappeared from the Commission's agenda without comment – with the upcoming EU elections in 2024, the entire preparatory work for the development of the law could be overturned. What happens next is a mystery to many – for organizations like ARC2020, this apparent U-turn is a disappointment. "For us, these are contradictions," says Metta. "On the one hand, a law like this, which is really crucial for rural regions, is being postponed without comment. On the other, the EU is implementing laws, for example on 'genetically modified food', exceptionally quickly." Against this backdrop in particular, he believes it is important to offer local initiatives a platform and remain active: "You often get the feeling that Brussels is making policy and setting the direction. But a lot is happening on the ground, and we need to build on this."
Together with the participants at the gathering, Ann-Marie Weber and "Kollektiv von Morgen" have formulated an action plan that lays out pathways towards more sustainable food systems in the Marburg region. The aim is to establish Marburg as a pilot region that will serve as a model for local and regional initiatives throughout Europe. Perhaps this commitment will even reach as far as Brussels.