Brussels and Wallonia: Green pioneer projects in sustainable food systems
Ideological innovation and perseverance can give birth to concrete actions contributing to the Green transformation of agriculture and food systems, despite a difficult political and institutional environment. This is currently experienced by the Belgian Greens of Ecolo in the regional governments of Wallonia and Brussels.
As a major European capital, Brussels may not be the first place one would think of when discussing sustainable food systems. However, it is full of crucial actors of the transition: consumers. In the face of an increasing discrepancy between the supply of sustainable food products and demand (e.g. demand for organic products has increased by 20% between 2009-2010), the Regional Ministers of Brussels decided to integrate the development of sustainable food systems as a strategic political priority for the years 2009-2014.
The Green Minister of the Environment, Evelyne Huytebroeck, has seized this opportunity to initiate a strong dynamic around sustainable food, by mainly focusing on demand factors. Her strategy is structured around four main axes:
- Define and develop a vision for a sustainable food system in Brussels
- Encourage the integration of sustainability criteria in canteens and other infrastructures where collective food consumption takes place (including the food service industry, i.e. restaurants, etc)
- Support a change in households’ consumption patterns towards sustainable eating
- Raise awareness of the broader public on the importance and positive impacts of sustainable food
Concretely, this has been translated into a few successful actions. Firstly, the so-called “sustainable canteen” project, launched in 2009, aims at supporting and providing a framework for canteens wishing to initiate a transition towards sustainability. To date, the project covers 65 canteens and the ultimate goal would be to convert all public canteens to sustainability. Secondly, the Minister has given great attention to the integration of sustainability criteria in public procurements related to the agro-food sector, as a means to trigger the transition towards a sustainable food system in Brussels. Thirdly, a particular focus was put on restaurants and on how to encourage the use of sustainable food products from the kitchen to our table. In this context, the Environment Ministry was a strong supporter of the “Goûter Bruxelles” event which was the culmination of projects and initiatives combining sustainability and pleasure in food (by promoting the Slow Food Movement). Actions here covered mainly information and awareness raising campaigns.
Jobs through urban agriculture
Finally, most recently, particular attention has been put on urban agriculture, as the perfect illustration of direct producer-consumer relationships. According to a study commissioned to the research institute Greenloop, this sector would have the potential to create up to 6,000 jobs. 3,633 jobs could be created in the ecological cultivation of fruit and vegetables in Brussels, 2,379 through roof-top farming, 900 in the distribution of those urban-grown products, 395 in the food service industry (restaurants directly linked to urban farming), 190 in waste management, 100 in information and awareness-raising, and finally another 20 in advice and consulting. Although there may be some controversy on the actual job creation potential of urban agriculture, the proliferation of isolated urban initiatives and the fast-growing interest towards this activity, reveal that it will certainly play a key role in the transition of our food system.
The Green housing Minister, Christos Doulkeridis, in charge of several training institutes for the agro-food sectors (as part of the CERIA) and in particular of the Horticulture Institute, has been the leader behind the creation of the first food-service training Centre, specifically geared towards sustainable practices. He aims at encouraging all actors of the supply chain to move towards sustainability, with a specific focus on young people, students and the professional actors of the food service industry which alone accounts for three million meals per day in Belgium. This has led to conducting several awareness-raising campaigns on the CERIA campus (e.g. vegetable patches and bee-hives on campus, the production of a sustainable beer in Brussels “Les Brasseries de la Senne” and a local fruit & vegetables shop on campus.
A Walloon short supply chain Centre
More than half of Belgium’s food production is concentrated in Wallonia, with 722,652 ha of farmland compared to 613,860 ha in Flanders. Wallonia’s agricultural picture is quite mixed: some traditional – yet fast-disappearing – models of production remain (e.g. in the livestock sector), but industrial agriculture has been increasing at the expense of small farms in the region’s rural areas. Organic farming has progressed over the last 30 years, mainly in the livestock sector: from 37 organic farms in 1987, to 884 in 2010. Because of the more rural character of Wallonia, one could easily expect that this region would only focus on making the “production” side of the food system more sustainable. The reality is a bit different, especially under the impulse of our Green Minister Jean-Marc Nollet, responsible (amongst others) for Sustainable Development and Energy.
Following the same observation as for Brussels, i.e. an increasing discrepancy between the demand for sustainable food and its supply, Minister Nollet has recently launched the creation of a “Short Supply Chain Centre”. One of the biggest problems today in the organisation of alternative supply chains is the lack of coordination between the individual actions taking place at different locations and times, resulting in a mismatch between demand and supply. To overcome this problem, the first Short Supply Chain Centre of Wallonia aims at pursuing the following missions:
- Being a contact and reference point for all actors already involved in short supply chains, or those willing to be involved
- Creating and disseminating a catalogue reviewing all actors and actions of short supply chains in Wallonia
- Linking and reinforcing the different short supply chain actors
- Monitoring the new initiatives emerging in Wallonia but also worldwide
- Promoting the emergence of innovative supply chain projects
- Creating a documentation centre, easily accessible to all interested groups
- Establishing an innovative typology of short supply chains
- Defining criteria to facilitate the application of the concept to other sectors
- Formulating recommendations for supporting short supply chains in Wallonia
- Reinforcing the link with the Region of Brussels to meet the so-far unmet demand in sustainable locally-produced food
This specific action derives from a long-tradition of forward-looking and attempts to make Wallonia a pioneer region in the establishment of a sustainable food system. In the 1990s, one of Ecolo’s leading figures in the field of agriculture – and today’s President of the Wallonia Parliament – made a significant contribution to the conceptual thinking on sustainable food chains, and to its concrete application on the ground. At the time working as civil-servant for the province of Chevetogne, Patrick Dupriez was in charge of a recreational centre, which welcomed school groups several times a year. Back then, the idea that school canteens are a strategic place – from a pedagogy but also quantitative perspective – to raise awareness on sustainable, healthy food, was not widespread at all. Convinced that he could significantly improve the quality of meals served in this facility and contribute to the transition, Patrick Dupriez introduced food sustainability criteria in the centre’s calls for tender towards the food-service industry. The criteria were defined in such a way that only some local producers would be able to win the call and put organic and quality labels in a more favourable position. For the first time in Belgium (and possibly Europe), sustainable food producers and distributors had a competitive advantage compared to the others in complying with criteria defined in a call for tender. This episode had some deep implications for the region itself and also reinforced Ecolo’s commitment to the transition towards sustainable food systems.