Sustainable food production and environmental issues are a growing concern among European Union (EU) consumers, industry and policymakers, impacting policy in several areas. Sustainability includes environmental, social, and economic criteria. The European Commission (EC)’s introduction of sustainability criteria for biofuels in 2009 triggered consumers, policy makers and industry in the EU to question why there are no such criteria on food production.
The EU defines sustainable agriculture as production that delivers public goods and generates adequate family income, while at the same time contributes to the EU’s key environmental goals, including the protection of natural and cultural resources and the achievement of successful climate change mitigation and adaptation. According to the EC, the biggest challenge for the agricultural sector will be to balance the need for Europe to provide its share of global food supplies; to deliver long-term improvements in the environment such as biodiversity, landscape, soil, water, and air quality; and, ensure a resilience to climate change and quality of life all at the same time. This is reflected in the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that was implemented in January 2014.
There are a number of factors driving EU policy makers’ interest in sustainability. Consumer awareness of the environmental impact of products continues to grow. Environmental groups are an important source of pressure on policy. Producers and retailers are using sustainability certification as a marketing tool to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Many EU policy makers see sustainability certification as offering a competitive advantage to European producers. Consequently, EU decision makers are examining measures to ensure that such claims are clear, understandable and most importantly consistent in order to allow consumers to compare similar products on sustainability criteria.
In September 2011, the EC published the Communication Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe, indicating that an approach will be established that allows Member States (MS) and the private sector to assess, display, and benchmark the environmental performance of products, services, and companies, and to provide better information on the environmental footprint of their products to prevent misleading claims and to refine labeling and foot printing schemes. Currently, a number of initiatives are being developed at the MS level and by diverse industry groups because of consumer’s growing demand for sustainability certification. To help establish uniform and reliable environmental assessment methodologies for the food and drink sector, the European Food Sustainable Consumption and Production (Food SCP) Round Table was formed, an industry initiative that is co-chaired by the EC. The Food SCP helps consumers and other stakeholders make informed choices by providing them with accurate and understandable information on relevant product characteristics, including environmental performance.
In 2014, a public consultation was conducted to collect industry and citizen feedback on movement towards a more resource efficient and sustainable EU food system. The areas identified for further discussion included:
- Better technical knowledge on the environmental impacts of food
- Stimulating sustainable food production
- Promoting sustainable food consumption
- Reducing food waste and losses
- Improving food policy coherence
The results will be used to inform the EC’s policy development in this area.
Another important aspect of sustainability is food waste. In the EU approximately 100 million tons of food waste annually, and could rise to over 120 million tons by 2020. In 2014, the EC published the Communication Towards a circular economy: a zero waste program for Europe, outlining objectives to develop national food waste strategies with the aim to reduce food waste by 30% by 2025. In 2015, the EC announced that it would remove the 30% target and announce a more ambitious target by the end of the year. Withdrawal of the proposal was formalized by the EU Parliament and Council and the EC has launched a public consultation to collect feedback and analyze the scope of the new initiative on circular economy.