Tomato hosting a quiz for vegetables and fruit

Fact, fiction, and food: exposing EU food security myths

As it is in most parts of the world, food is central to European life. However, the way we produce and consume food in Europe today is harming both people and planet. One debate swelling in Brussels and across Europe concerns “food security”. As the stakes rise, claims abound… Test your knowledge in our quiz below and see if you can spot fact from fiction!

By Ben Snelson and Samantha Ibbott

What do we mean by “food security”? 

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

Defined at the World Food Summit in 1996 

Conflict, economic shock, climate change, and biodiversity loss all have an impact on global food security. Today there are more than 900,000 people worldwide experiencing devastating ‘famine-like’ conditions, while a record 349 million people face acute food insecurity. 

What is the EU’s relationship with global food security? How much control do you have over what you eat? And what is the difference between food availability and food accessibility?


Tomato with a thought bubble containing the planet and question marks

Contrary to what many might assume, Europe actually ‘eats the world’. 

It would be comforting to presume that the EU, which has a strong track record for agricultural overproduction, is also able to support countries that struggle with self-sufficiency.  

Unfortunately, this is not the case.  

In fact, Europe consumes far more than its fair share, wastes more food than it imports and, despite being the largest exporter of food and drink products, does little to support global nutrition or food security as a vast amount of EU exports are luxury items, not food staples. After all, champagne and chocolate are hardly part of an accessible healthy diet - alas...  

And while the EU dominates in exporting high-value commodities, it is also a net importer of calories, relying on imports for 11% of calories and 26% of the protein it consumes. Importing low-value raw products and exporting high-value ones contributes greatly to the EU's economy but does little to support global food security.  

Failing to support global food security is unfortunately not the only shortcoming of the EU's agri-food trade. Europe’s agri-food imports have dire impacts on the environment and communities. One of the metrics is deforestation. Currently, the EU is the world’s second-largest importer of produce (such as coffee, palm oil and soy) linked to deforestation, after China. In an attempt to alter this devasting impact, in December 2022 the EU concluded negotiations on a new law on deforestation-free products. The ground-breaking regulation has been welcomed by many who hope that it will trigger much-needed structural change. However, it has fallen short of upholding the internationally-recognised rights of Indigenous Peoples – the best defenders of the world's forests – and many now fear this will undermine the regulation’s intent. 

Ultimately, the industrialisation, hyper-globalisation and monopolisation that characterise Europe’s food systems today mean the EU consumes well above its fair share, whilst contributing hugely to global biodiversity loss, soil depletion and climate breakdown, all of which impact human health.  

Sitting at the top of Europe's food systems are a handful of colossal companies. With business models set up to profit from financial uncertainty and supply shocks, there is little motivation for them to change. Instead, they control large sections of our food systems, driving unsustainable growth, devastating biodiversity loss and the spiralling costs we see today. All whilst claiming to 'feed the world'.    

The notion that Europe 'feeds the world’ may be false, but that doesn't mean that Europe has to ‘eat the world’ either. A systemic shift to a food system that provides for people, the planet and businesses alike is within our reach. By moving to a truly sustainable food system, embracing agroecology and facilitating a shift to healthy and nutritious diets (with less animal proteins) which respect planetary boundaries, we could lessen Europe’s impact on the rest of the world, which would go a long way in supporting global food security.

My food choices are guided by...

Animated image of a woman food shopping. The healthy options are hidden away.

While our relationship with food is guided significantly by our upbringing, education and values, our food choices are often determined by our immediate environment, of which we have little control. 

How we buy and consume food is shaped by 'food environments’, which are physical, social, economic, political and cultural contexts. They are the junctions between us and the food system, with retail being the easiest to picture. 

Chocolate bars at the supermarket checkout, ‘buy one get one free’ deals on crisps, fizzy drinks served as default beverages in fast food outlets and a distinct absence of low-cost salad bars. Sound familiar? These are examples of food environments that systematically draw consumers toward nutritionally poor and unsustainable food choices and encourage unhealthy consumption habits (think portion sizes, online food delivery culture, etc.). The ‘bad’ option is perversely often the easiest one. 

But this is not a question of people being unable to think for themselves. Indeed, there is more information now than ever before on what constitutes a healthy diet, and many Europeans have emphatically acknowledged the need for sustainability in EU food systems, as well as a willingness to be part of this transition by shifting toward healthier and more sustainable consumption habits. 

Multinational food companies wield significant influence over consumer choice, with harmful practices including the promotion of nutritionally poor and unsustainable foods, which are typically cheaper than their healthy and sustainable counterparts. With many unable to afford a healthy diet and more and more people demonstrating a desire for a more sustainable relationship with food, we need government action that puts human health and planetary wellbeing before corporate profits.  

Unhealthy diets (along with tobacco use, harmful alcohol consumption and insufficient exercise) are a leading cause of non-communicable diseases, which represent around 90% of all premature deaths in the EU. This can be attributed in large part to the structure of Europe’s food environments. A worrying picture of how current food environments are taking a real toll on people’s health can be seen among the young. Given their growing use of digital media, children and young people (among whom obesity rates remain high) are at particular risk. And yet only one EU country - Portugal - has legislated to protect children, a highly impressionable demographic, from targeted digital marketing of foods high in salt, sugar and fat.  

Profit-driven food environments are making us and the planet sick, but it needn't be this way. Governments have the power - and duty - to protect the health of their citizens and the environment and must urgently act to shape food environments which make healthy, sustainable food the easy choice.

Does Europe have... 

Food availability, food accessibility. Po-ta-to, po-tah-to, to-may-to, to-mah-to, right? No. These two terms are often used interchangeably. But they shouldn’t be. 

Food availability is linked to the supply side of food security and, thankfully, Europe doesn’t have a food shortage problem. Food accessibility, on the other hand, is a “growing concern for an increasing number of low-income households”, as the European Commission’s recent report on Food Security outlines. 

Europe’s current food systems are vulnerable to global geopolitical and economic shocks, such as those created by COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. As a result, long (often delicate) supply chains can be disrupted and food prices can soar, pushing nutritional, healthy food beyond the reach of Europe’s lowest-income households, creating a food accessibility issue. 

By reducing our reliance on a few key commodities and decentralising the systems of production and consumption, we can help make our food systems more resilient, secure and safe, lessening the burden on lower-income households. But for some this systemic shift to more sustainable food systems is hard to swallow. Increasing food production, through intensified business-as-usual practices (such as vast fields of monocultures smeared with pesticides) is instead put forward as a solution. This short-sighted approach not only fails to solve the issue but could also lead to a future availability issue. 

If we destroy biodiversity, by degrading soils and poisoning our land and water systems with the excessive use of pesticides, fertilisers and antimicrobials, then we threaten our ability to feed ourselves. 

What's more, Europe has a massive problem with food waste. Each year the EU throws out nearly 57 million tonnes of food, costing EU businesses and households an estimated €143 billion a year and causing at least 6% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions. With this knowledge, why would we push to increase production?  

We need a food system capable of withstanding global trade and financial shocks, one where farm workers are paid fairly and everyone can afford healthy and nutritious food, without the need for government subsidy. The EU Sustainable Food Systems (SFS) Law is the opportunity to do just that.  

A fairer future 

It is possible to have our cake and thoroughly enjoy eating it too. Food security, food safety and access to healthy food in Europe are all attainable, but not without some changes. 

We stand at a critical juncture. Our current food systems have been proven inadequate time and time again, rendering the European Commission’s commitment to proposing and implementing an ambitious SFS Law vital. The EU has the opportunity to overhaul EU food policy and initiate a systemic transition to sustainability – from production to consumption – with time-bound, legally binding targets and engagement and accountability at all levels.