Food is at the beating heart of European life. Indeed, if there’s one thing that brings Europeans together, it’s food. However, the way we produce and consume food today is making us sick and wrecking the planet. But things needn’t be this way… Ben Snelson and Célia Nyssens report.

People are suffering, biodiversdity is in freefall, and our climate is collapsing around us. As should be abundantly clear by now, without immediate, collective and resolute action, this story does not end well.

Much of the blame for these crises can be apportioned to the existing systems and structures underpinning our food. Indeed, one third of EU greenhouse gas emissions are generated by our food systems, further compounding a climate crisis already hitting crop yields across Europe and beyond. On top of this, millions of people are unable to access or afford healthy food, and widespread diet-related diseases incur huge social and health costs.

The UN defines a sustainable food system as one which “delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised”. But under prevailing systems, all of these foundations are being compromised.

While this challenge may seem insurmountable, through identifying the core drivers of today’s social and ecological ills – and tackling them at their root – we have the power to halt this downward spiral and plant the seeds of a future that protects the planet and supports society.

Systemic problems need systemic solutions

From supply chains to food safety, and from packaging materials to product labelling, food policy has long occupied an unwieldy corner of EU legislation. Despite the close links between those different jigsaw pieces, the absence of an overarching legal framework to guide food policy has entrenched a stubbornly siloed and partial approach to regulating food systems.

The EU’s hotly anticipated Sustainable Food Systems Law (SFS Law) offers a unique opportunity to ditch this disjointed system in favour of one which grasps the holistic nature of the many interconnected inputs and processes that feed half a billion Europeans. With a renewed approach to the way we grow, harvest, process, package, transport, market, retail, purchase, consume and dispose of our food, we have the ability to tangibly improve socio-economic equity, human health and environmental wellbeing.

Importing food, exporting problems

An argument frequently recycled by those seeking to uphold the status quo and even go further in the current trajectory of agricultural intensification and food industrialisation is that, “Europe needs to feed the world”. Besides its neo-colonialist undertones, this statement completely ignores the reality, which is that across our economy – and our food system in particular – this continent consumes far more than our fair share of the planet’s resources. In reality, Europe eats the world.

Europe cannot achieve sustainable food systems without tackling this inconvenient truth head on. The EU is the second biggest importer of embedded tropical deforestation (much of it illegal), with soy, used to feed our intensively-reared livestock, a major culprit. The average European consumes 61kg of soy per year, mostly “hidden” in the (over)consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy. In a world where fertile land is dwindling due to climate change and environmental degradation and global population is increasing, Europe has a moral responsibility to reduce the land and resources needed for our own (food) consumption.

This is not a matter of producing “more with less” – a dogma promoted by the agri-chemicals and food industries, but which has only brought disastrous impacts on ecosystems and public health to date. Our food system requires a drastic reorientation to be brought back within planetary boundaries while safeguarding the social foundations of our society – the famous “doughnut” model. The Sustainable Food System law must steer this transformation through ambitious targets, clear responsibilities for public and private actors, and robust mechanisms for public participation in, and scrutiny of, food policy-making. 

Time to rebalance the scales

On the other side of the resource overconsumption coin lies another systemic scandal: hunger. In 2021, over a fifth of the EU population was at risk of falling into poverty or social exclusion. The European Child Guarantee, adopted in 2021, specifies children’s access to food as a right in the EU. And yet it remains the case that not all schools are required to serve lunch at all.

Although COVID-19 was a time of suffering for many small and medium food businesses, for others – notably large supermarket chains and the global food conglomerates that replenish their shelves – the period was one of unbridled profiteering. In the meantime, the World Bank reported that the pandemic reversed poverty reduction efforts and in 2020 alone forced around 100 million people into extreme poverty. According to the report ‘Not in this together’, this suffering was felt most acutely along the global supermarket supply chain. 

But rather than ending with the pandemic, these structures have become entrenched. With the onset of the invasion of Ukraine, the commodification of food and speculation have become even more pronounced, with a recent analysis suggesting this to be a central cause of skyrocketing inflation. 

The inordinate wealth hoarded by private energy companies when many struggle to heat their homes has led the EU to act, with that industry now the subject of more stringent fiscal intervention

It follows, therefore, that at a time when so many cannot afford to eat regularly, that the corporate food industry should also bear some financial responsibility to alleviate the crises of soaring food prices and growing hunger. By approaching systemic food issues through the lens of human rights and strong social standards, and challenging the unaccountable monopolies governing our food, we can bring about a food system that protects and provides for all. The SFS Law should set the legal blueprint to facilitate this shift towards social equity. 

It’s the food environment, stupid

Many are aware of the impact of their diet on their own health and on the environment; and are willing to change. But every day, everywhere we go, the “food environment”, manufactured by market forces, pushes us in the wrong direction: from the ubiquity of fast food outlets, to the low cost of many unhealthy and unsustainable foods, and the constant bombardment of advertisements; eating healthily and sustainably is no piece of cake.

In such a context, it is absurd to expect that simply giving people information about the nutrition or sustainability credentials of food and relying on them to make the right choice could yield significant behavioural change. 

The ‘food environment approach’ by contrast emphasises that the most effective way of positively influencing food behaviours is to adjust the structural factors underpinning food choices: attractiveness, accessibility, price, etc. It is the responsibility of policymakers to step up to their role as defenders of the public good and use all policy instruments at their disposal to make healthy and sustainable food the easy choice, by shaping enabling food environments.

The consequences of inaction on food systems for our economy, society and environment will be far-reaching. But the opportunity of forging something transformational is momentous.

The SFS Law could serve as the springboard into a new era grounded in social equity and environmental responsibility. One that ensures access to healthy food for all, fosters a food production model respectful of nature, and protects the livelihoods of producers and farm and food industry workers.

In order to maximise the effectiveness of the SFS Law, the Commission must stand by its commitment to ambitious framework legislation for sustainable food systems, including binding targets and clear obligations. As Ursula von der Leyen once said, “trust is good, but law is better”

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