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Last call for a sustainable food system

A cornerstone of Europe’s Green Deal, the framework law for sustainable food systems (SFS Law) presents an opportunity like no other to bring about a truly just transition to a safe and sustainable food system that we can all benefit from. But for this to happen the European Commission must hold the course and fulfil its promise – and duty – to publish a proposal on the SFS Law by September 2023.

Hands holding knife and fork above alarm clock on white plate on blue background. Intermittent fasting, Ketogenic dieting, weight loss, meal plan and healthy food concept
Hands holding knife and fork above alarm clock on white plate on blue background. Intermittent fasting, Ketogenic dieting, weight loss, meal plan and healthy food concept

Currently human and environmental health are in a poor – and rapidly declining – state. Much of this decline can be attributed directly to the intensive nature of modern agricultural processes and the food systems they sustain.

As the Commission marks the third anniversary of the publication of its EU Farm to Fork strategy, it has never been clearer that both people and nature need a transition to sustainable food systems now. The publication of the SFS Law proposal is a crucial step to ensuring we meet the objectives of the Farm to Fork strategy, and it is essential that the proposal is published by September 2023 to ensure a just transition to urgently needed healthy and sustainable food systems. 

Our current reality

Today, the EU’s food system accounts for over a third of the bloc’s greenhouse gas emissions. That is more than the emissions from the entire transport sector. By reducing our consumption of animal proteins, and embracing healthier, more sustainable options – we can drastically bring down emissions. Numerous surveys show that Europeans want to be part of this change, and have expressed their willingness to support it through conscious dietary shifts. 

Healthy soil is also key in the effort to reduce our carbon footprint, as it stores and retains vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. More than that, healthy soil is the bedrock of all life on earth. It provides a habitat for vast ecosystems, including billions of organisms who break down organic matter, creating more healthy soil, and thus sustaining the very basis of our food production. Yet despite 60-70% of Europe’s soils being in poor health, with approximately 1 billion tonnes eroding away each year, the need for action is still not high on most policymakers’ agendas.

The mismanagement of finite freshwater sources for intensive agricultural irrigation is also contributing to ‘Europe’s next crisis’. Much of this water is used to raise livestock, rather than growing food for human consumption, laying bare the enormous inefficiencies and waste in the existing system. For perspective, vegetables require around 332 litres per kg, while beef consumes over 15,000 litres of water per kg.

The social outlook is not rosy either. Today, we live in a profoundly unequal society, and our food systems are entrenching and worsening the already yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots. With food prices still at a record high, vast agri-food industry actors are celebrating bumper profits. And at the same time, food poverty is on the rise: food banks are proliferating and many European citizens are unable to afford a decent meal every second day

On top of this, while the consumer pays for this profiteering bonanza, we are also being systematically encouraged to eat food that harms both our health and the environment. Today’s ‘food environments’ – the physical, socio-economic and digital interface between consumers and food systems – heavily encourage consumption that is neither sustainable or healthy. Indeed, it is the ‘ultra-processed’ food products highest in salt, sugar and fat that are often the most affordable and readily available, while healthier options remain out of reach for many consumers. Rampant false green claims on food products make it harder still for consumers to make informed choices, capitalising on people’s good intentions to eat more sustainably. 

We cannot go on like this. 

Change is coming – whether we like it or not

The EU’s food systems sit at a crossroad of immense opportunity. There are two options; ‘business as usual’ or some much needed change. Science and our wallets tell us that the current system is not working and if we continue down that path things will only get worse. We must accept the reality, embrace the science and listen to European citizens and experts.

A healthy future for everyone is within reach, but only if we enact that necessary change – together. There is indisputable evidence that flourishing biodiversity does nothing but support agricultural yields. And as Frans Timmermans noted recently, as “every farmer will tell you: you cannot grow food on dead land”.

Self-interest threatens crucial files

Long-standing resistance to the EU’s green agenda has intensified in recent weeks and months. The extent of this opposition, worryingly spearheaded by the European People’s Party (EPP), was laid bare in the group’s increasingly extreme attempts to resist vital environmental legislation. It is equally dismaying, and disturbing, that a party that positions itself as ‘pro-farmer’ is so opposed to measures that would protect this constituency’s interests now, and in the long-run. 

By parading itself under the ‘business as usual’ banner ‘to protect farmers’, they fail to grasp the big picture. Our current food systems are hurting farmers who are already suffering from declining yields, low returns on investments, and regulatory incoherence. But ‘fixing’ the system is not enough. Food systems must be changed to avoid the squeeze on farmers’ livelihoods, where they miss out whilst massive agri-food coporations win big. A meaningful SFS Law can do just this, supporting farmers’ and farm workers’ interests by protecting the land they need to grow food, and ensuring safe working conditions and a fair return for produce.

So, how do they attempt to justify this resistance? By repeating the unfounded notion that we need to produce ever-more food to meet the demands of a growing European population, and ‘feed the rest of the world’. The idea that Europe is suffering a ‘food shortage’ couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, there is a major glut of grain in Europe, and in 2021 we wasted over 153 million tonnes of food – more than we imported. The case that Europe ‘feeds the world’ is also false. We actually owe a major nutritional debt to many countries beyond the EU.

One debate swelling across Europe at the moment concerns “food security”. As the stakes rise, claims abound… Can you spot fact from fiction?

Take our quiz

What about spiralling food prices hitting consumers? We are told the issue pertains to stubbornly persistent inflation. But then answer this: when inflation is going down, why have food prices not also fallen? This paradox is leading many to point to “greedflation”. Those who advocate the need to remain on course are the same ones who wish to sustain the enrichment of an already fabulously wealthy few companies at the top of the pile. Companies who already hold inordinate sway over what we all eat – and how much we pay for it.

The writing is on the wall. Let’s read it

Our current food systems are not sustainable. We physically cannot sustain them. But the SFS Law can set us on a new course, guiding us to a more positive future in which people are healthy, farmers are protected and fairly remunerated, and the biophysical boundaries of our Earth are respected. 

In its proposal for this legislative framework, there needs to be a systemic framing, binding existing and future food-related legislation and governance structures (including the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy) to the objectives, principles and provisions of the SFS Law. 

In addition, the SFS Law must acknowledge and directly address the harmful influence of prevailing food environments – the healthy, sustainable option must become the default one.

And everyone must be included in this change. This can happen through a process of food democratisation, which can be facilitated by the creation of inclusive ‘Food Councils’ at European, national and local levels. 

Finally, the law needs to contain clear provisions on accountability. That means ensuring that those who currently hold a monopoly over the food we all eat – and what we pay for it – do not continue to profit at the expense of human and environmental health. Rather, they must be held accountable for the harm they cause, and contribute to the solutions we so urgently need to secure the future we all deserve. 

Hungry for change?

This report outlines the EEB’s position on the EU Sustainable Food Systems Law framework, and makes recommendations for how we can bring about a truly sustainable food system that benefits people’s health, public health, biodiversity welfare and future food security.

Read the report

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