Food distribution in the EU
A long-established programme to support people in need through the distribution of food is being threatened - precisely at a time of crisis
In 1987 a programme was settled in what was then the European Economic Community, in order to supply food for people in extreme need in the Member States. This programme was designed to use in a socially responsible way the "intervention stocks", that is the storage system developed by the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) to take care of the surplus of agriculture outputs at a guaranteed price. As one of the main objectives of the CAP is to ensure that supplies will reach consumers at reasonable prices the CAP has developed a quite efficient system, through national agencies, to offer in the markets certain key products at guaranteed prices. The guaranteed price was a strong incentive for the farmers to produce high quantities of food that would assure supplies for the European population, while granting them a stable income and avoiding the enormous fluctuations of the food markets.
On the other hand, stocks of foodstuffs offered governments a tool to intervene at moments of scarcity, pushing down prices as they could bring more products onto the market. In fact these operations almost died because of their own success, as the guaranteed price encouraged production in such a way that surpluses became the norm. Instead of being an efficient indicator of the need to adapt production, price became an incentive always to increase production. In those days the image of ‘butter mountains’ became the ruling metaphor for the defects of the storage system.
Then there emerged the idea of using these food stocks to help poor people in our countries. The programme born in 1987 has lasted successfully for more than twenty years: more than 13 million people benefitted from the scheme in 2006. In particular, the need for food distribution grew after the successive enlargements of the European Union. The distribution has been carried on by NGOs and private organisations, among others the Red Cross or the Banques Alimentaires. The main beneficiaries have been care centres for elderly people, the homeless and hospitals. At a certain moment, and in order to provide a more complete diet – as the range of foods stored was originally very limited - the programme began to buy up new products.
In 2008 the sudden crisis that sent food prices rocketing all over the world, and that affected also the most deprived groups in European countries, highlighted this programme as an invaluable source of concrete and speedy support to families trapped in an economic crisis worsened by the higher price of food. The European Commission presented a legislative proposal in 2008, when a blocking minority stopped the proposal in the Council; again in 2010, the Commission submitted an amended proposal to the Council and to the European Parliament with the aim of aligning the programme with the Lisbon Treaty, introducing two substantive changes: a higher EU co-financing rate and a €500 million ceiling for the EU’s financial contribution. Once again, a minority blocked the initiative.
On December 2008, Germany brought an action against the Commission before the Court of First Instance seeking the partial annulment of provisions of the Commission Regulation on the 2009 programme. The Court annulled provisions related to the purchase of food in the market making the whole programme unfeasible. The main argument from Germany, supported by Sweden, is that the programme had gone beyond the original aim. From being designed to dispose humanely of excess food stocks it has become a full-fledged welfare system. The critics propose to return this welfare system to the national social services.
Both the Commission and the Presidency of the Council strongly encourage this programme. However it was blocked again in September 2011; but finally an agreement has been reached between the Council and the Commission adding a second legal base on social cohesion to go with the existing agricultural legal base. At a time of harsh economic crisis, it does not seem wise to return this burden to countries with weak social services. As vulnerable Member States are making sharp cuts in public expenditure, life will inevitably be even more difficult for poor families. Although blocking the programme has an administrative logic, the political will is that the budget of the European Union continues to support these programmes.
José Ignacio García SJ
Jesuit European Office