By Brídín Carroll
As the project TRANSMANGO is coming to an end, we now focus on lessons learned. Public procurement had been selected as one of five key areas of concern and for a deeper analysis in work package 5. As public procurement relates to all goods and services purchased with public money, it is a subject particularly important for food governance (for a detailed look at this analysis see D5.2).
Public procurement accounts for a significant proportion of GDP (17% in the EU) and this has led to the recognition of public procurement’s power to affect changes towards greater sustainability. In addition, it inhabits a unique position whereby it can affect demand-side and supply-side change. It addresses the former by targeting groups which are most vulnerable to food poverty by providing nutritious food. It impacts the latter by creating new markets for smaller and often more sustainable producers
The importance of public food procurement has been recognised at all levels of governance and in the EU this is evidenced by the emergence of new directives for its reform. These directives represent a multi-pronged approach which firstly supports the inclusion of more social and environmental criteria in calls for tenders, secondly simplifies procurement procedures to facilitate tendering by smaller producers and suppliers, and finally supports grassroots sustainable food procurement initiatives through policy.
However, TRANSMANGO’s analysis found that there are a number of factors both internal and external to the food system which can leave sustainable public food procurement vulnerable to unexpected shocks or stresses. Internal weaknesses were found to be the possible unavailability of an adequate and reliable supply of healthy food, and potentially inadequate food chain infrastructure for the distribution and preparation of healthy foods. In addition, a focus on price rather than long term cost, the risk of insufficient political will and leadership to adapt, and organisational barriers were also found to be internal factors which could impact on the success of sustainable public food procurement. Externally, austerity policies which reduce investment in social care, and insufficient environmental and sustainability policies emerged as factors which could put public food procurement at risk. Further external factors include trade agreements which are apt to overemphasise the importance of competition criteria, and rising food prices which can result in a compromise on food quality.
To compound these possible shocks and stresses, tensions in European policy frameworks governing public procurement manifested in this analysis. On the one hand, in promoting sustainable public food procurement, the failure of the market to deliver health, social and environmental benefits is recognised. On the other hand, it was found that neoliberal frameworks which underpin most European policy and governance decisions focus overwhelmingly on the development of ‘efficient’ supply chains, at the expense of intervening to shape appropriate consumer demand.
Nonetheless, TRANSMANGO hoped to identify not only vulnerabilities for public food procurement, but also areas of focus for future resilience. Therefore, in spite of the aforementioned policy dilemmas, two key points of intervention to deliver food and nutrition security through public procurement have been identified: sufficient political will and leadership; and appropriately developed organisational culture, knowledge and skills.