Consumers shouldn’t be the only ones responsible for the shift to sustainable food consumption, say Europe’s science advisors 

A group of top European scientists have advised the European Commission on transforming European food consumption to become healthier and more sustainable.  

The advice comes in response to a request from the College of Commissioners to the Scientific Advice Mechanism to inform the revision of the Farm to Fork strategy. The recommendations were handed over to the European Commission this morning. They are addressing key policy areas, including pricing, availability, composition, and the social and digital environments that influence which foods people consume.  

While the EU has mainly focused on providing consumers with more information, experts agree this is insufficient. People choose food based on many factors. To make sustainable, healthy food an easy and affordable choice, policies must unburden the consumer and address the whole food environment, where food is obtained, eaten, and discussed.  

“In order for Europe to achieve its health and sustainability goals, the way we produce, distribute and consume food must change, and this cannot be left entirely up to the consumer. We hope our scientific advice and evidence will be the base for that”. This was the main message delivered today by Professor Eric Lambin, member of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors to the European Commission 

Professor Erik Mathijs, the chair of the SAPEA working group that reviewed the scientific evidence to inform these recommendations, says: “Policies should address the whole food environment, anywhere where food is obtained, eaten, and discussed, such as shops, restaurants, homes, schools, and workplaces, and increasingly also digital media.” He added that because of this complexity, it is crucial to follow the scientific evidence for decision-making. 

Europe’s current food system has a major impact on the environment, and poor-quality diets are also linked to risk of disease, obesity and overweight — which affects around 60% of adults and 30% of children in European countries. 

The advisors recommend a range of evidence-based measures for promoting healthy and sustainable food choices, including:

  • Pricing: There is clear evidence that direct measures are effective. This includes sugar taxes, meat taxes, and pricing products according to their environmental impacts, as well as lower taxes on healthy and sustainable alternatives.  

  • Availability and visibility: Healthy and sustainable food options are more frequently chosen if they are displayed in prominent places. The advertising of foods which are unhealthy or unsustainable if consumed regularly should be restricted. Voluntary codes of conduct in this area have not been effective. 
  • Composition: Reducing unhealthy fat, sugar, and salt content, and adding more plant-based alternatives, can be helpful — but only if these measures are mandatory and comprehensive. The evidence shows that past voluntary agreements have had limited effect. 

It will be critical to create an environment that allows all stakeholders to work towards the goal of healthy and sustainable food, following fair rules. Scientists advised that this approach may also help to overcome opposition from those who profit from the current system, including some large private sector organisations with powerful voices. 

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  • The Scientific Advice Mechanism  

The European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism provides independent advice on request to the College of European Commissioners to inform policymaking. For this topic, a working group of Europe’s top experts was convened by SAPEA to produce an Evidence Review Report, summarising the current state of knowledge on food systems, sustainable and healthy diets, and consumer behaviour from academia to practice and across many disciplines. Informed by this evidence, the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors published its policy recommendations on removing barriers and making it easier for consumers to follow sustainable and healthy diets.  

  • SAPEA (Science Advice for Policy by European Academies)   

SAPEA is a consortium of academy networks. Across these networks, it brings together outstanding expertise from natural sciences, engineering, and technology, medical, health, agricultural and social sciences, and the humanities. SAPEA draws on over a hundred academies, young academies and learned societies in more than 40 countries across Europe.

  • The Group of Chief Scientific Advisors 

Advisors contribute to the quality of EU legislation through the provision of independent scientific advice to the European Commission. The Advisors are seven eminent scientists, appointed in their personal capacity, who advise the Members of the European Commission on issues of public interest. A summary of the Advisors’ previous publications including the one on Sustainable Food Systems can be found here 

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