We need a rapid transition to more sustainable, healthy, fair and climate-friendly food systems

Food is at the centre of our lives and an integral part of the European culture. Food also plays a crucial role in our economy: it is the Union’s biggest manufacturing sector in terms of employment and contribution to GDP. Also, the food we eat, the ways we produce it and the amounts wasted have major impacts on human health, on natural resources and on society as a whole.

Fortunately, we are no longer experiencing food shortages in Europe – and this is mostly thanks to our Common Agricultural Policy. However, civil society is more and more concerned about the economic, social and environmental impacts of food production and consumption. For example:

  • Our farmers and workers are not paid a fair price for their produce. We need to ensure a fairer distribution in the supply chain;
  • Our consumers are wasting up to one third of the food they buy;
  • Our citizens –and children in particular – are increasingly suffering from overweight and obesity due to unhealthy diets;
  • Our environment is paying the bill with the dramatic effects of food production and consumption on climate change, loss of biodiversity, air and water pollution, soil degradation, etc.

To address these challenges, we need a rapid transition to more sustainable, healthy, fair and climate-friendly food systems. Changing our food systems is essential for the implementation of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Food is a common thread linking all 17 SDGs, for example, Goal 2 on "Zero Hunger" and Goal 12.3 on "Halving food waste and food losses by 2030", but also Goal 3 on "Good health and well-being" or Goal 13 on "Climate Change". We cannot achieve the SDGs without fixing our food systems.

Food is also an opportunity to show why the SDGs should matter to everyone: that the goals are not something abstract emanating from the United Nations, but they are close to our lives and belong to all of us; that the SDGs are concretely implementable and that food policies can be a powerful driver of change.

The EU should step up its efforts to ensure food sustainability, not least because this is yet another way for Europe to get closer to its citizens. As the European elections are only three months away, we need to find positive and concrete messages – and we believe food is one of these messages - to re-connect Europe and its people.

This is why the EESC has been calling for the development of a comprehensive EU food policy addressing production and consumption at once and bringing together all food-related sectors (such as agriculture, environment, health, education, trade, economy, technology, etc.). By its very nature, the implementation of food-related SDGs requires collaborative, holistic solutions involving different departments and sectors, and the whole food supply chain. A sectoral approach is no longer sufficient to address today's interconnected challenges.

A comprehensive EU food policy is also necessary to promote and encourage the many initiatives that are taking place at local, regional and national level to develop more sustainable food systems, initiatives driven by civil society and local communities to shorten the food supply chain and encourage healthier and more sustainable food consumption: the increasing importance of farmers' markets in Italy and other EU countries, several examples of more integrated food policy approaches that are spreading around Europe, for example through national processes like the "Etats généraux de l'alimentation" in France, or regional cooperation initiatives like the Nordic Food Policy Lab or through the development of local food policy councils like in German-speaking countries.

One proposal put forward by the EESC is to explore the possibility to create a European Food Policy Council, bringing together the main actors (policy-makers, scientists and civil society stakeholders) that can unite behind the objective of moving towards food sustainability. As the representatives of organised civil society, the EESC in a unique position as a forum for dialogue and cooperation among the main stakeholders across the food chain –farmers, workers, food industry, SMEs retailers and consumers.