Transition towards an EU sustainable food system involves many challenges

16-10-2017 | News item

Making the EU’s production, consumption and trade in food environmentally sustainable is possible, but requires not only a major shift in public attitudes, policies and knowledge, but also seizing current opportunities for change, according to ‘Food in a green light’, a joint report by EEA and PBL published today.

The challenge of going green

The report analyses the challenges the European Union food system faces in its transformation into a sustainable food system, and looks at current opportunities for change. The European Union must transform its food system to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring sustainable food production systems by 2030 and the European Union’s long-term sustainability goal of ‘living well, within the limits of the planet’ by 2050. The report’s findings will be presented in Brussels, during the ‘Harnessing Research and Innovation for FOOD 2030 Science Policy Dialogue,’ on 16 October 2017.

The report, released on World Food Day, is a first EEA (European Environment Agency) assessment of what greening the EU’s food system might involve. It looks at the current state of play of the EU’s food system, against the goals for food and nutrition security, ecosystem health, and social and economic well-being.

Large environmental impact of the European Union’s food system

The EU’s food system is large and complex.  In 2013, the turnover in the food supply chain, including agriculture and fisheries, production, processing and manufacturing, and the food and drink industry, amounted to EUR 3.9 trillion. All these activities have an impact on the environment within the EU itself, but also beyond its borders, due to imported food and feed. The system is a major consumer of energy and water and a major emitter of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. In 2013, the amount of energy needed to cultivate, process, package and deliver food to our table accounted for 17% of the EU’s gross energy consumption, and the equivalent of around 26% of the EU’s final energy consumption in that year.  

Changing mindsets to identify more effective actions

The report argues that reducing the environmental impacts of the food system requires more efficient and sustainable use of natural resources, changes in production methods, food choices and diets, and reducing environmental risks by phasing out the use of harmful chemicals throughout the food chain. Current policies mainly target producers and consumers, and focus on improving the resource efficiency of the food system as well as consumer awareness. Although such an approach may improve the environmental performance of the food system, it will not deliver the type of transformation that is needed to achieve the sustainability goals.

A key factor will be that of leading the current mindset away from its focus on food security and economic performance. Taking a closer look at the various parts of the system, the parties involved and the relevant policies, together, may help to identify more effective action. While Europe does not have a common food policy, it does have many related policies, such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), The EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, and the Circular Economy