In this article, we identify 10 policy solutions that the European Union should implement to support everyone’s access to healthy and sustainable food.
Our food production model drives unhealthy choices leading to poor diets. This becomes clear when walking down any supermarket aisle: the shelves are filled with over-packaged food imported from all over the world and look the same whatever the season. Even when people would prefer to eat well, many barriers can hinder their ability to access and consume a healthy diet, including, the greater availability and promotion of nutritionally poor industrial food in shops and in schools, misleading labeling and advertisements, and price.
On World Health Day, we must remember that our health is intrinsically tied to that of animals, plants, and the planet. What we eat impacts everything around us.
In our new position paper “Our food, our health: a healthy food system for the European Union”, we define a healthy diet as one that promotes human health and respects that of the planet, favoring a wide variety of foods of plant origin, whole foods, and minimally processed foods, produced locally using sustainable methods. But consumers alone cannot turn the tables: for a sustainable food system to prevail, policymakers must take a “food environments approach” that recognizes that the most effective and equitable way to change food behaviors is to change the structural factors that drive food choices.
For every problem, there is a solution.
Out with Industrial Agriculture, In with Agroecology
Problem: Poor diet is a leading risk factor for ill health among Europeans, mainly affecting the most vulnerable social groups. Non-communicable diseases, for which unhealthy diets are a significant risk factor, account for 86% of mortality and 77% of the disease burden in the EU. Yet, the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) keeps fostering unhealthy diets by disproportionately funding the production of animal products rather than fruits and vegetables. The overuse of pesticides in agriculture also has important implications for health.
Solution: A binding EU target must be introduced to reduce the use of synthetic pesticides by at least 50% by 2030 and supporting farmers both technically and financially to adopt integrated pest management (IPM) and prioritize agroecological practices, such as using crop rotation and intercropping to keep pests and diseases at bay before considering mechanical or chemical means. Moreover, CAP subsidies must be reoriented to support the production of safe, healthy, and sustainable food, in line with the One Health approach.
What’s in My Food?
Problem: Currently, advertisements and marketing overwhelmingly push consumers to purchase ultra-processed foods containing an excessive intake of energy, sugars, salt and saturated fats, which is an important causal factor of obesity and related non-communicable diseases. Front-of-package health and nutrition claims such as “good for your heart,” “low in fat” or “high in fiber” are often abused by the food industry, misleading consumers about the quality of their food.
Solution: Firstly, the EU needs to strictly restrict advertising on processed foods high in fat and sugar. Secondly, it must establish nutrient profiles to ensure unhealthy foods cannot bear misleading health or nutrition claims. Finally, more transparency is needed in food labeling, so that consumers can make informed choices not only about the nutritional content of food but also how and where it was produced.
Problem: Public food procurement policies influence food served in schools, healthcare facilities, prisons and other public institutions, where a large proportion of people eat daily. Currently, the only tool developed by the EU to promote more strategic procurement is Green Public Procurement (GPP), which only contains voluntary criteria with a very narrow scope.
Solution: By reorienting public procurement policies to prioritize healthy and sustainable food, local authorities can promote equal access to healthy diets in the community. Slow Food is advocating for the establishment of minimum mandatory and optional criteria for European public canteens on healthy food, organic and agroecological products, support for small-scale farmers, climate action, labor rights, fair trade, and animal welfare standards.
Problem: Over the last 60 years, government strategies to boost access to food have translated into the expansion of the global food market and the spread of large-scale, mass distribution channels like supermarkets. This model has shown itself to be unsustainable and has contributed to the increased consumption of ready-to-eat and processed, packaged food products. The emergence of supermarkets and megastores has also contributed to the disappearance of local markets and small retailers, widening the gap between food producers and consumers.
Solution: Local markets and short supply chains can play an important role in ensuring the population has access to fresh, nutritious foods. At the same time, they can also improve the local economy and make it more stable thanks to the diversification of production and supply. By eliminating intermediaries, the products can be sold at competitive prices that are advantageous for consumers and profitable for producers. What’s more, local food supply chains are often considered more sustainable due to the involvement of small-scale, multi-functional and often organic forms of agriculture, which reduce emissions and externalities caused by the long distances traveled by conventionally distributed food.
Food Prices Should Send the Right Signals to Consumers
Problem: Food is around a third cheaper than it would be if social and environmental externalities were included in the price. Meanwhile, the benefits of healthy foods are often disregarded, contributing to healthier diets being less affordable to consumers than unsustainable and unhealthy ones.
Solution: Food prices should send the right signals to consumers. The EU must move towards a system of “true-cost accounting” so that both negative and positive externalities of food are reflected in its price. This should include measures like food taxes, subsidies, and a reform of the Common Agricultural Policy to support the increased production of fruit and vegetables.
A Healthy and Sustainable Diet for All
Problem: Current food trends and the estimated growth of the world population (expected to reach 10 billion by 2050) exacerbate the risks of unsustainable food system practices to human and planetary health. The predicted increase in demand for animal-based protein, in particular, is expected to have a negative environmental impact.
Solution: A healthy and sustainable diet is based on the abundant consumption of plant foods, an overall reduction of foods of animal origin and energy from free sugars and fats, a shift to unsaturated fats over saturated and trans fats and a limited salt intake. Ensuring such a diet for all will require substantial changes in dietary patterns, major reductions in food waste and significant improvements in food production practices (e.g. managing water resources, avoiding land exploitation, minimizing antibiotic use, reducing pollution, maintaining social justice and cutting carbon dioxide and methane emissions).
Antibiotics Should Not Be Automatic
Problem: Antimicrobial resistance has become a global concern and is so widespread that it has been included in the list of the top public health threats facing humanity. This is mainly due to the overuse of antibiotics in the agricultural and health sectors, plus growth in consumer demand for animal-source products in middle-income countries and a shift to large-scale intensive farms where antimicrobials are used routinely to keep animals healthy and maintain productivity. The misuse of antibiotics in animal farming is a major driver of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), responsible for an estimated 33,000 deaths per year in the EU.
Solution: The most long-term secure solution is to reduce the use of antibiotics at all levels and consider the mutual interdependence among species in the food chain.
The Many Virtues of Local Edible Food Plants
Problem: We are seeing an unprecedented decline in food biodiversity, understood as the diversity of plants, animals and other organisms used for food, which contribute in various ways to a healthy and diversified diet. Of the more than 300,000 known edible plant species, the world’s food supply depends on about 150. This lack of diversity is due to the gradual shift from diets based on a wide variety of plants and animals to diets increasingly based on processed foods and a limited number of species. This phenomenon has interlinked consequences on human and planetary health and the resilience of food systems.
Solution: Promoting local edible food plants is a strategy that increases diet diversity among urban and rural populations throughout the year and reduces hunger and the risk of malnutrition in times of food shortages and famine. In addition, local edible food plants are sustainable, cost-effective, proven to work, and require fewer inputs (chemicals, water, fertilizers), as they are naturally better adapted to their environment and can better withstand disease and pest pressures.
Better Food for Climate
Problem: The climate crisis, which is in large part driven by our diet, will impact all environmental systems, harming human health and threatening global food security. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also makes food less nutritious by increasing the synthesis of carbohydrates and decreasing the concentration of proteins and micronutrients. This alteration in the nutritional value of food due to climate change joins the consequences caused by soil depletion.
Solution: We must change our diet habits to be more plant-based, as meat production alone accounts for nearly a fifth of global greenhouse emissions. A change in farming methods towards agroecological practices is also urgently needed; when they follow agroecological principles, farmers are able to adapt to climate change and contribute to the sustainable use and preservation of natural resources and biodiversity.
Healthy Soils, Healthy Guts
Problem: Soils play a crucial role in the development of the human gut microbiome and the level of micronutrients in plants. Intensive agricultural practices—characterized by monocultures, chemicals, genetic modification and mechanization—reduce soil biodiversity, resulting in a lack of some micronutrients in the diet and an alteration of the human microbiota.
Solution: It is essential to support the biodiversity of soils to protect human health, since there is a strong connection between healthy soil and a healthy gut microbiome and thus a healthy body. We must use regenerative practices in agriculture, such as increasing crop diversity, which not only preserve and revitalize soil but can also mitigate global hunger.