Professor Matthias Kaiser, President, European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics
European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics EurSafe President, Professor Matthias Kaiser, reveals how food security and safety are highly pertinent issues in present-day Europe, and calls on individuals to recognise the socioeconomic and environmental issues surrounding food production, inviting us to become responsible food citizens
To begin, can you provide an overview of the responsibilities and activities of EurSafe? What does your role as President entail?
Founded in 1999, EurSafe is a non-partisan, independent organisation promoting insights into ethical issues surrounding food production and consumption. For this purpose, it gathers a variety of specialists – typically from academia, but not exclusively so – for the exchange of research results, ethical viewpoints and arguments. As President, my responsibility is to oversee that the main chartered goals of EurSafe are sufficiently taken care of in all its activities. I am assisted by a very competent Board in this. Furthermore, my role also includes communication with other sectors of society and the general public on relevant ethical issues about food. Specific attention needs to be given to strategic considerations that adapt our activities to current issues of societal debate.
Who are EurSafe’s main clients and what services do you provide?
Our main clients are individuals who take a professional interest in what we eat and how we produce it, given that value choices are involved all along the value chain. The slogan ‘You are what you eat’ provides a good first approach to the insight that food is an important ingredient in our private, social and cultural identities. While scholars of various disciplines carry out research on this, we also intend to reach other stakeholders with our activities. Obviously, food producers, industry, governmental bodies, NGOs, and retailers are important, but we admit that we have difficulties in reaching them. The service we provide consists of arranging a neutral platform to discuss ethical issues surrounding food, to facilitate the building of relevant networks, and to stimulate further inquiries.
Moreover, could you describe your work to encourage international scientific and public debate on the ethical issues surrounding agriculture and food supply? Is it important to raise public awareness to these issues?
It is indeed of major importance to address the wider public and engage in public awareness activities. Ethics and ethical values are not the sole domain of academic experts, but are a major driving force for democratic developments, which involve all citizens. We also stress that citizens are at the heart of such awareness activities, and should not be restricted to their role as consumers. Yet outreach is a difficult endeavour, and we recognise that EurSafe does not have the resources to maintain larger outreach activities on its own.
How important is the independent status of EurSafe in providing information on ethical topics, such as food safety? Is this something that is particularly sought after by European academics, researchers and the media?
First of all, I would like to stress that food safety is only one of the ethical concerns that matter. Food security – ie. providing adequate and sufficient nutrition for people – is another. People often seem to forget this, since many believe it more relevant for the developing world, while we in the richer countries worry more about safety. However, food is a global concern, and the ethical issues surrounding it cannot be restricted to national realities. This is particularly relevant in the light of climate change which affects food production worldwide. EurSafe can only fulfil its task if it strictly endorses its independent nature. This is crucial for public trust and credibility.
The EU’s opposition to genetically modified (GM) food has been described as an ‘arrogant hypocrisy’ by Dr Felix M’mboyi of the Kenya-based African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum. What is EurSafe’s position on the widespread implementation of GM agriculture in Europe? Can this be done in a safe manner?
EurSafe does not have a unified position on GM food or agriculture – not for Europe and not globally. In fact, there are good ethical reasons for both the pros and the cons of GM technology in food production, though each of us may weigh them differently. It emerges, though, that the concept of safety is already beset with various value choices, and that people fill it out differently. In Europe we are widely agreed on applying the Precautionary Principle as an ethical prerequisite, but even that does not necessarily yield unique outcomes of assessments. What emerges in EurSafe is that we need to assess these developments on a case-by-case and step-by-step basis.
Furthermore, is a greater level of investment and utilisation of GM products essential in meeting Europe’s growing food demands, particularly in the face of climate change?
Answering this question by far exceeds my role as President of EurSafe, but let me add my personal view here. Climate change, population growth and other global developments necessitate the need for better and increased food production. There is no doubt about this. While GM products show some potential in alleviating the problems, they are by no means the only option, and are not even the only technological option. I believe that the claim that we need GM products in order to feed the world is exaggerated and plainly wrong. That said, one needs to concede that perhaps some GM products may serve as useful and hopefully safe additions to our present-day production. So far, our official assessments have not included the ethical dimensions of these products, and we argue that this should be done routinely.
Could you elaborate on the ethical implications of meeting the growing food consumption by the European population? Are concessions in food ethics inevitable in order to meet demands?
Again, I can only offer my personal viewpoints here, since there is obviously a wide range of opinions on this even within EurSafe. It is matter of fact that Europeans have significantly increased their consumption of meat during the last decades. Globally, we also see this trend in those countries which are now in a transition from being poor to moderately rich. At the same time we realise that the production of meat for consumption is a major contributor to the global emission of greenhouse gases; we cannot continue this consumption without risking a climate catastrophe. How this concretely spells out in individual consumption patterns that should be aimed at, however, is another question. Some of our members see a consequent vegetarianism as the sole possible answer. Others, like me, call for significant reductions in meat consumption and a mixed, moderate diet. Having a vegetarian day at least once a week, as propagated by the City Council of Ghent in Belgium, is arguably an important step in the right direction.
Are there any particularly promising technological solutions that could make possible a more equitable form of food technology?
Food technology comes in various forms and settings. Production technologies need to be adaptive to the local environment, while food processing needs to be transparent for the consumer. What we see is not a lack of good ideas or technologies, but practical obstacles in implementing them in their proper setting. Agriculture and aquaculture have so far produced a wealth of technologies, even without GM products, but in many countries this had led to a streamlined dominance of single production modes. We need more varied production technologies that take the special ecological facts into account and which, furthermore, serve the needs of a fragmented market.
Obesity is a very real problem in developed nations; what are the wider repercussions of this on Europe’s economy, agricultural sector and the health of its citizens? Should a greater effort be made to demonstrate the process and costs of farm to fork?
Obesity is very real problem and is a growing global phenomenon. There are still scientific debates on the causes of obesity, but patterns of food consumption do play a significant role. A major ethical issue connected with this is obviously our responsibility for the food consumption of others (leaving our own health aside for the moment). Do we provide the right food for our children? Are cafeterias and kitchens in hospitals and homes for the elderly aware of the composition of a good diet? Personally, I do not believe in the effects of health campaigns, but I do believe in the good will of the individual. Offering examples of a good weekly diet, labelling appropriate products in the supermarket, and educational efforts showing how ‘slow food’ can be easy and indeed fun – these are some of the mechanisms that I would advocate. I also believe that seafood in all its variety will have a great role to play in this effort.
Are there any other aspects of your work that you wish to discuss?
In the end I would like to see consumers turning into responsible food citizens who compose their diet according to safety and ethical standards. I would like to see farmers, industry and retailers enact the principles of Corporate Social Responsibility that many of them already endorse, and provide food that answers to standards of animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and fair trade. All of us need to realise the global nature of food production and trade, and we need to reflect our standards in other cultural and socioeconomic frameworks with different standards.