To counter the threats posed to climate, biodiversity, human health and societal wellbeing, food systems need urgent transformation.
Food connects us all, transcending borders, nationality and language. As Vandana Shiva puts it, ‘food is the currency of life’.
From farmers to lorry drivers, chefs to supermarket assistants, entrepreneurs to lobbyists and, of course, consumers, interdependencies and power relations define the structures and processes that shape what we eat. ‘Food systems’ are basically the aggregation of everyone with a stake in food and the dynamics that link them.
But our food systems are not working, for people or planet: farmers are being ripped off and our diets are damaging our health, while food waste is sky-high. Today’s mode of agriculture is a key driver of carbon emissions, soil health decline and water scarcity, and the leading cause of species and habitat loss in Europe. In other words, our food systems are profoundly unsustainable.
Fortunately, the European Union has a real opportunity to shape a greener, fairer, safer future: the sustainable food systems (SFS) law stemming from the Farm to Fork Strategy. It can—and must—become an overarching blueprint, harmonising currently fragmented EU farming and food policies.
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But yesterday’s State of the European Union address by the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen—a significant annual occasion highlighting the commission’s priorities—failed to mention the SFS law at all. Legislation aiming to make our food systems more sustainable has faced mounting pushback following the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine.
Yet future-proofing and ensuring long-term food security for all demand an urgent transition to systems which are environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. Indeed, as the commission’s own Stella Kyriakides noted, ‘inaction is unthinkable’.
There is immense support for sustainable food systems across Europe. Four key groups are calling for change: farmers, consumers, businesses and scientists. The commission must recognise this appetite for change and publish aproposal (promised before the year end) urgently.
Farmers pushed to the limit
Today agri-food corporations, not farmers, run European agriculture. With overwhelming market leverage, the industry calls the shots on decisions that directly affect farmers, from policy-making on toxic pesticide use to the market price farmers must accept for their produce.
This profit-hungry model drives speculative ‘land-grabbing’, which leaves rural heritage, cultural landscapes and natural ecosystems exposed to intensive practices. These destroy the biodiversity underpinning food security and sever the fundamental link between people and the land that feeds us.
Corporate bullying is pushing farmers to their limits, forcing many to quit and driving alarming rates of suicide. Yet these vast lobbies (and their political allies) claim to speak for and support all farmers. As a recent damning investigation revealed, this is simply not the case.
In reality, while chasing profit margins they manipulate farmers through misinformation campaigns and farmers are fed up. Objecting to a predatory system which damages their land and drives them out of business, farmers have reasonable requests: dignified working conditions, a fair return for their produce and autonomy over their land.
The SFS law can strengthen the foundations of our food systems by placing farmers at the centre of this transition. It should foster an agricultural system where farmers are supported and enjoy full agency over their role in delivering food to our tables, while nurturing the land and safeguarding future food security.
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Consumers’ poor nutrition
European health is under threat, in large part due to what we eat. Poor nutrition is one of the leading causes of non-communicable diseases, which account for 90 per cent of all deaths.
Many consumers are aware of the dangers today’s food systems pose, to our health and the environment, and want to support the transition to truly sustainable systems. But dietary choices are not made by us alone.
Mostly, industry actors shape ‘food environments’—the ‘physical, economic, political and socio-cultural context in which consumers engage with the food system to make their decisions about acquiring, preparing and consuming food’. They systematically encourage us to plump for unhealthy, unsustainable options, while the healthy, sustainable alternative is often disproportionately expensive, unappealing or absent.
The power imbalance between consumers and corporate food giants is stark. With little opposition or regulation, the latter decide what is available and how much we pay. And while industry rakes in off-the-charts profits, consumers bear the cost through excessively (and artificially) inflated food prices—’greedflation’—and overburdened public healthcare.
The SFS law can rebalance the scales by ensuring true accountability across food systems. It presents an opportunity to challenge corporate power and support participatory governance in this arena, curbing profits made at the expense of health and sustainability and paving the way for real democracy.
Bad for business
Aside from the very few reaping enormous financial gains, current food systems are bad for business too. Many European enterprises already acknowledge this and are demanding change. They recognise the dangers an unsustainable food system poses for their competitiveness, confidence and success in the medium to long term. Indeed, for many smaller players, that threat is existential.
Only by being truly sustainable can food systems be resilient and businesses remain viable. But recent events have exposed their global vulnerability, highlighting over-reliance on long supply chains increasingly affected by geopolitics. In refusing seriously to acknowledge the link between today’s food systems and the climate and biodiversity crises, many of the actors controlling them are impeding change. The consequences are being felt by many, as companies and industries experience first-hand the devastating effects of global heating and biodiversity loss.
Without action, the fates of innumerable businesses and millions of livelihoods across the EU are at stake. In a unified demonstration of support for the SFS law, more than 50 large food companies signed a joint statement, demanding that the commission fulfil its promise to deliver an ambitious and comprehensive proposal that would reduce emissions, support people and jobs, preserve natural ecosystems and protect businesses.
The science is unequivocal that ‘radical system-wide change is required, with “business as usual” no longer a viable option’. Thus concludes one of two major recent publications by the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM), a body of independent scientists providing policy advice to the commission.
It emphasises the urgent need to transform Europe’s food systems holistically, so that they become environmentally sustainable and socially just. A truly systemic approach is essential and can only be achieved if we address the power imbalances and inadequate regulation which favour a system of production and distribution controlled by very few. The second report stresses the need to encourage sustainable food consumption, a responsibility that must not fall on consumers alone.
The SFS law presents a unique occasion to achieve what scientists urge—a shift from a fragmented approach towards an integrated model of food governance that supports farmers, protects consumers and businesses and ensures food security. The SAM has provided extensive evidence that decisive action on food systems is imperative and its recommendations are clear. The commission must act on them, recognising that policy must be aligned with what the science demands.