Mella heads up the team working for FoodDrinkEurope, the European food and drink industry’s organisation, based in Brussels. They defend the interests of the food and drink manufacturing industry, and its almost 300,000 manufacturing companies throughout Europe.
What does FoodDrinkEurope do?
Brussels is where it’s at from a food legislation point of view, so it makes sense to be here at the heart of Europe’s decision-making institutions. We work on all the issues that have a direct or indirect impact on our industry: health and nutrition, food labelling, materials that come into contact with food, the common agricultural policy sustainable development goals, trade, single use plastics, research, and innovation. The list is long!
Why do you love your job?
Food is something everyone knows something about, and obviously we all have to eat. But food is about more than simply the calories we need for energy to live and grow, it’s also about emotion, pride, traditions, sharing, socialising, celebrating, and so much more.
At FoodDrinkEurope no two days are the same, bringing different challenges but also opportunities for the industry. It is not always easy sailing, but it is hard not to be passionate. And I have terrific colleagues, who make coming into the office every day a real pleasure!
How did you get here?
After completing my Master of Science, I arrived in Brussels to work with a team in the Université Libre de Bruxelles doing a mathematical model of the North Sea. From there, I joined the agri-industrial business Eridania Béghin-Say, one of Europe’s largest multinational agri-industrial holdings, where I rose through the ranks to head up its International Relations office in Brussels. Finally, I moved on to lead Government Affairs EMEA for Monsanto, before settling in to my current role as Director General for FoodDrinkEurope. It’s been a very interesting journey, but always related to the agri-food chain.
What is your advice for young women wanting to contribute to sustainable food and farming?
I would encourage young women here in Europe to get involved in the debate around sustainable food with open minds, and to think both local and global. Doing what we do sustainably is important, especially since the agri-food industry is the first victim of climate change. The EU food industry uses 70% of the raw materials produced on European farms, so droughts and floods, and all other climatic changes that negatively impact farmers also have a negative impact on the food industry. Given the global challenges we face today and the necessity to feed a growing population in the coming years, sustainability really is key.
I would encourage them to learn more about the scientific developments and innovation that can help deliver the positive change we need. On top of that, they can contribute immediately by shopping prudently and cutting down food waste in their own kitchens! Every little bit helps to reduce our environmental footprint.
How does agriculture need to change to be fit for the future?
If necessity is the mother of invention, the challenges we face now certainly indicate that it is time to be inventive. The author G.B. Shaw said that “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. All progress therefore depends on the unreasonable man”! I suggest therefore that now is the time to be wisely unreasonable!
As we are challenged with producing more from less in the coming years, agriculture needs to adapt to increasing demand without increasing its environmental footprint.
For starters, we should attack the food waste problem – one third of all the food produced globally is wasted – that would certainly be a step in the right direction. Developments towards a circular economy that involve making the most out of residues across the food supply chain, and valorising waste streams, is also a useful strategy.
We see mounting pressure on Europeans to change their diets, for example, to cut down on meat and dairy consumption or to increase production and consumption of organically grown crops. In my view, approaches that demonise one sector or the other are not helpful.
Another aspect that needs to be examined is the food vs non-food use of agricultural raw materials, and finally, precision farming, innovation and digitalisation of farming operations are also examples of how to produce in a more resource-efficient and sustainable way.
What’s one challenge you face as a woman in agriculture and what do you think needs to be done to overcome this?
I was more challenged when I was younger and mother of young kids. Then the work-life balance was very difficult to manage. Today however, the kids have left home, and my home life is much easier.
I think that in general, young women, especially those who start a family, have a particularly hard time – both at work, and at home. Juggling both and not losing the ambition to reach professional heights can be tough.
In the professional world, more needs to be done to accept and respect the unique roles of, and contributions made by women. In particular, women bring diversity and emotional intelligence, which in turn adds huge value to the conversations and decisions that need to be taken in order to do what we do more sustainably.
Mella is just one of many inspirational women working in agriculture. Visit our Female #FoodHeroes page to hear from other women working to improve plant science and nutrition.