Urgent action is needed as Europe’s food systems stand at the crossroads of transformation or crisis

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Stakeholder Opinion

Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition.

This article is part of our special report Reset, restart: Transforming the EU food system.

The average European wastes their own weight in discarded food each year, and, worryingly for both our health and sustainability, more than half of the adult European population is overweight. Alongside this, agriculture is responsible for around 10 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the EU.

Dr. Marta Antonelli is Head of Research of the Barilla Foundation.

These are clear signs that the way we produce, eat, and dispose of our food is harming our health and the health of the environment. We cannot afford to continue ignoring them.

Our research shows that European food systems face a series of converging crises in health, environment, and society. From soil degradation to the ageing of farmers, unhealthy diets and the preventable burden of non-communicable diseases, the scale of these problems is massive, but not yet insurmountable.

Now, we stand at a crossroads where an urgent response is clearly needed if we are to have any hope of effectively addressing these mounting challenges.

The importance of food systems transformation was reinforced by the European Green Deal in 2019, which aims to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. A crucial element of this Green Deal is the “Farm to Fork Strategy, which calls for a transition towards a fair, resilient, healthy, and environmentally friendly food system.

Food systems are essential in the transition towards a decarbonised European continent, given they contribute up to 37 per cent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

To reach our climate goals, we recommend four key transformations that will ensure our food systems in Europe are healthier and more sustainable for all.

Firstly, Europeans should adopt healthier and more sustainable diets as individuals. Our dietary choices have a significant impact not just on our personal health, but the health of our environment also. Dietary guidelines in Germany and Sweden, for instance, promote the connection between environmental sustainability as well as the health impact of food, acting as an important model for how individuals can be encouraged to adopt healthy and environmentally sustainable diets.

Secondly, European lawmakers should pursue policies that incentivise and promote healthy and sustainable eating. Examples of this could include compulsory nutrition education in the national curriculum for primary and secondary schools, as well as helping to create environments that make sustainable food choices the default option.

Furthermore, policymakers should also ensure our food systems reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the different phases of production, as well as reducing overall food loss and waste. Moves have already been made in the right direction; France was the first country in the world to adopt laws against food loss and waste in 2016. Similarly, Italy introduced incentives in 2016 to encourage business to donate unsold food to charities, rather than let it go to waste.

Finally, the focus of new policy should be to transform European agriculture from part of the problem in our current food systems to a solution, so that we can achieve a healthier, more inclusive, and more sustainable future. This includes getting more young people involved in agriculture, promoting better biodiversity and ecosystem management, and developing new tools and solutions for more sustainable food systems overall. 

The issues affecting our food systems are not new but have been building unaddressed for years. The fragility of our existing systems in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the ability to achieve transformative change, should be on our minds as we move into the crucial period of the “Farm to Fork Strategy” and beyond.

The EU, and European citizens themselves, can take the lead in responding to these issues and begin transforming our food systems at both a European and global level. As these challenges mount, there has never been a greater need for decisive action.

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