How can we make Europe’s food system sustainable?

Food insecurity and sustainability are among the most significant global challenges facing humanity today. They are linked to a range of other challenges including malnutrition, biodiversity loss, climate change, soil degradation, and water quality.  

The new SAPEA report on Sustainable food system for European Union” addresses these questions and considers how a socially just and sustainable food system for the EU can be best defined and attained.  

The report was coordinated by ALLEA, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, and was written by a multidisciplinary group of 15 leading scientists nominated by academies across Europe. This report was requested by the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors to the European Commission and it informs their Scientific Opinion, which contains a set of recommendations for the European Commission. The two documents were published recently. 

We are talking with Peter Jackson, the chair of the SAPEA expert group who wrote the report. Peter Jackson is a Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield in the UK and co-Director of the Institute for Sustainable Food. 


Transcript of the interview 

Good morning. Today we will discuss food sustainability and a new SAPEA report on that topic. We are talking with Peter Jackson, the Chair of the SAPEA expert group who wrote the report. Peter is a Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield in the UK and the co-Director of the Institute for Sustainable Food. Peter, thank you for being here with us!  And the first question I wanted to ask you is that the report says that a shift to a sustainable food system in Europe is necessary. Could you tell us why?  

Yes, thank you. The current food system is widely acknowledged to be unsustainable, and that’s because of a number of reasons.  The food system is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for more than a third of total global greenhouse gas emissions.  It’s also a major contributor to soil depletion, to soil quality impoverishment, and a rage of other ecological consequences, including the loss of biodiversity.  

For all these reasons we think the food system is unsustainable. It’s also unsustainable in terms of food waste: as much of a third of the food we produce is lost to human consumption at various points along the supply chain. And lastly, in terms of food security, there’s been an alarming increase in the number of people needing access to emergency forms of food aid, such as food banks.  So across all those criteria, it’s fair to say that the current food system is unsustainable.  

And how can we make this shift towards sustainability happen? What does evidence say about it?   

Conventional approach to solving food system challenges is framed in terms of sustainable intensification.  And that means using agritech and other scientific interventions to grow more food using less land and fewer inputs.  Others disagree with that approach, and suggest we need to focus on agroecology, or organic farming, or to support a return to more local and seasonal food supplies.  We clearly also need a concerted approach to reduction of food loss and food waste, but others would also say we need to explore alternative forms of protein, or a move to more plant-based diets.  

So there are a whole range of solutions being advocated, and our report tries to weigh up the scientific evidence for one or more of those approaches.  Generally though, we support a system-wide and radical change to the current food system, exploring all those options.  

The SAPEA report that you worked on sets down key messages for policy-makers, which are then used by the Scientific Advisors to develop recommendations for the European Commission. But this time, we wanted to ask about your personal opinion as an expert: what would be the most important step towards a sustainable food system in Europe?   

It’s actually hard to separate more a personal opinion from the conclusions we came to in the report as a whole. But our main approach has been to suggest that no single actor, or single action, holds the key to transitioning to a more just and sustainable food system.  

We argue in the report that we need to combine so-called hard and soft measures. So the hard measures would include taxation and legislation, and the softer measures would include consumer education, health campaigns and behaviour change approaches. 

But we suggest that the evidence leads us to the conclusion that combination of hard and soft measures is likely to be more effective than single measures taken on their own.  

SAPEA is known for bringing together scientists from all disciplines and across Europe. What was it like to work in such group? Was there anything that surprised you in this way of working? 

It was actually a pleasure to work with members of the Working Group. We worked very well together and were able to combine a whole series of different disciplinary approaches, including psychology and sociology, geography, economics, and some natural science. 

So the lessons on the whole were very positive, in terms of collaboration across disciplinary boundaries. Where there were differences, they were mostly resolved through mutual understanding and cooperative learning.  So for example some would advocate quantitative others more qualitative approaches, or some might take a more individualistic, psychological approach, whereas others would think more sociologically about the need for addressing collective behaviour and a more social practice approach.  But on the whole we came to a consensus view, the report is signed by all of us collectively, and it was a good lesson I think in terms of the need for interdisciplinary approaches to food system challenges. 

And Advisors to the European Commission have explicitly asked for the social sciences perspective in this report.  Why is that? What makes this perspective so important in this project? 

The scoping paper to which we responded refers to a social science deficit in current approaches to the food system. And by that it argued that across the sciences in general there was good degree of agreement on what was needed, in terms of dietary change for example, or in terms of more sustainable agricultural production. 

But what was lacking was a sense of what works in terms of different policies, and that’s where social science perhaps can contribute most.  So through the systematic review process that underpinned our report, we were able to identify scientific work which had evaluated the effectiveness of different kinds of policies.  And that then provides an evidence-based approach to what works. 

We also used the systematic review process to identify a series of case-studiesof best practice, of things that might work at the local scale or within a single nation, but which might be scaled-up, or rolled out across Europe more generally. 

Well thank you very much! 

Thank you! 

The shift to a more sustainable food system is inevitable. Here’s how to make it happen

Europe’s top scientists agree that a radical change is coming in how we produce and distribute food, to ensure food security and deliver healthy diets for all.

Now a new report from SAPEA lays out the social science evidence on how that transition can happen in an inclusive, just and timely way.

The Evidence Review Report ‘A sustainable food system for the European Union’ was coordinated by ALLEA and it provides an evidence base for the scientific opinion of the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Advisors. It was requested by the College of Commissioners and written by a multidisciplinary group of leading scientists, nominated by academies across Europe.

Based on the best available evidence and supported by a detailed systematic review, the report concludes that the key steps towards the new model are not only to reduce food waste and to change our consumption patterns — but also to recontextualise how we think about food in the first place.

Professor Peter Jackson, the chair of the working group that wrote the report, said:

“Food is an incredibly complex system, with social, economic and ecological components. Yet, it contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and plays a key role in driving climate change. The food system is responsible for around a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates the annual financial cost of wasted food to be €900 billion in economic costs and an additional €800 billion in social costs. That’s why ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option.

“Our report doesn’t stop at highlighting the problems, which are now widely recognised. It also provides a range of evidence-based examples about how the transition to a sustainable food system can happen.”

Among the report’s other main conclusions are:

  • The transition to a more just and sustainable food system needs to be coordinated at multiple levels of governance and involve a range of actors in both land-based and marine environments.
  • To change how our society consumes food, we must first change people’s routines, habits and norms. Behaviour change is best effected with joined-up actions, addressing groups rather than individuals.
  • Taxation and legislation are key ways to drive change, while European policies in agriculture and fisheries offer great opportunities for developing robustness and sustainability in food production.

The report informs the Scientific Opinion from the European Commission’s Group of Advisors, which is also being published today which in turn will inform the Commission’s new ‘Farm to Fork strategy for a sustainable food system’.

G7 Science Conference: The role of academies and academy networks in policy advice

The international conference, organised by Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei under the auspices of the G7 Academies initiative and Italy’s Presidency of the G7 2017 summit, brought together in Rome on 3 May prominent representatives of the national and international academies, as well as Italian high level officials to discuss the role of national academies and international academy network in providing policy advice to institutions.

Credit: G72017 Italia

ALLEA President Günter Stock participated in a panel discussion with representatives of international academy networks of Africa, Asia, America and Europe, and brought to the table a European perspective on the roles and responsibilities of academies to advise institutions. President Stock highlighted both the achievements of European academies in shaping the framework conditions for research in Europe and  more recent efforts in the field of science for policy field by providing science advice on societally-relevant matters on the European level.  In this regard, President Stock presented the work of the SAPEA project (Science Advice for Policy by European Academies), which connects academy networks across Europe to support the European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) on the development of science-based policies.

“We can no longer afford to sit in our ivory tower or we are running in real danger of drifting into obscurity, in modern terms we would call it alternative facts”

Recalling the most recent political developments in Hungary and Turkey, President Stock emphasised the challenges ahead for science and academies to defend the principles of academic freedom in times of political attacks and disdain to science and facts. “We can no longer afford to sit in our ivory tower or we are running in real danger of drifting into obscurity, in modern terms we would call it alternative facts”, said President Stock.

Furthermore, the conference presented the work of the G7 Academies initiative, chaired by Accademia dei Linzei President Alberto Quadrio-Curzio.  The coordinators of the working groups presented joint statements on three main topics: the relevance of culture heritage, the challenge of neurodegenerative diseases and the role of science, technology, innovation and infrastructure in the new economic growth.

The event was attended by high level Italian officials and personalities, including Sergio Mattarella, President of the Italian Republic, Romano Prodi, former Prime Minister and President of the European Commission,  Dario Franceschini, Minister of Cultural Heritage, and Pier Carlo Padoan, Minister of Economy and Finance.