The EU needs a Common Food Policy to promote sustainable food

There is growing evidence showing the negative effects of our food production and consumption system, and not just the immediate impact on economies. It impacts upon the environment; affecting habitats, climate change, land and water use, fish depletion, and the use of agrochemicals. Food has been identified as a major source of ecosystem degradation. There are also direct and indirect impacts on our health, causing diseases such as obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.1

Despite these well-documented negative affects of our food systems, in September 2014 the European Commission blocked a proposal for a strategy on sustainable food production and consumption, a strategy that had an aim of limiting waste throughout the food supply chain, and considering ways to lower the environmental impact of food production and consumption patterns.2 Just one year before, the European Commission and NGOs declared 2013 "the European year against food waste", so a policy aimed at developing a sustainable food system in Europe would have been very welcome.3

I wonder what could have changed if the policy had been approved, and what the effects on agriculture, food safety, and public health would have been. Economies and social cohesion could potentially have been improved, and there would probably have also been a positive effect on rural and international development. Trade, environmental protection, climate, and energy use would all have changed, and employment and education would have benefitted.

These policies are usually isolated, but the development of a Common Food Policy would have aligned agricultural policy with health objectives to create more sustainable production (supporting local, seasonal, and organic production), and new approaches for reducing veterinary antibiotic use. The policy would also have helped to secure food supply by regulating procurement, developing sustainable food transportation and logistics planning, and advancing food waste management solutions, among other improvements.4

The weaknesses of farming and food policies, such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), have been exposed and, in part, have provoked the UK’s exit from the European Union.5 There is still time and options for the UK to engage in the sustainability challenge with other European Member States, but its options are now limited. The UK could:

  • Adopt a Norwegian model: Be a member of the European Economic Area whilst controlling its own farming and fishing sectors and negotiating trade deals without affecting EU trade.
  • Follow Switzerland’s example: Adopt a formally negotiated, bilateral agreement with the EU.
  • Form a customs union: Have full access to goods in the EU, but not agricultural products or services.
  • Follow the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or ‘do a New Zealand’: Establish EU or bilateral bloc agreements with low tariffs, but not for agriculture: a ‘going global but solo’ approach.
  • Establish a Free Trade Area with the EU, similar to Canada: Create a new, customised combination of features from the other models - this would take a lot of negotiation.

The worry and uncertainty about the important implications of Brexit on food, fishing, and farming prompted more than 84 UK organisations to write a letter to new Prime Minister Theresa May, and Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis MP, asking them to ensure fair, healthy, humane, and environmentally sustainable food, farming, fishing, and land management". The group also want assurance that new trade agreements build upon progress already achieved and will continue under several governments.6

It is not only the UK having to rethink its way of doing things, the EU must also review and redouble efforts to move towards a more sustainable food system. 

On Monday 27th June, IPES-Food (the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems) members held a meeting at the European Parliament to explore the links between agriculture, diet, and health. In attendance were scientific experts on health, nutrition, and agriculture, European Commission officials, MEPs, members of the European Economic and Social Committee, national government officials, NGOs, social movements, and food sector representatives. 

This meeting was the first in a series of six, aiming to finally put in place a Common Food Policy in 20184:

  • 27th June 2016: The agriculture-food-health nexus in the EU
  • 12th/14th December 2016: The food environment
  • February 2017: Alternative food systems in the EU
  • April 2017: The trade-development-environment nexus
  • 16th/17th October 2017: Access to healthy diets for low-income families in the EU
  • February 2018: Governance reform and accountability in the EU.

Sustainable food isn’t just a challenge, it is an opportunity to achieve gains at multiple levels, even if there will be difficulties in trying to implement reforms so that food systems become more sustainable.

At Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) Europe, we believe that European hospitals can lead this movement. Some hospitals already have sustainable food programmes without the existence of a national sustainable food policy and are working to prevent and reduce food waste at their facilities at all stages along the food service - collaborating even with producers and suppliers.

  • The Basel University Hospital, like most Swiss hospitals, has a sustainable food programme. Their sustainable food programme provides as much fresh, seasonal, and organic produce as possible, mainly coming from the local region. Consequently, they have a good knowledge of their suppliers, and undertake long-term contracts with them, which are renewed annually. At one of their four restaurants, they also offer meat-free menus based on the Mediterranean diet to both their patients and visitors. The hospital also strives to avoid food waste by calculating the right amount of food portions per day, asking patients what their choices are. Any food waste that does remain is sent to a biogas factory.
  • The University Hospital Complex in Granada, Spain, has a Sustainable and Healthy Food Programme, which has been in place since 2006. Around 60% of all produce served is from local and sustainable sources. Granada is a province with a great variety of produce due to its climatic characteristics, even providing some exotic fruits, such as mango and avocado.  In fact, fresh fruit is the most popular desert served. The promotion of these sustainable diets has proven to shorten patients’ stay at the hospital.
  • The Gentofte Hospital, Denmark, which has recently merged with the Herlev Hospital, sets a very progressive example in dealing with food waste, by achieving a saving of more than €108,000 annually. This is a result of introducing professional kitchen meal hosts, who deliver food according to the needs of the patients, and take the leftovers directly back to the kitchen. This experience has inspired the Herlev Hospital (one of the biggest hospitals in Denmark) to start raising awareness amongst staff and measuring food waste. In order to prevent food waste, they have also improved the presentation, serving food on small ceramic plates.

Policy-makers at the EU level should learn from the positive examples set by these hospitals. We have an opportunity to make a positive impact on our health, the environment, and the economy with a new Common Food Policy. There is no more time for the "business as usual" approach - we deserve something better to regenerate food resources and achieve healthy and sustainable food!


- Paola Hernández, Sustainable and Healthy Food Programme Assistant


Preview image: Christopher Paquette via Flickr CC


1.  Lang, T., & Barling, D. (2013). Nutrition and sustainability: an emerging food policy discourse. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 72(01), 1–12.

2.  DG Environment, European Commission (2015). Sustainable Food.

3.  Staes, B. (2014). EU Commission drags its feet on food waste.

4.  IPES-Food (2016). Does Agricultural Policy Influence Diets? First Steps in 'Common Food Policy' Vision Mapped Out at Roundtable Meeting.

5.  Lang, T. and Schoen, V. (2016). Food, the UK and the EU: Brexit or Bremain? Food Research Collaboration.

6.  A Letter to David Davis MP (2016).