Europe’s current food system has major impact on the environment, while poor-quality diets are also associated with increased risks of diseases, obesity, and overweight. The SAPEA evidence review report “Towards Sustainable Food Consumption” gathers the relevant scientific evidence to provide guidance to Commissioners on the transformation of European food consumption towards a healthier and more sustainable direction.

Altering food consumption stands as a pivotal driver in attaining the goals set forth by the EU’s Green Deal and Farm-to-Fork Strategy. The recently released SAPEA (Science Advice for Policy by European Academies) report proposes a range of measures designed to assist consumers in making both healthy and sustainable dietary decisions. Rooted in the Farm-to-Fork Strategy and founded on the 2020 publication of scientific counsel titled “Towards a Sustainable Food System,” this report highlights crucial steps for promoting healthier eating habits while nurturing a sustainable food ecosystem.

Professor Erik Mathijs, the chair of SAPEA working group that reviewed the scientific evidence 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.” Because of this complexity, it is crucial to follow the scientific evidence for decision-making, he added.

Food system impacts for environment and consumer behavior

The existing food system significantly contributes to environmental challenges, including biodiversity loss, eutrophication, water stress, land degradation, and climate change. Additionally, poor-quality diets are associated with health issues, such as obesity and the heightened risks of noncommunicable diseases.

The food system is intricately woven, comprising a spectrum of interconnected social, cultural, technological, economic, and ecological components. The sustainable aspects of this system are governed by a mosaic of legislative measures. Establishing an environment conducive to collaborative efforts by all stakeholders towards the objective of promoting healthful and sustainable food choices is of paramount importance, ensuring equity through fair regulations.

Direct measures are effective

The report is addressing key policy areas including pricing, availability, composition, as well as the societal and digital contexts that shape individuals’ dietary preferences. Based on evidence direct measures have proven efficacy, encompassing strategies like sugar taxes, meat taxes, and pricing products according to their environmental impacts.

The report indicates that individuals are more likely to opt for healthful and sustainable food choices when these options are prominently showcased. Moreover, there should be limitations on the advertising of unhealthy and ecologically unsustainable food products. While elevating plant-based alternatives and curbing excessive levels of fat, sugar, and salt proves effective through obligatory and comprehensive strategies, voluntary accords have shown minimal impact. Additionally, consumers’ dietary decisions can be molded by labeling that highlights the nutritional advantages of food items and leveraging digital technology as a societal instrument to encourage healthy eating practices.

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Science Advice for Policy by European Academies (SAPEA) is a EU-funded project that provides independent scientific advice to European Commissioners to support their decision-making. SAPEA collaborates actively with European science academies.