Food in a green light – A systems approach to sustainable food

This report takes a food system approach to analyse European production, consumption and trade of food, and associated environmental and human health aspects.The report addresses both terrestrial and aquatic food production and goes beyond the environmental impact and economic performance of agriculture and fisheries. The focus is on long-term sustainability objectives, as laid down in the 2050 vision of the Seventh Environment Action Programme and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Food in a green light EEA Report No 16/2017

A definition of a food system

As such, a food system can be defined as 'all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions etc.) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, and the outputs of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes.

Effects on people and nature of the global food system

The global food system incorporates many regional, national and local food systems. Food systems are estimated to be responsible for:

  • 60% of terrestrial biodiversity loss
  • around 24% of greenhouse gas emissions
  • 33% of degraded soils
  • full exploitation or overexploitation of around 91% of commercial fish populations
  • overexploitation of 20% of the world's freshwater aquifers

Sustainable food system outcomes

The complexity of the food system requires a framework to better understand where and how to act. The framework used in this report interprets the EU 2050 vision of 'living well, within the limits of our planet' in terms of three overarching outcomes: food and nutrition security, ecosystem health and social (and economic) wellbeing. To 'live well' means that the food system is optimising outcomes in terms of food and nutrition security and social wellbeing in an equitable way and contributing to the provision of good livelihoods, healthy, safe and nutritious food, and communities and culture. To live 'within the limits of our planet' means that the food system is optimising outcomes in terms of ecosystem health, contributing to ecosystem resilience, rather than degrading the natural resource base. (See Download-Link "Food System Outcome).

The European Food System

The European food system is mainly characterised by high external inputs (such as fossil fuels, fertilisers and pesticides), lower labour inputs and long supply chains.

  • Agriculture: Currently agriculture accounts for roughly 40 % of the land area in the EU. The general pattern of development in the agricultural sector: greater concentration, larger farms, less farmers. Shift towards more sustainability: ensuring sustainable use of renewable resources, not overexploiting them and managing them effectively, increase in overall resource efficiency in terms of external chemical inputs, water and energy use, land take and waste generation.
  • Trade: Europe is embedded in a dynamic global web of food producers, processers and markets that rely heavily on international trade in goods and services. The largest proportion of food consumed in the EU is still produced within the EU. But the imports outside Europe are increasing specially as well within the feed sector. This means that Europe is dependent on overseas land for its own production.
  • Food system actors: Food system actors represent the largest group of natural resource managers in the world, and consequently they are critical in both creating the problems and implementing the solutions. The 10 biggest retail companies in the EU have a combined market share of over 50 %. When actors such as large retailers have disproportionate buying power they can increase their profit margins by depressing prices that food producers receive for their produce. This in turn means lower incomes for producers, impacting their ability to invest in product or production process innovations that can contribute to more sustainable outcomes.

Possible opportunity: Changing food preferences

  • Food system actors such as suppliers, retailers and services are increasingly operating on transnational scales and actively shaping the food environment to influence food choices through measures such as advertising and packaging. Influencing the food environment could be an important lever for change with regard to dietary composition, reducing food waste and supporting more environmentally sustainable production.
  • Livestock production is more than six times as inefficient as crop production in terms of protein output. It requires feed, and feed production requires large quantities of land, water and other inputs leading to significant emissions of greenhouse gases and nitrogen oxides. As a result, dietary shifts to consuming lower quantities of meat, dairy products and eggs would reduce environmental impacts as well as reduce health risks.

Authors: EEA

Source: EEA (2017): Food in a green light. A system approach to sustainable food. EEA Report No 16/2017. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union