Europe is demanding a food chain that is safe, sustainable and ethical, but that doesn't mean we all have to become subsistence farmers or organic freaks. There is a middle way. Julian Hunt reports When Europe's farm ministers sit down for dinner in Östersund in Sweden tomorrow night, they will have plenty on their plate. But it will not be the most appetising menu. On offer will be such delicacies as CAP reform, foot and mouth, BSE, and consumer concerns about the integrity of the EU's food supply chain. Enough to cause indigestion even among those with the strongest constitutions. The politicians have been invited to the pretty lakeside town by Sweden's no-nonsense agriculture minister Margareta Winberg for an informal, three-day meeting arranged as part of her country's presidency of the EU. Such meetings are regular events and are not seen as serious forums for making policy. However, this one comes at a critical time for Europe's food chain. The pressure for change is growing. And that means the ministers will not be allowed simply to enjoy a few days of pleasant chitchat and gastronomie in nice surroundings. In fact, they have already had a taste of what to expect over the next few days. Last month, Winberg hosted a major conference in Uppsala to find some answers to the questions now being asked by worried consumers. Although the conference was disappointingly inconclusive, a report of its proceedings was, nevertheless, sent to every EU farm minister and will be discussed at length in Östersund. Winberg clearly believes there will be plenty to discuss. "Today the word food' gives rise to strong feelings in most people," she says. "On the one hand, we have never enjoyed such plentiful and high quality food. On the other, we have never been more concerned and worried about food. We are not just worried about food in itself, or its quality, but also its production, animal welfare, public health and the environment." She adds: "Every link in the food chain is significant ­ we must take a holistic view in which the goal is safe, sustainable and ethical food production." As the delegates at the Uppsala conference found, however, finding answers is not easy. But is that surprising? Food is a huge political and philosophical minefield ­ which partly explains why most of Europe's politicos have no real stomach for the battles that would be necessary to force real change. They realise this will only come about after a fundamental reform of the Common Agricultural Policy ­ and that is supported only by Winberg, the UK's Nick Brown and a handful of other farm ministers. Critics of CAP say it supports big farmers and the food industry, while marginalising nutrition, food safety, animal welfare, rural employment, environmental protection and Third World development. And they are right ­ up to a point. But although CAP has encouraged the shift towards intensive farming in Europe, not even those attending the Uppsala conference could find evidence that this was entirely to blame for the troubles that have beset the food chain over the past decade or so. Instead, the conference said the real issue was the way in which new farming techniques were introduced without thorough analysis. The EU's drive to create a truly free market in Europe has only compounded the effects of CAP in creating a complex food chain that is far too accident prone. One small example: Winberg points out how the free movement of animals within the EU served to exacerbate the foot and mouth crisis. Here's another worrying thought: Dr Robert Tauxe, of the Centre of Disease Control in the US, says new foodborne pathogens are being discovered at a rate of at least one every two years. Why? Well it is largely to do with the fact it is impossible to predict the effect of actions taken along the food chain (as BSE demonstrated). And Tauxe has a general theory: "Intensive agriculture bears some resemblance to the human condition earlier in the industrial revolution. In the 19th century, human populations crowded into the cities were afflicted with a variety of new epidemic diseases." The solution in Victorian England was better sewage controls; the solution in modern agriculture has been a stronger focus on improving the safety of the feed and water given to farm animals, to ensure supplies are protected from sewage and other microbial contaminants. Better animal husbandry and tight welfare controls are at the heart of Sweden's less intensive approach to farming. It's not perfect ­ the way pesticides are used is still a hot topic. But the Swedish model is widely applauded around the world and is seen as a template for how regulators and farmers elsewhere could adopt a more sustainable approach to agriculture. What's intriguing about the Swedish model is that consumers understand why they are have ended up paying higher prices for home grown products ­ and choose them over cheaper imports. That point was rammed home in a shabby store in Uppsala, where a group of us were discussing the price conundrum. Suddenly a middle aged shopper stopped and, in English, said: "We are happy to pay higher prices because we know we are paying for better animal welfare and that's why we don't have the same problems as you." Åke Natt och Dag, corporate, consumer and environmental affairs director at KF (Sweden's Co-op), offers one possible explanation: "A recent study from the Nordic Council of Ministers found that Swedes were more worried than anybody else about the contents of the food they ate ­ 88% were worried to differing degrees." Anecdotal evidence aside, the Swedes really do seem to have a better understanding of the issues. In the UK, consumers seem far more fickle. Yes, they are unhappy about the apparent side effects of intensive farming ­ after all, nobody likes to read how chickens are poorly treated, do they? But these same consumers are more than happy to buy food that keeps on getting cheaper ­ and they never question how that is possible. Perhaps the so called "food luvvies" are right. They have long bemoaned the fact Britain is now a nation of townies with no knowledge of, or interest in, farming. Milk comes from cartons; beefburgers from shrinkwrapped trays. Enough said. So long as they think it's safe, the vast majority of shoppers are more interested in low prices than understanding the real nitty gritty of how their food got to the store. But this faith in the inherent safety of the food supply chain is pretty fragile; consumer confidence can quickly turn into fear, and then loathing, when the industry fails to deliver on its promises. The way shoppers reacted to the arrival of GM foods demonstrates how the trust is wafer thin ­ and shows that consumers have real power, when they can be bothered to flex their muscles. Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that consumers are overly worried about food integrity, but says their fears stem from the fact they do not feel in control of what they eat. This, he says, leads to distorted risk assessments. You have more chance of dying when you jump in a car than you have of catching new variant CJD from eating a burger, he argues. But the public is far more concerned about the effects of BSE than the carnage caused by traffic accidents. The professor is one of those who says it's time we all took a reality check. While questions do need to be asked about whether the food chain has gone too far in the endless quest for productivity, it's important not to lose sight of the fact that society continues to benefit from having food produced in a "modern" way. Those who bang on about the good old days forget this was a time when food was not readily available, animals lived under terrible conditions and people tended to die young. "There is great concern about food safety in terms of the elimination of toxins and micro-organisms, at the same time as there is concern about the negative effects of human intervention," says Rozin. "In the US, there is a general bias towards believing that natural' foods are better for health. So far as I know, there is no empirical evidence to support this belief." Rozin is not alone in expressing doubts about the perceived benefits of natural foods. Nobody can seriously believe consumers will somehow be best served by smallholders scratching out a living on a few acres. The Good Life was a TV programme ­ not a template for the real world. And yet in Europe it seems there is an almost remorseless drive to turn all agriculture small scale ­ and organic. As the Swedes have shown, there is plenty of middle ground between organic and the worst excesses of intensive farming. But the big question remains: are consumers prepared to pay more for food? At the Swedish Co-op, Natt och Dag says: "To have really good quality at really low prices is not compatible. What you must aim for is good quality at reasonable prices." Nevertheless, even in Sweden, some farmers grumble they don't get a fair price for their produce ­ and they are worried that growing globalisation of the grocery industry will only make matters worse. Hans Jonsson, head of the Swedish farmers' union, says: "I'm convinced that in 10 years there will be only five companies covering 80% of the volume. Farmers will end up as the tractor drivers for the multinationals who will tell us what to do." Jonsson and his colleagues around Europe face the same dilemma: as prices are driven down, how can farmers find sustainable' ways of being more productive? There's another downside to globalisation: it exposes European farmers to competition from countries that are always going to be cheaper production centres. Take poultry. In the UK, the fresh meat that appears in supermarket chillers is overwhelmingly British. But what about the stuff that's used as pizza toppings or in ready meals? Most of that comes, pre-processed, from countries in Latin America and the Asia Pacific rim. It is a global business. "It used to worry me," says one executive in the poultry business. "But I figure it's a business decision. Why shouldn't we use meat from these countries if it meets the standards demanded by our customers?" He's not alone in thinking like that. One reason governments like our own are so keen on reform of the CAP is because it prevents further liberalisation of global trade. Everybody agrees that a world free of trading restrictions would be a good thing'. Everybody, that is, except Europe's farming community. Farmers now find themselves being squeezed on all fronts. Consumers don't want to pay any more for their food, retailers and processors want cheaper supplies, trade barriers are coming down, subsidies are being eroded, and imports are flooding in. To cope, they are having to become as efficient as possible ­ and if that means shipping animals across the country to get the best price, or rearing them in an intensive way, so be it. Fred Duncan, chairman of integrated meat supplier Grampian Country Food Group, is proud of his company's record: "We can hold our heads up and say that our intensive farming methods can be inspected and will pass every test of animal welfare and food safety issues." He adds: "Intensive farming is becoming more realistic about many of these issues than some of the less intensive farmers. Organic meat is not produced in as healthy a state as ours. It may be ok for vegetables, but as for organic meat, I would not eat it." And yet, intensive operators such as Grampian are constantly vilified. Their crime? Producing decent food at decent prices. At the same time, farmers generally are being told their future lies in exploiting niche markets that are environmentally and ethically sustainable. And if they go organic, even better. Not surprisingly, quite a few have started pointing out that pressure groups and politicians are guilty of operating a set of double standards. If Europe's farmers are having to operate to ever higher standards, who is going to check the overseas producers? Who will guarantee that all the stuff we import is made in a "safe, sustainable and ethical" manner? Who is ensuring the welfare of animals is protected? Will tomorrow's free market system be policed by governments, or by retailers and processors? Grampian's Duncan again: "It is totally irresponsible to let in food that does not meet the same standards we have to meet. Cheap food is not cheap when you consider foot and mouth [which was most probably caused by meat illegally imported from the Far East] will cost us billions." With the spread of foot and mouth, and BSE, Europe's food chain finds itself under more scrutiny than ever. Consumers are getting nervous, farmers are going broke, and retailers and processors are trapped in the middle. The politicians, meanwhile, don't really seem to know what to do. Those attending Sweden's food conference in Uppsala last month argued it was up to governments and their regulatory bodies to take far more responsibility for developing a safer, more sustainable and ethical food system. It remains to be seen whether the EU farm ministers gathering in Östersund tomorrow rise to that challenge. {{COVER FEATURE }}