Eurobarometer food security survey

What are we to make of the findings in the latest Eurobarometer survey of EU public opinion on Europeans’ attitudes to their own food security? (The survey also covered attitudes to global food security, food quality and the countryside).

On the one hand, only two out of five (43%) respondents are concerned about food security in their own country, while more than half (56%) are either not very concerned or not at all concerned. Only two out of five (40%) respondents are concerned about food security at EU level, while more than half (57%) are either not very concerned or not at all concerned. On the other hand, in all Member States a large majority of respondents supported the view that the EU should produce more food to reduce its dependence on imports. Levels of agreement exceeded the EU average of 81% in 17 of 27 Member States.

Responses to survey questions are in part determined by the way the question is asked. The questions in the Eurobarometer survey were “To what extent are you concerned that sufficient food is produced to meet the needs of the population in…(OUR COUNTRY?)(The European Union)” and ‘Please tell me to what extent you agree or disagree with the following statement: the EU should produce more food in order to be less dependent on importing food from other countries.”

At first sight, the responses to the two questions appear inconsistent. If the first question asks if the respondent agrees that sufficient food is produced in the EU to meet population needs, then it is not consistent to also respond that the EU should produce more food to be less dependent on imports. Either the current level of EU food production is sufficient or it is not.

However, respondents may have interpreted the first question more in terms of availability than production alone and did not think in terms of the contribution of imports when responding – this seems to be the interpretation of the survey coordinators who discuss the responses to this question in terms of attitudes towards food security. If that is the case, then the responses to the first question reveal the extent to which European citizens feel they are food-secure, even if they also want the EU to be more self-sufficient in major foodstuffs.

The published survey results break down the responses by country and by respondents’ education and economic circumstances. There are extremely wide differences between the attitudes to country-level food security of those surveyed in particular countries.

The vast majority (94%) of those polled in Greece are concerned about national food security. Concern about this is also particularly high in Portugal, where 85% of respondents express concern. At the other extreme, there are particularly low levels of concern in the Netherlands (11%), Denmark (11%), Sweden (13%) and Germany (14%). Attitudes in other countries cover a wide range of values around the EU average of 43%. There are no significant differences between EU15 and NMS12 countries on this question.

Concern about sufficient food production at national and EU level is higher among respondents with 15 or fewer years of education, compared to those with 20 or more years (49% and 46% vs. 39% and 37% respectively). Respondents who declare that they have difficulty in paying bills ‘most of the time’ are more likely to be concerned about national food production (60%) and EU food production (53%) than respondents who ‘almost never’ have difficulty paying bills (37% and 36% respectively).

These results indicate that attitudes to food security are, to some extent, affected by respondents’ consciousness of their own economic security.

Differences between member states in the proportions who believe that the EU should produce more to reduce imports are less marked. In all Member States the majority of respondents support the view that the EU should produce more food to reduce its dependence on imports.

The highest levels of agreement are found in Greece (98%) and Cyprus (97%), and the lowest in the Netherlands (56%) and Denmark (59%). Respondents in Germany (64%) and Sweden (65%) are also significantly less likely to agree. On average, respondents in NMS12 countries are more likely to agree (85%) than their EU15 counterparts (79%).

The most prominent socio-demographic difference is economic status. Eighty-six per cent of those who have difficulty paying bills agree that the EU should protect itself against dependency on food imports, compared with 78% of respondents who almost never have difficulty paying bills.

One reason to agree with the statement that the EU should produce more food to reduce its dependence on imports is because the respondent has a preference for local food (despite the evidence, summarised in The Locavore’s Dilemma, that relying solely on local food is more costly, more environmentally damaging, destroys more jobs and is more risky). However, this preference is more likely to be expressed by better-off consumers, whereas the Eurobarometer evidence is that higher EU food production to displace imports is more demanded by lower-income consumers.

Greater concern about food insecurity is positively linked to greater feelings of economic insecurity. Fears about the future security of EU food supplies have always played an important role in debates on the CAP. This is a special Eurobarometer survey, so there are no comparable figures from an earlier year to indicate whether European citizens are now more or less concerned about their food security than in the past.

However, the evidence in the survey suggests that the falling living standards and rising unemployment experienced by many of Europe’s citizens as well as greater economic uncertainty and the collapse of confidence in market institutions such as banks have heightened, rather than reduced, Europeans’ anxiety about their food security. Those of us who believe that trade is an important foundation of our food security need to do a better job of explaining our case.

This post was written by Alan Matthews.

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