If you can’t beat them, join them. Perhaps this was the thinking behind consultants and lobbyists working for the agrochemical and food industry, who have joined the newly created European Food Forum, a so-called MEP-industry forum. In this article written by Hans van Scharen, Nina Holland and Martin Pigeon of Corporate Europe Observatory, the role of the European Food Forum is examined in detail.
Countless calls for a transition to a more sustainable and healthy food production in Europe have gained traction in recent years, not least through the work of IPES-Food (a scientist-led think tank the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems) together with many voices from civil society. For example, concerns about widespread pesticide use have grown considerably in several EU countries. No wonder industry has created a new platform through which it might get its voice heard.
On 10 December 2019 – the very same day that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the new European Commission’s Green Deal ambitions (which included the Farm to Fork Strategy) – came the launch of a new MEP-industry forum the European Food Forum (EFF) at the European Parliament. The pesticide lobby ECPA (European Crop Protection Association), food lobby FoodDrinkEurope, sugary drinks producers UNESDA, chemical lobby CEFIC (European Chemical Industry Council), and several multinationals like Coca Cola and Cargill, have all joined the EFF: in total 21 key players from the business side.
According to its website the European Food Forum is an “independent, politically-led, non-partisan forum led and governed by our elected Members of the European Parliament that aims to promote open dialogue on sustainable food systems among policymakers, food supply chain actors, civil society organizations, research and academia, and other public institutions”. The forum was in fact set up by a professional lobby consultant in support of some private companies, Luciana Ciani of 2ThePointConsulting (see below for more), who is Director of EFF. However it has been presented as an MEP initiative, founded in November 2019 by five MEPs from three political groups and five member states: Róża Thun (EPP – Poland), Clara Aguilera (S&D – Spain), Irene Tolleret (Renew Europe – France), Asim Ademov (EPP Bulgaria), and Brando Benifei (S&D – Italy). At the time of writing, twenty-seven MEPs from different political groups have joined the EFF.
One of the first to mention plans for the EFF was Euractiv journalist Gerardo Fortuna, who in an article published September 2019 makes it clear who was driving the creation of the forum: “The idea of the EFF came from the private sector, which wanted to create a ‘safe place’ to discuss food and agricultural policy topics with policymakers and other stakeholders, with the aim of proposing solutions and ideas. Business organisations took the view that the lack of such a forum was at the root of the polarised discussions around food in the EU bubble.”
And the EFF follows a tried and tested formula for industry lobbying. For example a 2015 report from Corporate Europe Observatory notes that “unofficial cross-party groups of MEPs and industry are a stark illustration of continued lobbying under the radar”. Often playing a similar role to the Parliament’s official intergroups, MEP-industry forums are platforms that connect MEPs and ‘interested stakeholders’ (predominantly industry representatives) to meet and discuss specific issues. However MEP-industry forums – as unofficial cross-party groups – are not subject to the same transparency rules and safeguards as official intergroups. In fact they are not subject to any rules at all, and can keep their members, funding, and even existence hidden from public view.
The EFF website declares that the Forum “does not itself take positions on specific policy issues”. In email exchanges Luisella Ciani, Director of European Food Forum writes: “I hope you also felt the enthusiasm of many attendees and noticed the high expectations that the European Food Forum will be a genuine platform for policy debates, where MEPs, commercial actors, civil society organisations and public institutions will feel comfortable.”
Indeed, ‘feeling comfortable’ with MEPs is more important to industry than whatever specific position the EFF ends up taking. It’s similar to how think-tanks often operate: the message is the medium and in the context of the Chatham House Rule (i.e. everything that is said within the EFF may be acted on but not repeated externally) business representatives can feed the MEPs highly partisan ‘facts’: in a crucial period EFF members are able to influence the framing of the European food policy discussion, so the model bypasses democratic scrutiny and transparency.
The creation of the EFF comes at a crucial moment, because industry clearly has nothing to ‘feel comfortable’ about with the growing public and scientific debates about a deeply broken food system, in which profound proposals for sustainable change are gaining traction. Such proposals for a comprehensive food policy have been made for instance in a three-year consultation process led by the think tank IPES-Food, set up by Olivier De Schutter and other scientists. Indeed it seems that the EFF initiator used similar terminology as IPES, when approaching MEPs, for instance when saying that its key objectives include to promote “the development of a common food policy by drawing on the collective intelligence of the actors in the food system also at local level”. We will not accuse the EFF of plagiarism but this is inspired by the wording from IPES’ report ‘Towards a Common Food Policy for the EU’.
Several civil society organisations are rightfully hesitant to join the EFF, because of issues around governance, the imbalance of representations between private and public actors, the admission fees, and the overall agenda. They wonder – with some justification – whether the EFF is really a neutral platform for open exchange on how to steer Europe’s food systems in a more sustainable direction, or rather an industry lobby platform?
For example when asked why his organisation had not joined the EFF, Secretary General of European Community of Consumer Co-operatives (Euro Coop) Todor Ivanov replied: “Whilst it is very encouraging to see MEP engagement around the dialogue of sustainable food systems, it remains unclear why the platform, by definition publicly-steered, is upon payment, as this could question its legitimacy and its representativeness.”
Olga Kikou, head of the NGO Compassion in World Farming EU, gave a very firm reply when asked the same question: “A quick calculation shows that industry giants must have spent between €100,000 and €200,000 for this scheme to operate. In contrast, the one NGO participating so far has given only 500 EUR. It is crystal clear that there is a financial imbalance. As some say, money makes the world go round and in this case, money can skew the decision-making process. NGOs simply cannot match the paychecks of the industry. That is why we think that such fora cannot be the appropriate structure to steer policymakers into making the right decisions.”
Kikou added that for industry giants the €5,000 – €10,000 per year is money well spent: “They buy off access to European decision-makers and continue to lobby for deregulation and voluntary commitments. This is eventually good for the profit of the companies, yet bad for people, animals and the planet. We and other NGOs have fought hard, for years, in the battle for the public interest. At this moment we choose not to join this platform because we don’t want to legitimise the work of corporate lobbyists, whose sole purpose is to bring profit to the organisations they work for, and not to defend the common good.”
Olga Kikou also questioned the Chatham House Rule under which the forum operates: “These are not suitable for European democracy. These rules require you not to reveal who said what at the meetings. These are typical non transparent rules for industry lobbyists. We do not endorse working behind the scenes like this and we question MEP involvement in such fora.”
Foodwatch International Director, Thilo Bode, added: “The complete lack of transparency in how this Industry-Forum has been set up is a disgrace to our democracy. Public resources and MEP time will be put into this grouping which is nothing more than corporate lobbying below the radar. At a time when the need to move to greater transparency is spreading across the institutions through the pressure of civil society, the EFF is taking leaps in the wrong direction. This is another body which will let industry talk and convince regulators that they will take care of the issues at stake.”
The EFF however says it aims to have “a balanced representation of all the stakeholders” and can include “MEPs, farmers, food and beverage companies, food retail and food service companies, European/national federation and sectorial associations, Civil Society Organizations, research and academic institutions, Public Agencies”. There is no indication, however, of how this “balanced representation” will be guaranteed. In the meantime, twenty-one industry lobby groups and companies have joined, including CEFIC,ECPA, FoodDrinkEurope, Mars, Mondelez, Ferrero, and Cargill. One NGO and five research institutions have joined so far.
NGOs have complained about having been grouped together with “Universities, Research and Innovation Centers, Public Agencies and International Institutions” in one category. This distinction is indeed important to be able to judge whether the final composition of the EFF will be balanced; the importance of which has been underlined by MEPs who have joined.
When asked about the imbalance by Corporate Europe Observatory, Ciani replied: “The MEPs founders decided to create a forum which guarantees equal representation of business and non-business members doing an accurate division between those who have precise commercial stakes (business members) and those who represent non-commercial considerations (non-business members). This is reflected also in the Steering Committee that consists of MEPs (majority) and equal representation of business and non-business members as Business and Non-business Members have both 4 sub-categories. At this stage it was considered it would be counterproductive and complex to set specific representation requirements between each sub-category.” Ciani pointed out that “other fora tend to divide Members between business and associations”: for example the EIF (European Internet Forum) puts commercial sector associations effectively in the same category as NGOs. “In this context we believe EFF goes further in guaranteeing a balanced representation of business and non-business members in the steering committee,” Ciani added.
Industry actors pay admission fees of between €5,000 and €10,000, while NGOs are asked to contribute €500 per year. When more organisations join – industries in particular – the EFF will have a considerable budget at its disposal, and plans to organise numerous events. NGOs however face severe financial and capacity constraints to attend many events, and this limits their ability to participate effectively in such fora.
How will the agenda of the EFF be set? Will events for example be timed around important votes for example so the EFF can have impact on EU food policy debates? Ciani answered: “The Programming Committee is the Committee devoted for the discussion of the EFF future events. Every Member can participate and propose events that will be submitted for the selection and final ‘Program of Events’ approval to the Steering Committee. EFF do not itself take any position nor represent specific interest.”
Ciani continues: “Every EFF event will be hosted (or co-hosted) by MEPs and organized by the EFF Secretariat together with the support of an Organizing Committee composed by the EFF members that wants to cooperate in the event organization; The EFF received 87 topics proposals that were re-grouped in 15 Thematic Areas and further in categories. MEPs are asked to select maximum 3 categories of events they want to host of which maximum 2 per thematic area. The result will be a list of priority categories.”
By the end of April 2020 the Steering Committee will select the categories for the 2020 EFF program of events. The Steering Committee and the Board itself were selected on 3 April and according to Ciani “the result was extremely balanced”.
The Steering Committee consists of the following MEPs:
- EFF Chair Róża Thun (Poland – EPP)
- Clara Aguilera (Spain – S&D)
- Irene Tolleret (France – Renew Europe)
- Asim Ademov (Bulgaria – EPP)
- Brando Benifei (Italy – S&D)
- Petros Kokkalis (Greece – GUE/NGL)
- Alessandra Moretti (Italy – S&D)
- Michèle Rivasi (France – Greens/EFA), and Christine Schneider (Germany – EPP).
The EFF Board of Management Members (2020 – 2023) consists of the following business members:
- David Coleman (Vice President Public Affairs Europe, MARS)
- Antje Gerstein (Managing Director Head Brussels Office of the German Retail Federation (HDE)
- Cristina Tinelli (Head of Brussels Office of Confagricoltura)
- Marta Zuluaga Zilbermann (Vice President Government Relations Cargill).
These are the Board members from Public Institutions and Civil Society members:
- Eva Falch (Vice Dean Innovation Faculty of Natural Sciences, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU)
- Monique Goyens (Director General, The European Consumer Organization BEUC)
- Luca Moretti (Head of Brussels office, International and European Relations – Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, CNR)
- Vladislav Popov (Director of the Agro-ecology Center, Professor of Agro-Ecology Agricultural University, Plovdiv).
Who started the EFF?
While the EFF is presented as an MEP-driven project, the initiative for the creation of the EFF came from Luisella Ciani, owner of 2ThePointConsulting and some companies. She created this consultancy firm (of which she is the sole employee) at the end of 2013, and registered it in the EU Transparency Register in January 2015. Ciani obtained an accreditation for the European Parliament one month after the last European elections in May 2019.
The fact that Ciani was the one taking the initiative for setting up the EFF, became clear when questions were asked by NGOs. When they asked how the EFF has been funded until now, Ciani answered: “It was paid by myself with the contribution of initial supporting EFF future members. All the costs (notary, organisation of the launch event, roll-ups, logo, website etc) will be in the financial report.” When asked for further clarifications about whether the initial supporting MEPs or business members paid and if so who, Ciani replied: “Yes, my company payed (sic) the initial costs as from all the invoices that will be presented at the first Board of Management that will be held by the end of April. The initial expenses were covered, including part of my consultancy fees by some EFF Members that supported the creation of the platform. The rest of my consultancy fee is still mine pro-bono.”
When we asked whom she meant by “some EFF Members”, Corporate Europe Observatory did not get an answer.
Ciani’s company 2thepoint Consulting’s only client in the EU Transparency Register, however, is Eutelsat, a satellite operator. When asked on her experience with food issues, given that her professional CV shows she has been mainly dealing with telecom issues, space strategy, and audiovisual policy, but neither the food-sector nor agriculture, Ciani replied: “I have a multi-sectorial cross-cutting experience in EU funding management both within the Public and the private sector. Agrifood is included. My involvement in this project comes from a wide and unique experience in stakeholder management across public and private sectors.”
In January 2018 Ciani also joined a lobby firm called ‘Foresight International Policy and Regulatory Advisers’ (FIPRA International), as a Special Advisor on EU Funding. FIPRA calls itself “a leading European and international public affairs consultancy” that advises “a wide range of clients in a host of sectors”, from banking to mining to food, “on how to navigate complex policy landscapes and address regulatory challenges.” With at least 30+ accredited lobbyists for the EP and a yearly EU lobby budget of two million euro (very likely an underestimate) FIPRA is one of Brussels’ top 15 lobby firms.
FIPRA’s work in the food sector seems quite relevant in the context of the EFF. On its website it states: “There is a growing consensus… that the obesity epidemic needs more urgent and more effective attention. Meanwhile, EU policy and law-making faces increasing local and national activism, which risks undermining the single market and its level playing field. At FIPRA, we work to build a shared vision between clients across the sector and other stakeholders, to protect the food and drink contribution to Europe’s heritage and to help innovative products reach the global and EU market more quickly.”
There is quite an overlap between EFF membership and FIPRA clients, including FoodDrinkEurope, and Mars Inc. Notably, FIPRA also hosts the European Risk Forum (ERF), a lobby platform for the riskiest industries: tobacco (previously), chemical, and fossil fuel companies. The ERF recently promoted the controversial ‘innovation principle’, a tool to undermine the EU’s precautionary principle, as enshrined in the EU Treaty. This precautionary principle is viewed by many industries – especially in the areas of food and agriculture – as a hurdle to their commercial ambitions and dubbed as an “obstacle towards innovation and trade”. This kind of wording is often expressed by US trade negotiators in the context of the ongoing EU-US trade negotiations.
The biggest joint interest of these dirty industries united in the ERF is to keep their products on the market with the least possible restrictions and regulations. Using this ‘principle’ these industries aim to ensure that “whenever legislation is under consideration its impact on innovation should be assessed and addressed”.
‘The Food & Drink Practice’ at FIPRA is led by former top Commission official Robert Madelin, who from 2004-2016, “held a series of senior leadership positions at the European Commission, as Senior Advisor for Innovation… and as Director General for Health and Consumer Policy (SANCO).” Prior to that, he was for 20 years a negotiator in international trade and investment.
Madelin – with a EP-accreditation since early December 2019 – went through the revolving doors to join FIPRA directly after leaving from his EC-position in October 2016. FIPRA’s website promotes this as an asset: “As a former EU Director General for farm-to-fork regulation & policy, I personally lead our team on issues affecting food & drink, which also brings together issues of innovation, safety, trade & tech.”
When asked by Corporate Europe Observatory, Ciani denies any direct relation between EFF and FIPRA, nor any involvement by Madelin.
Getting policy makers and industry to mix in informal talk shops is not an uncommon lobby strategy, and Robert Madelin has experience. In March 2005 as the then Director-General of DG Sanco, he installed the EU Platform and the EU Forum. The European Platform on Diet, Nutrition and Physical Activity was a forum “through which EU-level representatives of the food and advertising industries, consumer organisations, health NGOs and others work together to try to tackle overweight and obesity”. This EU Platform mostly encouraged voluntary actions by industry, instead of regulation. In the book ‘Regulating Lifestyle risks’ Robert Madelin is quoted as saying as a Commission official: “Through this platform we are giving industry the chance to show that it is committed to the fight against obesity. At the same time we are taking part in the Barroso’s Commission overall efforts towards better regulation, since we are proposing to start trying to avoid regulation.”
By now, it is clear that industry self-regulation mostly does not work. In January 2019 the Lancet Commission on Obesity published its first report entitled ‘The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition and Climate Change’ said that “three pandemics – obesity, undernutrition and climate change – co-exist and are driven by dysfunctions within the same systems – food, transport, urban design and land use”.
Will the EFF be similar, and just delay the political action needed to tackle critical issues such as pesticide reductions, food labelling, new procurement rules, by proposing ineffective voluntary action by industry and avoiding binding EU regulations? All evidence points towards this outcome.
NGOs are rightfully doubting whether the EFF is worth their precious time and money. They will basically be outnumbered by business lobbyists by a factor of three to one, and on capacity issues alone, will not be able to influence the agenda of the EFF, regardless of any safeguards Ciani claims are in place. The EFF will help industry frame the debate in towards a certain agenda, and gives them easy access to influential MEPs. The main risk of NGOs joining the EFF is that they will simply lend credibility to a body whose agenda they probably cannot control, nor meaningfully influence.
Hans van Scharen, Nina Holland and Martin Pigeon work with Corporate Europe Observatory