Building a future based on food heritage

20 November 2020

What role should our food heritage play in Europe? How can it be resource for the post-pandemic period?

As part of Terra Madre, Slow Food and Europa Nostra hosted Food and Cultural Heritage: an EU Policy Perspective on November 17, with representatives from the European Commission’s agricultural, education and culture directorates (the DG AGRI and DG EAC), as well as from civil society.

The two co-hosting NGOs presented their joint policy brief on food heritage in Europe and invited the panelists to explore its key points and recommendations, and discuss how to achieve better coherence between food, agricultural, and cultural policies.

Food is culture, food is heritage

Josefin Vargo, event designer, and Ivan Manojlovic, international cooperation manager at Nova Iskra, a partner organization, kick-started the event by presenting the multiple facets of the Food is Culture project. The audience heard stories from What you didn’t know existed, endangered food from around the world, a travelling multimedia artwork exhibition featuring endangered products from the Ark of Taste, as well as Food Tales from migrants, the various educational activities and cooking contests with chefs that have been organized to promote the diversity of European food heritage.

Over the last sixty years, thousands of plant varieties and animal breeds selected by humans, and the related know-how—our food heritage—have disappeared. The links between food and culture are too often overlooked in policy making, although the production and consumption of food are strongly influenced by our cultural environment. As Jimmy Jamar, head of Europa Nostra pointed out: “It should be evident that food is culture, that food is heritage. But the existence of the Food is Culture project shows that we still have a lot of work to do to include heritage and food as a transversal element in EU policies.”

If the connection between food and culture runs deep in our collective heritage, why is it not self-evident at EU policy level? As Jimmy says, “it is very difficult to get a global perspective on food and culture policies in the European institutions, because these two matters do not fall under the competence of the same authorities.” This siloed approach results in conflicting policies that are not adapted to the dual nature of food heritage.

Next events for your diary

If you’re interested in European politics, the next event for you is on November 24 at 10.30 am CET, when we’ll be discussing the Common Agricultural Policy. To take part in the event with live multi-language interpretation you can register now (for free, as usual!)

Biodiversity is essential

Several panelists expressed their concerns regarding the upcoming Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), that sets very low ambitions for biodiversity and sustainability. A green, social CAP which supports producers that respect tradition and biodiversity is essential to “preserve food heritage and long-standing food traditions such as sourdough bread”, asserted Anna-Franziska Unterguggenberger, producer of Lesachtal bread, a product featured in the exhibition, and member of the Lesachtal bread Slow Food Presidium in Austria. The young baker reminded the audience and panelists of the importance of supporting communities that work to preserve food heritage, and of the contribution of traditional food to the tourism industry in the EU.

Geographic Indications

To the question of what  the European Union currently doing to protect food heritage, Branka Tome, Deputy Head of Unit at the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development of the European Commission, outlined the existing system of EU geographical indications, which are “distinctive signs used to identify a product whose quality, reputation or other such characteristics relate to its geographical origin (GI). “At the EU level, we have almost 1500 food products, 1600 wines and 240 liquors registered as GI. We are protecting those names within the European Union and we negotiate with other countries around the world to ensure that they do the same.” Tome confirmed the EU Commission’s will to build further on the success of geographical indications, in line with Ursula von der Leyen’s ambitions, the EU Green Deal and the Farm to Fork strategy.

Production protocols

A conclusion partly mitigated by Marta Messa, director of Slow Food Europe. “Slow Food welcomes the Farm to Fork strategy, although we were hoping it would have higher ambitions regarding the sustainability of food production.” As an example, she mentioned sustainability criteria for geographical indications, which are included in the text but not clearly defined. At the moment, production protocols are not always strictly established, leaving the door open to wide interpretations of tradition and quality. Some certified products do not even have a true historical identity. “The Farm to Fork strategy is a first step in the right direction, but we need more coherence between food, agricultural and cultural EU policies.”

The Lesachtal Bread Presidium, Austria, Photo. Wolfgang Hummer. The cover photo of this article is by the same photographer.

Rebuilding the value chain

Pedro Velazquez, deputy head of the Creative Europe Unit at the Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture of the European Commission, picked up on that last comment to introduce the future Creative Europe framework program from 2021-2027, which aims to protect cultural diversity and support artisans. “The COVID-19 crisis has severely hit both cultural and food sectors. Food chains have been able to continue their activity, but gastronomic restaurants, who are the ones promoting and using protected products, are now closed. The value chain in the food sector has been broken.”

The future

Hope for the future? Of course! There is hope that the EU will invest more in the protection of food heritage, which will be key to Europe’s post-Covid-19 recovery and for meeting the sustainability objectives of the EU Green Deal. Slow Food will continue to promote policy coherence by calling for a Common Food Policy, and for the cultural aspect of food to be placed center stage in our conception of food systems.

Want to learn more about these issues? Read the Policy Brief written by Europa Nostra and Slow Food. Explore the online exhibition What you didn’t know existed. Endangered food from around the world and discover the diversity of European food heritage.

by Alice Poiron,

The Food is Culture Project

Food is Culture is a cooperative project funded by the Creative Europe program of the European Union (in the framework of the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018), with the contribution of the Fondazione CRC di Cuneo, led by Slow Food with its partners Europa Nostra, Kinookus, Nova Iskra Creative Hub, and Transpond AB. It aims to make European citizens aware that food heritage is a means for expressing their belonging to Europe and for better understanding the wealth and uniqueness of Europe’s cultural diversity.