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Sustainable Food

Why talk about Sustainable Food?

Food is essential to life. It also forms an important part of our cultural identity, and plays an important role in the economy. People are aware that the food they eat is an important factor affecting their health, but what is less well known is the impact producing and consuming food has on the world's resources. Alongside the cars we drive and the energy we use to heat our houses, the food we produce and consume has a significant impact on the environment through, for example, greenhouse gas emissions, the use of land and water resources, pollution, depletion of phosphorus, and the impact of chemical products such as herbicides and pesticides. (Link: EIPRO Report)

A growing number of analyses question the long-term sustainability of the current trends in the production and consumption of food.  A leading advisory committee on the future of agriculture, made up of experts from EU Member States (known as the EU Standing Committee on Agriculture Research (SCAR) concluded in their latest report that:

Many of today´s food production systems compromise the capacity of Earth to produce food in the future. Globally, and in many regions including Europe, food production is exceeding environmental limits or is close to doing so. Nitrogen synthesis exceeds the planetary boundary by factor of four and phosphorus use has reached the planetary boundary. Land use change and land degradation, and the dependence on fossil energy contribute about one- fourth of Greenhouse Gas emissions. Agriculture, including fisheries, is the single largest driver of biodiversity loss. Regionally, water extracted by irrigation exceeds the replenishment of the resource.

Price volatility, access restrictions and the interconnectedness of global commodity markets, as well as the increasing vulnerability of food production systems to climate change and loss of agro-biodiversity, will make food even more inaccessible for the poor in the future.

The average Western diet with high intakes of meat, fat and sugar is a risk for individual health, social systems and the environmental life support systems. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, osteoarthritis, and cancer are wide-spread diet-related diseases. The promotion of a healthy diet also reduces the environmental footprint of food consumption in Europe and globally. (Link: SCAR Report page 132)

What exactly do we mean by 'sustainable' food?

There are many different views as to what constitutes a 'sustainable' food system, and what falls within the scope of the term 'sustainability'. Strictly speaking sustainability implies the use of resources at rates that do not exceed the capacity of the Earth to replace them. For food, a sustainable system might be seen as encompassing a range of issues such as security of the supply of food, health, safety, affordability, quality, a strong food industry in terms of jobs and growth and, at the same time, environmental sustainability, in terms of issues such as climate change, biodiversity, water and soil quality.

What is the Policy Background to this work?

The Europe 2020 Strategy - A resource-efficient Europe calls for an increase in resource efficiency, to: "…find new ways to reduce inputs, minimise waste, improve management of resource stocks, change consumption patterns, optimise production processes, management and business methods, and improve logistics."

The Roadmap to a Resource-Efficient Europe follows up on this, and stresses that our natural resource base is being eroded by growing global demand, highlighting the food sector as priority area for taking action - calling for: "…incentives for healthier and more sustainable production and consumption of food and to halve the disposal of edible food waste in the EU by 2020."

The Roadmap states that the Commission will assess how best to limit waste throughout the food supply chain, and consider ways to lower the environmental impact of food production and consumption patterns, via a Communication on Sustainable Food, in 2013.

The 2011 European Parliament report on "how to avoid food wastage: strategies for a more efficient food chain in the EU" also strongly supports action in this area.

What drives our food system?

The food system is highly complex and is driven by many economic, cultural and environmental factors. Better understanding these drivers and how they interact could help to improve public policies.  In the box below, for information, are some of the key pressures on, and relating to, the food system. You will be given the opportunity to comment and provide you views/expertise on these issues.

Global trends in population and affluence: Global population is projected to increase to nearly eight billion by 2030 and more than 9 billion by 2050, with an even faster growing middle-class, creating demand for more varied, high-quality diet requiring additional resource to produce. At the same time, a significant share of the world's population is suffering from under-nutrition or malnutrition.

Food prices / volatility / availability: food prices are close to record levels. The FAO have classified the current time as a "new era of rising food prices and spreading hunger," noting that "food supplies are tightening everywhere and land is becoming the most sought-after commodity as the world shifts from an age of food abundance to one of scarcity."

Changes in diet: Recent decades have seen a trend towards less sustainable and less healthy diets, with European citizens consuming "..too much energy, too many calories, too much fat and sugar, and salt". (Link: EU platform for action on diet, physical activity and health)

Food waste: it has been estimated that between 1/3rd and 1/2 of all food produced around the world is lost or wasted (i.e up to 2 billion tonnes of food). In the EU, food waste is expected to rise to about 126 million tonnes a year by 2020, from a baseline of 89 million tonnes in 2006, unless action is taken to halt this trend .

Changes in the supply chain: Over recent decades the food system has changed from one that is predominantly supply-driven, to one that is more demand driven - our agro-economic model is generally focused now on providing food at the lowest possible prices. There has also been a shift in power in the supply chain, with bargaining power more concentrated in the retail sector than before, with primary producers taking on a subordinate economic role.

Fisheries: according to the European Environment Agency, "most fish stocks of commercial importance in European waters [i.e. around 75 %] appear to be outside safe biological limits."

Water: more than 1.4 billion people live where water cannot meet the agricultural, municipal, and environmental needs.

Phosphorus: an input to boost agricultural production, that cannot be substituted. Demand is predicted to increase by 50–100 % by 2050, yet security of supply of uncontaminated phosphate rock is highly uncertain. EU is more than 90 % dependent on imports.

Biodiversity loss: current global extinction rate is 1000 to 10000 times higher than the natural background extinction rate (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment).

How can we move towards a more resource efficient and sustainable food system?

A public consultation was held on this question last year, where a number of areas for action were presented for discussion:

  1. Better technical knowledge on the environmental impacts of food
  2. Stimulating sustainable food production
  3. Promoting sustainable food consumption
  4. Reducing food waste and losses
  5. Improving food policy coherence

Over 600 responses where received, including more than 80 associations, more than 60 NGOs and more than 350 citizens. Response spanned all EU Member States as well as many other countries and globally representative associations. A summary of the results of the consultation can be found here.

A detailed ‘impact assessment’ on one aspect of food system sustainability has also been published, looking at how food waste might be tackled and reduced through the EU policy framework: