Europe’s food system isn’t prepared for the future. Europeans eat too much and too unhealthily, and food isn't produced in a sustainable manner. There is another way, but it will require changes on several fronts: consumer diets, government policies, and corporate strategies. SUSFANS, a large-scale EU project, has come up with a dashboard to help policymakers and the private sector do this. EU policy leaders and various companies and municipalities have already started using it.
“If the EU’s existing food system remains unchanged, it will lead to significant ongoing environmental damage, unhealthy diets and less competition in the private sector,” says Thom Achterbosch, the senior researcher at Wageningen Economic Research who led the EU’s SUSFANS project over the past four years. “Producers and businesses need to shift their focus from quantity to quality, and persuade consumers to do the same.”
200 calories more than necessary
On average, Europeans consume 200 kilocalories per day more than they should. If that were not the case, we would see fewer diet-related illnesses as well as a 10% global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions related to food and land use. “We need to switch to a different diet,” says Achterbosch. “One with fewer calories, more vegetables and fruit, less animal protein and more plant-based protein.”
SUSFANS has concluded that if we are to achieve this, we need a cohesive policy on food and agriculture for the EU and its member states. Changes to agricultural policy do not automatically lead to changes in dietary patterns, because there is so much international trade in food to and from the EU. “That’s why we also need policies on food processing and consumption,” says Achterbosch. This can include health guidelines and campaigns, but also pricing policies designed to reduce the environmental footprint of food and to limit sugar intake.
Four-year international research program
These conclusions are the result of the major four-year research programme known as Metrics, Models and Foresight for European Sustainable Food And Nutrition Security (SUSFANS). The programme was made up of 60 researchers from a range of research institutes in 10 EU countries, with 5 million euros of EU funding. They worked with 30 representatives drawn from the food industry, farmers and fishers, consumers, and civil society organisations. Furthermore, insights from the project were put into practice through workshops and case studies in the Czech Republic, France, Italy and Denmark.
The researchers collected statistical data for 16 indicators related to health, the environment, equity and economic profitability, and combined that data in an innovative set of analytical models. This generated possible future scenarios that were then discussed with people working in the relevant sectors. Within WUR, Wageningen Economic Research and the Human Nutrition, Animal Production Systems and Operations Research groups all worked on the project.
Dashboard shows effect of policies
“SUSFANS is a dashboard that shows policymakers how their decisions affect the food system,” says Achterbosch. “Businesses can use it to scrutinise their innovation strategy, for example to see how they can contribute to making diets more sustainable.” SUSFANS has created a visualiser to depict the dashboard. This gives an insight into how different scenarios could develop between now, 2030 and 2050. It also reveals the challenges and trade-offs identified in the food system. The picture it provides is not entirely comprehensive. For example, there isn’t enough EU-wide data on social equity or on risk-sharing between farmers and retailers. However, researchers have still included those aspects because they are relevant and because they point to important knowledge gaps in the EU.
Sustainable = healthy and profitable
The good news is that it’s possible for the EU to achieve sustainable diets and a sustainable food system within a few decades. An environmentally friendly diet tends to be healthier too. And while improved sustainability can raise production costs, sustainable food production can make the food industry more competitive. “International competition is growing in the food market, while the EU’s technological advantage is declining,” says Achterbosch. “Production systems need to change their focus from minimising costs to maximising value. We need a shift from quantitative to qualitative, for example by emphasising circularity, animal welfare or consumer experiences. Businesses are increasingly interested in adopting a wide-ranging innovation strategy. We’re helping them do that.”
Companies are already starting to participate. Work has started on a follow-up to SUSFANS based on a public-private partnership involving several large food processing companies and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. SUSFANS is also applicable at the municipal level. Eleven EU cities including Milan are using a new EU grant to test food innovations and develop a comprehensive food policy based on SUSFANS. The data gathered under SUSFANS has also been used by European Commission policy leaders as part of a new “Farm to Fork” food strategy under the Green Deal.
Food System Approach
Wageningen University & Research is using the Food System Approach to develop future-proof food systems. We have a range of scientifically proven and robust tools and methodologies to translate the complex world of food systems into practical, solid action plans for governments, investors, businesses and civil society organisations. Using a Food System Approach enables WUR to address all aspects of the food system. The approach focuses on the following domains: sufficient food for everyone, the provision of a healthy diet, a fair distribution of costs and revenues, and sustainability and preservation of biodiversity. The SUSFANS project addresses all four of these.