Towards more sustainable food systems – the transformation must be inclusive and fair, says the EESC

Sustainable food Systems

On World Sustainable Gastronomy Day, the EESC stresses the importance of setting the sustainability bar high on how the world should aspire to feed itself in the coming decades. It is critical to take into account where ingredients come from, how food is grown and how it gets from farms to our forks, and to carry out the urgent transformations needed to achieve more sustainable food systems. All citizens and stakeholders across all food chains, in the EU and elsewhere, should benefit from a just and inclusive transition, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn.

To contribute to the 2021 United Nations (UN) Food Systems Summit, which will take place in September in New York, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held an online hearing on 28 May to explore the vulnerabilities and inequalities of European food systems, and to identify how to achieve more equitable and fairer supply chains. High-level speakers from the UN, the European Commission and the European Parliament shared their views on the transformations needed to strengthen equity, fairness and a rights-based approach in the transition to more sustainable food systems.

To have a functioning food system is a simple necessity. A food policy ensuring competitiveness, inclusiveness and sustainability, requires a star menu. For years, the EESC has been at the forefront of calling for a sustainable and comprehensive food policy. We cannot achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development without transforming our food systems. This year's UN Food Systems Summit provides an important opportunity to accelerate action in this regard, stressed Christa Schweng, EESC president, in her opening statement.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for change. Although farmers and food system workers have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis and have ensured an uninterrupted supply of food for all Europeans, this crisis has underlined the fact that getting food "from farm to fork" cannot be taken for granted, pointed out Andreas Thurner, president of the EESC Thematic Study Group on Sustainable Food Systems. The crisis has demonstrated the interconnectedness of actors and activities in agriculture and throughout the food system. It has also made us acutely aware of the vulnerabilities of certain groups and sectors, and of the inequalities affecting the food supply chain.

In this context, the Commission's Farm to Fork Strategy, which is at the core of the European Green Deal, is an opportunity to fundamentally reshape supply chain dynamics and deliver lasting improvements to farmers' and food system workers’ incomes and livelihoods. This new framework is expected to create sustainable and resilient food systems, including fair earnings for all economic operators across the food chain. Turning this strategy into meaningful and timely actions is now crucial.

The EESC has repeatedly emphasised that the European Green Deal must be a Green and Social Deal in all its components, and the post-COVID-19 recovery represents an opportunity to build back better. More sustainable, fairer and inclusive food systems should contribute to a wellbeing economy that works for people and the planet, leaving no one behind, emphasised Peter Schmidt, president of the EESC NAT Section.

The hearing focused on three key ways to achieve more equitable and fairer supply chains: ensuring decent work in the food supply chain, promoting fair trade and banning unfair trading practices, and empowering women and young people to play an active role. These issues were discussed with business representatives, organic farmers, cooperatives, trade unions, NGOs, women and young people.

Ensuring decent work in the food supply chain

Achieving sustainable food systems that deliver food security and nutrition for all involves promoting decent work and sustainable livelihoods for workers and producers along the food supply chain. Many sectors depend on migrant workers, who often face discrimination as well as a lack of rights and social protection in their workplace. The most important demands highlighted by stakeholders during the panel discussion include making Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments dependent on social conditions, introducing mandatory due diligence legislation and ensuring social security for all. The need for a different business approach based on full transparency was also stressed and good examples of initiatives by consumer cooperatives were presented in this context (for instance, Coop Sweden's digital label).

Promoting fair trade and banning unfair trading practices

Fair trading practices and fair food prices (reflecting the true cost of production for the environment and society) are the only way to achieve sustainable and equitable food systems in the long term. Stakeholders highlighted the need to ensure true reciprocity of standards in trade agreements, as cheap imports often mean high social and environmental costs in non-EU countries. Local approaches, such as community-supported agriculture, bio-districts and city food networks have a key role to play as they encourage rural development and build trust in food systems. Once implemented and enforced, the EU Directive on Unfair Trading Practices also has the potential to be a game changer for farmers and other stakeholders who are in a weaker position in the supply chain.

Empowering women and young people to play an active role in sustainable food systems

For food systems to be truly sustainable, it is essential to give space to women, youth and other marginalised groups. There are still many challenges for women who want to start a business in the farming/food sector, such as access to credit, knowledge and skills. The EU also urgently needs young people's innovative and ambitious approach to redesigning our future, and opportunities must be provided for young people to join cooperatives, local councils or youth food policy councils. To seat young people at the table, the EESC has been pushing for structured youth engagement on climate and sustainability in the EU decision-making process. This pioneering move will begin on 13 July, with the first Youth Climate and Sustainability Round Table, to be hosted by the EESC in collaboration with the European Commission.


The EESC has developed several proposals and concrete ideas over the years that can be summarised in five sets of recommendations, which can provide useful input to the UN Food Systems Summit:

I. Foster comprehensive and integrated food policies

II. Promote healthier and more sustainable diets

III. Ensure fair prices and ban unfair trading practices

IV. Enhance the potential of short food supply chains and agroecology

V. Ensure structured involvement and participation of civil society

EESC related opinions

NAT/677 – More sustainable food systems

NAT/711 – Comprehensive EU food policy

NAT/734 – Improving the food supply chain/UTPs

NAT/755 – Healthy and sustainable diets

NAT/763 – Short food supply chains/agroecology

NAT/787 – "From farm to fork": a sustainable food strategy

NAT/789 – Towards an EU strategy on sustainable consumption

Background to the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit

The UN Food Systems Summit aims to be a summit of solutions and to launch bold new actions to transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food.

It is also meant to be a "people's summit", bringing together youth, farmers, indigenous peoples, civil society, researchers, the private sector, policy leaders and ministers of agriculture, the environment, health, nutrition and finance, to set up a global movement for healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems.

The summit will focus on the fact that we must all work together to transform our food systems, while delivering progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

A pre-summit will be held on 26-28 July, in Rome, to set the stage for the main global event in September.