SDG 2 - Zero hunger

End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

Data extracted in May 2019.

Planned article update: June 2020.


EU trend of SDG 2 on no poverty

This article provides an overview of statistical data on SDG 2 ‘Zero hunger’ in the European Union (EU). It is based on the set of EU SDG indicators for monitoring of progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in an EU context.

This article is a part of a set of statistical articles, which are based on the Eurostat publication ’Sustainable development in the European Union — Monitoring report - 2019 edition’. This report is the third edition of Eurostat’s series of monitoring reports on sustainable development, which provide a quantitative assessment of progress of the EU towards the SDGs in an EU context.

Goal 2 seeks to end hunger and malnutrition and ensure access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. Realising this goal largely depends on promoting sustainable production systems, as well as increasing investment in rural infrastructure and agricultural research and development.

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Zero hunger in the EU: overview and key trends

Monitoring SDG 2 in an EU context focuses on the topics of malnutrition, sustainable agricultural production and the environmental impacts of agricultural production. As Table 1 shows, the EU has made some progress in areas of sustainable agricultural production over the past few years. However, there is still room for improvement in terms of the agriculture’s environmental impacts, where the picture is mixed — the farmland bird index shows a loss in biodiversity, while progress can be seen in other areas, especially when viewed over the long term. Data availability for the topic of malnutrition has improved and for the first time allows an assessment of recent EU trends in obesity, which show favourable developments.


Nutrition is the intake of food, considered in relation to the body’s dietary needs. Good nutrition — an adequate, well-balanced diet combined with regular physical activity and the avoidance of excessive alcohol consumption and tobacco use — is a cornerstone of good health. Whereas in many other parts of the world hunger is the main challenge related to malnutrition, in Europe obesity presents the most serious nutrition-related health issue.

Obesity levels have fallen in the EU since 2014, but disparities between age and educational groups remain

Figure 1: Obesity and pre-obesity rate, by sex, age group and educational attainment, EU-28, 2017 (% of population aged 18 or over)
Source: Eurostat (ilc_hch10)

Obesity is a malnutrition problem, especially in an age of globalisation and mechanisation when consumption and activity habits are changing. Supporting a balanced nutritional diet with an adequately active lifestyle is a challenge for many. While the causes of obesity vary for each person, the problem is generally attributed to poor diets of foods high in fat, salt and sugar, lifestyle choices characterised by low physical activity and high caloric consumption, and sociological and hereditary factors.

Obesity is a significant health issue in the EU, affecting 15.2 % of the total adult population in 2017. It also disproportionately affects people with lower levels of education: 17.3 % and 16.2 % of adults with low and medium levels of education, respectively, were obese in 2017, whereas only 11.7 % of people with high education levels fell into this category. Because lower educational levels tend to be associated with economic and social disadvantages, obesity is a bigger issue among socially disadvantaged groups. To tackle this trend, some EU countries have implemented policies to target vulnerable populations with obesity campaigns and interventions [1]. Obesity also generally tends to increase with age until late in life. In 2017, the obesity rate peaked among older Europeans aged 65 to 74 and fell again after the age of 75.

When considered together with pre-obesity, the situation looks more severe, affecting more than 50 % of the total EU population. Patterns in the pre-obesity rate follow patterns in the obesity rate, though pre-obesity affected more than twice as many Europeans as obesity (36.8 % of the total adult population) in 2017.

Between 2014 and 2017, the share of obese people declined by 0.7 percentage points in the EU, from 15.9 % to 15.2 %, while the share of the pre-obese population grew slightly, from 35.7 % to 36.8 %. The overall share of overweight people consequently grew slightly over this period, from 51.6 % in 2014 to 52.0 % in 2017. At the Member State level, 12 of the 23 EU countries for which data for 2014 and 2017 are available show a rise in the obesity rate.

Sustainable agricultural production

Sustainable agricultural production is a key element in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. A concerted effort is therefore needed to create a food production system that is based on sustainable agricultural practices and produces an adequate supply of food in line with national and international governmental dietary guidelines. Ensuring a healthy, sustainable supply of food, both now and in the long term, is especially important in the face of challenges such as climate change and a rising population.

Agriculture is a complex field. To provide a complete picture of agricultural production, indicators must cover the social, economic and ecological aspects of sustainability by addressing a variety of topics, ranging from monetary aspects (income, government support) to specific farming practices (organic farming, nutrient management). The overall picture painted by these indicators regarding progress towards SDG 2 in an EU context is uneven. While some progress has been achieved over the long term, the situation for biodiversity is worsening.

Labour productivity in European agriculture has increased, but investment in the future of farming lags behind

Figure 2: Agricultural factor income per annual work unit (AWU), EU-28, 2005-2018 (index 2010=100)
Source: Eurostat (sdg_02_20)

Figure 3: Government support to agricultural research and development, EU-28, 2007-2017 (EUR million)
Source: Eurostat (sdg_02_30)

Economic sustainability needs to be achieved in the European agricultural sector to ensure its long-term viability. Agricultural factor income per annual work unit (AWU) is an indicator of labour productivity. Following a dip during the economic crisis in the late 2000s, agricultural factor income per AWU has been rising in Europe, and in 2018 was 20.7 % above 2010 levels. This is mainly due to strong growth between 2010 and 2011 (by 8.8 %) and again between 2016 and 2017 (by 11.3 %), driven partly by increased output values (prices and/or yields) and partly by a reduced labour force.

Agricultural factor income per AWU varies considerably between Member States and farm types. It tends to be higher in countries with more mechanised, input-intensive production systems than in countries using more traditional, labour-intensive methods. Differences in wage levels and employment opportunities outside agriculture may also play a role, as they can provide alternative sources of work for labourers.

Additional data from the economic accounts for agriculture confirm that the economic viability of the EU’s agricultural sector appears to be increasing, with entrepreneurial income growing [2]. From 2010 to 2018, real net agricultural entrepreneurial income per unpaid AWU rose by 30.4 % and net entrepreneurial income of agriculture grew by 10.9 %. Similar to agricultural factor income, a number of reasons may account for these trends, such as ever fewer small farms, rising agricultural prices and a decline in the amount of human labour associated with industrialised agricultural systems.

The sustainability of the agricultural sector depends to a large extent on investment that decouples agricultural productivity from environmental impacts. A crucial part of this is investment in research and innovation, which helps to keep farmers competitive and able to adapt to challenges. Overall in the EU, government support to agricultural research and development has risen over the short term, growing by 9.5 % between 2012 and 2017, reaching EUR 3.2 billion in 2017. The trend varies across Member States according to national resources and funding priorities, with some increasing in recent years, while others have decreased. In relation to other sectors, government spending data from 2017 indicate agricultural R&D is a medium priority for Member States. Research in this sector received more government investment than, for example, education (EUR 1.4 billion), about the same amount as transport, telecommunication and other infrastructures (EUR 3.2 billion), and less than industrial production and technology (EUR 9.7 billion) and health (EUR 8.5 billion)  [3].

Organic farming is on the rise across Europe, but nutrient use could be more efficient

Figure 4: Area under organic farming, EU, 2005-2017 (% of utilised agricultural area)
Source: Eurostat (sdg_02_40)

Figure 5: Gross nitrogen balance on agricultural land, EU-28, 2004–2015 (kg per hectare)
Source: Eurostat (sdg_02_50)

Organic farming is a specific example of a sustainable agricultural management system that seeks to limit environmental impacts by using agricultural practices that encourage responsible use of energy and natural resources, maintain or enhance biodiversity, preserve regional ecological balances, increase soil fertility and water quality, encourage high animal welfare standards, and enhance the capacity to adapt to climate change.

Organic farming is on the rise across the EU. The The share of organic agriculture in total agricultural area nearly doubled between 2005 and 2017, rising from 3.8 % to 7.0 %. Austria leads the EU with more than 23 % of its agricultural area farmed organically in 2017, followed by Estonia and Sweden with slightly below 20 %. In all other Member States, organic farming was practised on less than 15 % of agricultural land.

Several statistics indicate that organic farming is well set to continue growing in Europe. Demand for organic food, for example, is steadily on the rise [4]. The value of the organic retail market in the EU was EUR 34.2 billion in 2017, with retail sales growth of 10.8 % between 2016 and 2017 [5]. The number of organic producers has also been increasing in Europe, reaching 295 577 in 2016 [6]. In 2017, the area under conversion to organic agriculture was between 10 % and 20 % of the total organic area in 11 Member States, and over 20 % in a further 11 Member States [7]. This suggests the organic sector’s production and economic importance can be expected to continue growing across the EU.

The gross nitrogen balance on agricultural land gives information about the possible environmental impacts of nutrient use and management on farms. This measure represents the balance of nitrogen inputs (for example, mineral fertiliser, manure, crop residue, nitrogen-fixing from legume crops) and outputs (such as via removal from harvested crops) from agricultural production. While low nitrogen levels may indicate poor soil fertility, persistently high levels can cause nitrate leaching (water pollution), ammonia emissions and ecosystem disruptions (see next section on the environmental impacts of agricultural production). The EU has seen a slight decline in its nitrogen balance on agricultural land. From a surplus of 52 kilograms (kg) per hectare in 2004 and after reaching a low of 46 kg per hectare in 2009, the surplus reached 51 kg per hectare in 2015. A return to the downward trend is needed to make progress towards SDG 2.

Environmental impacts of agricultural production

Agriculture provides environmental benefits such as maintaining specific farmland ecosystems and diverse landscapes, as well as providing carbon sinks. However, considerable increases in agricultural productivity and a move towards industrial agriculture practices in Europe since 1950 have contributed to the degradation of environmental and climate conditions and have led to animal welfare concerns. Several indicators illustrate the environmental impact of agricultural activities and can help determine the overall progress towards more sustainable agricultural production. They show some positive trends, but also a number of worrisome developments over the past few years, including growing ammonia emissions from agriculture and declines in the variety of farmland birds.

Excessive nutrient inputs are threatening the environment and water quality

Figure 6: Ammonia emissions from agriculture, EU-28, 1990-2016 (million tonnes)
Source: Eurostat (sdg_02_60)

Ammonia emissions and nitrates in groundwater are linked to excessive inputs of nitrogen from agricultural sources such as mineral fertiliser and livestock manure. When released into the atmosphere, ammonia pollutes the air and can harm sensitive vegetation systems, biodiversity and water quality through eutrophication and acidification. Airborne ammonia also contributes to the formation of particulate matter, which has significant human health effects (also see articles on SDG 3 ‘Good health and well-being’ and on SDG 11 ‘Sustainable cities and communities’).

Since the 1990s, Europe has seen significant decreases in its ammonia emissions from agriculture due to reductions in livestock density and nitrogen fertiliser use as well as changes in agricultural practices. In recent years, however, this trend has reversed. After reaching a low of 3.50 million tonnes in 2013, emissions started to increase again, reaching 3.61 million tonnes in 2016. Note that the national and EU totals might mask considerable variations in fertiliser application and livestock densities at regional and local levels.

The agricultural sector is also responsible for considerable quantities of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions [8], accounting for almost 10 % of total GHG emissions in the EU in 2016. While total emissions have been falling steadily in the EU (see the article on SDG 13 ‘Climate action’), GHG emissions from the agricultural sector had been falling for many years but started slowing rising again in 2013. They exceeded 430 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2016, although this figure is still far below 1990 levels [9].

Nitrates (NO3) can end up in groundwater when more fertiliser is applied than the plants need. This can lead to eutrophication and reduce groundwater quality. After peaking at 19.2 milligrams (mg) NO3 per litre in 2007, the overall concentration of nitrates in EU groundwater has returned to levels observed in the early 2000s. Between 2011 and 2015 levels returned to below 18.6 mg NO3 per litre (see the article on SDG 6 ‘Clean water and sanitation’). However, for the period 2012 to 2015, Member States reported that 13.2 % of groundwater stations recorded excessive nitrate levels according to the Nitrates Directive (their average annual nitrate concentration exceeded 50 mg NO3 per litre), and during this period there were still important unresolved regional pressures and pollution hotspots [10].

There are also vast differences in the performance of Member States regarding nitrogen-related emissions. Countries such as Malta, Cyprus, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands have the highest rates of ammonia emissions and nitrates in groundwater. Romania, Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Latvia — all countries with relatively low-intensity agriculture — have the lowest ammonia emissions.

Soil erosion: a major threat, but there are signs of improvement across Europe

Healthy soils are essential for sustainable and productive agricultural systems. Because soils take years to form, they can be considered a non-renewable resource for food production. One of the biggest threats to soil health in Europe is soil erosion, which can be caused by both wind and water. Though erosion is a natural process, inappropriate land management and other human activities can cause it to accelerate to such an extent that soil can be irreversibly lost. The indicator on estimated soil erosion by water provides a measure of the area at risk of severe soil erosion (leading to the loss of more than 10 tonnes per hectare per year). The Mediterranean region is especially affected because it experiences long, dry periods and sudden rainfall events on steep slopes with fragile soils [11]. Water erosion can also harm the environment by washing nutrients out of soils and into water bodies, leading to water quality problems such as toxic algal blooms [12].

In the EU, 201 885 km2 of land was at risk of severe soil loss from water erosion in 2012 — an area equal to about 1.5 times Greece’s total land area. Yet the risk of severe soil erosion has been declining in the EU, in part due to mandatory cross-compliance measures in the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The share of non-artificial erosive area estimated to be at risk of severe soil erosion by water fell from 6.0 % to 5.2 % between 2000 and 2012.

High agricultural productivity can harm biodiversity

Some agricultural landscapes provide valuable and unique habitats for a host of species, both common and threatened. However, unless the features that support biodiversity also generate income for farmers and/or receive appropriate regulatory protection, they will come under growing pressure in the race to increase productivity. Species related to agroecosystems would have fared worse without the agri-environmental measures in EU policies, primarily the Common Agriculture Policy, but measures have not yet been effective enough to halt overall biodiversity loss in agricultural habitats [13].

Farmland birds species depend on agricultural habitats. Their relative visibility make them good indicator species for monitoring biodiversity. The common farmland bird index measures the relative abundance and diversity compared to the base year of 2000 for 39 farmland bird species. Between 2001 and 2016, the EU saw a considerable decline of 14.8 % for common farmland birds, which is a continuation of the trend that has been observed since 1990.


Achieving healthy diets and ensuring agricultural systems remain productive and sustainable in the future are the key challenges associated with SDG 2 in the EU. Unlike many areas of the world, which face hunger, the EU’s central nutritional issue is obesity. This condition can harm health and well-being and have adverse impacts on health and social systems, governmental budgets and the productivity and growth of the economy. Furthermore, sustainable and productive agricultural systems are essential for ensuring a reliable supply of nutritious food now and in the future, especially in the face of challenges such as climate change and a rising population. However, although Europe’s agricultural productivity has increased in recent decades, certain ongoing negative environmental impacts of farming could threaten long-term sustainability of agricultural production and the ability to provide healthy and sustainable food.

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More detailed information on EU SDG indicators for monitoring of progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as indicator relevance, definitions, methodological notes, background and potential linkages, can be found in the introduction of the publication ’Sustainable development in the European Union — Monitoring report - 2019 edition’.


  1. OECD and EU (2016), Health at a Glance: Europe 2016 State of health in the EU cycle, OECD Publishing, Paris.
  2. Source: Eurostat (online data code: (aact_eaa06))
  3. Source: Eurostat (online data code: (gba_nabsfin07))
  4. European Commission (2014), Communication From The Commission To The European Parliament, The Council, The European Economic And Social Committee And The Committee Of The Regions: Action Plan for the future of Organic Production in the European Union, COM(2014) 179 final.
  5. Source: FiBL Statistics — Europe — Key indicators. Research Institute of Organic Agriculture. Data covers EU-28 excluding Malta and Estonia, for which data is not available.
  6. Source: Eurostat (online data code: (org_coptyp))
  7. Eurostat, Statistics explained: Organic farming statistics..
  8. The main GHG emissions from agricultural practices are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O)
  9. Source: Eurostat (online data code: (env_air_gge))
  10. European Commission (2018), Report from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on the implementation of Council Directive 91/676/EEC concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources based on Member State reports for the period 2012–2015, COM(2018) 257 final, Brussels, p. 5.
  11. Joint Research Centre (2012), The State of Soil in Europe: A contribution of the JRC to the European Environment Agency’s Environment State and Outlook Report 2010, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.
  12. Joint Research Centre (2012), The State of Soil in Europe: A contribution of the JRC to the European Environment Agency’s Environment State and Outlook Report 2010, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.
  13. European Commission (2016), Fitness Check of the EU Nature Legislation (Birds and Habitats Directives), SWD(2016) 472 final.