Achieving the holy grail of sustainability for the EU has a far greater chance of success if every person involved with food considers their role.
After a year of research which fed the independent, authoritative report A Sustainable Food System for the European Union, ten key messages appeared from the research which help us to understand what an inclusive, just and timely transition to a sustainable food system could look like.
Food systems are complex with social, economic and ecological components, which require radical change to ensure future food security and sustainability. Fixed definitions of a sustainable food system don’t exist, the current food system is a series of complex adaptive systems with social, economic and ecological components that largely rely on linear economics. It does not consider the diversification and the evolving roles of actors within the supply chain. The redefinition and move towards circular systems will re-categorise consumers as actors too. This humanisation of the system will create more value and opportunity for all actors within the supply chain.
Underlying values often form the foundations of discussions about sustainable food, including whether food is thought of as a commodity, a human right, or as a common good. Value chains are controlled by multiple layers of policy, people, processes and products. The system is governed by what consumers consider to be valuable. Transformation is the key to create large scale changes of whole societies. There is a need to recognize the the diversity of traditional foods and regional cuisines, which have been identified as an important foundation of European identity.
Food systems are a major contributor to GHG emissions which can be addressed through a more ‘circular’ approach which focuses on waste reduction and re-valorization. One-third of global food production is wasted. Food waste and its disposal are associated with alarmingly high inputs of land, water and energy that generate 8–10% of all global GHG-emissions. An increase in global food trends and income growth will lead to pressure on the food system in three areas — GHG emissions, uneven consumption patterns and waste management. 50% of food waste occurs at household level in high income countries. A move towards a circular food economy will demand increased innovation, transparency and responsibility by all actors in the supply-chain including hospitality to the final consumer. Recalibrate thinking on how all actors manage their expectations on Needs vs Wants considering reuse, recycle, re-utilise.
Increasing productivity through ‘sustainable intensification’ is unlikely to meet the future global demand for food. Changes in consumption are also vital and will require changes in norms, habits and routines. There is an opportunity to educate consumers to change the culture of consumption. The culture is an assimilation of lived experience and exposure. Change can be managed through simplified campaigning of core messages to diverse audiences. Evidence shows that it is not enough that people know the ‘facts’ about food production and consumption, they need to understand the real cause and effect of choices.
Changing behavior is best effected through joined-up actions, at a collective rather than a purely individual level. In order to build a sustainable food system, it is vital for all actors to work collectively towards aligned goals. This impact of such a collaborative working style across the supply will effectively be able to tackle complex governance, regulatory and systemic issues.
Effective governance and policymaking needs to work at all levels, from global to local, not restricted to one level. From small to large-scale changes and from hard to soft measures, a mix of interventions is likely to be most effective in addressing future food sustainability. Traditional structures and organisational bodies need to be re-designed and innovated in alignment with system changes and to meet the needs of present and future generations. Policymaking processes will need to be adapted to be impactful at all levels; from local to global, small to changes and from hard to soft measures.
Sustainability initiatives need to recognise territorial imbalances and respect the diversity of the EU farming sector, including links between rural and urban populations. A growing need to understand the stark differences and imbalances between the rural and urban populations. The difference in values, consumption and culture create territorial imbalances that would need to be overcome in order to reach a sustainable approach to food systems.
Taxation is one of the most effective ways to drive change, while CAP reform and fisheries policy offer great opportunities for developing resilience and sustainability in food production. Accreditation and labelling schemes can also have notable impact. Changing behaviour at both national and European level is most effective through a mixture of taxation, media, nudging and labelling. Policy standards across CAF & CFP (Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies) deliver value through transparency, accountability and responsibility towards developing a sustainable food production.
Change is a shared responsibility which can include experimental methods and learning from mistakes, showing adaptability and inclusiveness. Synergies need to be found and trade-offs anticipated. Climate change is a shared responsibility. With up to 37% of global GHG emissions being food system related, equating to an estimated environmental cost of $12tn per annum, rising to $16tn 2050. There is a need for radical and path-breaking change that requires multiple conditions to be satisfied at the same time. Creating synergistic processes welcome the opportunity for research, development and review of new hybrid methods.
Evidence of ‘what works’ in practice is scarce, therefore all steps towards a just and sustainable food system should be iterative and carefully evaluated at all stages. Those involved in developing sustainable food systems can expect a process of trial and error. Monitoring progress at all stages will help build viable and resilient solutions which consider everyone’s needs.
SAPEA, or Science Advice for Policy by European Academies, brings together outstanding expertise in engineering, humanities, medicine, natural and social sciences from over 100 academies, young academies and learned societies across Europe.
SAPEA is part of the European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism. Together with the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors, we provide independent scientific advice to European Commissioners to support their decision-making. We also work to strengthen connections between Europe’s academies and Academy Networks, and to stimulate debate in Europe about the role of evidence in policy-making.
SAPEA is funded by grant 737432 from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme.