The time is ripe to accelerate a paradigm shift to healthier and more sustainable diets, and the evidence is strong and increasing. In this opinion, the EESC highlights that there is now political momentum in policies such as the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition, the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the new proposals on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy. There is also growing scientific evidence of the urgent need to transform Europe's and global food systems, for example in reports from the IPCC, the EAT-Lancet Commission, the Committee on World Food Security and the InterAcademies Partnership.
The EESC acknowledges and supports the existing initiatives by the Commission to promote healthy and sustainable diets, for example the inclusion of provisions in the latest CAP reform proposal to improve the response of EU agriculture to societal demands on food and health including safe, nutritious and sustainable food, food waste and animal welfare. However, a coordinated approach to these initiatives is missing.
The complexity of the food-health-environment-society nexus requires a more comprehensive approach on diets, not just related to consumers' behaviour. To provide cohesion and shared purpose, the EESC calls for the development of new Sustainable Dietary Guidelines, which take into account cultural and geographical differences between and within Member States. New Sustainable Dietary Guidelines would also help create clearer direction for farms, processors, retailers and foodservice. The agri-food system would benefit from a new "framework" to produce, process, distribute and sell healthier and more sustainable food with a fairer price.
The EESC calls for the creation of an Expert Group to formulate Europe-wide sustainable dietary guidelines within two years. This should include relevant professional and scientific bodies from nutrition, public health, food, environmental and social sciences. The EESC stands ready to contribute to the work of such an Expert Group to provide the input of civil society organisations, particularly through its Temporary Study Group on Sustainable Food Systems.
The EESC reiterates the importance of investing in education on sustainable diets from an early age, to help young people appreciate the "value of food". Special attention must be paid to vulnerable groups, especially people on low incomes.
The EESC highlights that a common European food labelling approach reflecting the Sustainable Dietary Guidelines would improve transparency and discourage the use of unnecessarily cheap raw materials that are both unhealthy and unsustainable (e.g. trans fats, palm oil and excess sugars). Consumers would benefit from extension to food labelling, to include environmental and social aspects. This would help drive consumers' choices towards healthier and more sustainable options.
Besides helping the commercial sector, Sustainable Dietary Guidelines would also provide common, clear criteria for use in public procurement. Europe needs food to be at the heart of a Green Public Procurement (GPP). In this context, the EESC calls for the revision of EU GPP criteria for food and catering services to be urgently adopted. Competition law should not be an obstacle to developing Sustainable Dietary Guidelines. Rules should be adapted to help the local economy rather than hinder sustainability
The EESC underlines that the full range of public governance tools should be considered as policy instruments to discourage the production and consumption of unhealthy foodstuffs and to promote healthy eating habits. The externalised costs of unsustainable diets are a "hidden" burden on society, economy and the environment which must be reduced or internalised. The EESC calls for proper policy strategies to implement sustainable dietary guidelines, especially focusing on the co-benefits for farmers and businesses.