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As a just society, we should ensure everyone has enough affordable, nutritious food to lead a healthy life, while protecting people’s health, our climate, planet and communities.

Author / translator Michael Creek

As a just society, we should ensure everyone has enough affordable, nutritious food to lead a healthy life, while protecting people’s health, our climate, planet and communities. To do this in Europe, our governments, researchers, innovators and agri-food professionals have many challenges to tackle. Our current food systems must address issues like climate change, the scarcity of resources, pollution and waste, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, population growth, malnutrition and diet-related non-communicable diseases.

Europe is investing in research and innovation to develop technologies, practices and business models that shape our future food systems. But this budget is limited. How should we decide what research and innovation to prioritise?

Created 12 February 2021
Last edited 7 April 2021
Topics Food

Policy positions

Policy position 1

European research should give highest priority to solutions that are sustainable: preserving biodiversity and natural resources and ensuring we adapt to climate and global change.

Policy position 2

European research should give highest priority to solutions that are responsible: ethical, transparent and accountable.

Policy position 3

European research should give highest priority to solutions that are diverse: open to a wide range of technologies, practices, approaches, cultures and business models.

Policy position 4

European research should give highest priority to solutions that are competitive: providing jobs and growth.

Policy position 5

European research should give highest priority to solutions that are inclusive: engaging all food system actors, including civil society, fighting food poverty, and providing healthy food for all.

Story cards


I’m a senior scientific officer at the European Food Safety Association - we advise the decision makers who approve applications for novel foods to be sold in Europe. Cultured meat has been a real headache for me recently! There is a lot of frustration that we are slow to approve it compared to places like Singapore where it is already on the market. I’m sure lab-grown meat can be safe, but of course we need more data - how do we ensure that the reactors used in growing cultured meat aren’t contaminated with microbes? What I see now is that companies are looking to move to market outside Europe, understandably.

Nikoleta, Bulgaria

I run a start-up and we specialise in smart technology for farmers based on sensors, data modelling and the “internet of things”. When we spoke to farmers we realised what they were missing was data to help them plan. Our platform helps them not only to produce more efficiently but it improves environmental sustainability and biodiversity - we know that those are big concerns for agriculture as well. The company has been a big success so far and we’re hoping to expand a lot in the coming years.

Janina, Lithuania

I’m a science teacher in a big city and I realised that a lot of the kids have very little idea about where our food comes from. The school is in a poor neighbourhood and the children don’t really have the opportunity to get out to the countryside. In the end I took them to some local city farms. Actually, I learned a lot as well about the new technologies they use to economise on water and land space. One of my students has even started volunteering at a city farm. I like the idea that the kids have a better idea of what they’re eating.

Rafael, Spain

Last year I joined a community-supported agriculture project. They connected us with a local farmer and we pay €15 a week for a seasonal selection of fruit and veg that they deliver to my place! The neighbours all come and pick up their bag. It’s hard to imagine this could work on a big scale and it’s true that in winter, we end up with a lot of cabbage - I’m not sure I’m getting all my nutrients there! But there’s a real feeling of solidarity and it’s connected me with my neighbours.

Sam, Netherlands

I’m a professional chef and I’ve started to make money through my Instagram and YouTube, demonstrating recipes. I think the reason people follow my accounts is that my recipes are all about how you can eat more sustainably. People are increasingly conscious about the carbon footprint of the meals on their plates - what is the effect on greenhouse gas emissions? What animals are threatened with extinction as a result of what they eat? What about biodiversity? It’s about eating healthy for the planet as well as healthy for the body.

Joao, Portugal

I’m the founder of a social enterprise that aims to redistribute surplus food to reduce food waste. In Ireland, 1 in 11 people experience food poverty yet 1 million tonnes of food are thrown out by Irish consumers and businesses every year. So we developed an ICT system that connects retailers with surplus food to charitable groups in need of it. I’m particularly proud of our traceability technologies and the way we feed information back to retailers to help reduce future waste. I now employ 32 people and we’re looking to further scale up, with the goal to redistribute 25% of Ireland’s surplus food by 2030.

Anne, Ireland

I work for a big global agrochemical company in the research and innovation department. We have a significant market share and so what we do has a pretty big impact across Europe. We provide farmers with digital tools, crop protection technologies, support with plant breeding and biotechnology. There’s a perception that companies like ours are only focused on maximising productivity, but in fact we are helping to innovate to make agriculture a lot more environmentally friendly too, through data analytics, herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant systems.

Sofia, Greece

I run a supermarket here in the south of Sweden and it’s important to me that we reflect the values of the people who shop here. We recently started stocking a brand of craft beer that prides itself on its sustainability and carbon-neutral production. The six-pack holders are even edible and biodegradable. But they’re so expensive - most of the people who shop here are not on high salaries so they just go for the cheaper option.

Hans, Sweden

Three years ago I inherited the family business: we produce cured meat products - salami, dried sausages, that sort of thing. Our big focus is local, natural products that respect the heritage of the way these have been produced over the years. My main concern is that policymakers seem to want to make things difficult for us - they claim our traditional methods are unsustainable and they want to discourage people from eating meat. I’m no environmental expert but at this rate I don’t see how the business will survive.

Giulia, Italy

I’m a plant physiologist at a public research institute and a lot of the work I do focuses on hydroponics - how to grow crops without soil but instead using a water solution with the exact amount of nutrients needed. For me it’s an exciting technology because it means we can grow plants for food without depending on soil and weather conditions - even in cities and cold countries like Luxembourg. When I talk to friends and family about my work it can be frustrating because they often suggest that there’s something unnatural about hydroponics compared to traditional farming. I don’t think they see the potential it has.

Khadija, Luxembourg

I'm a member of my local council and food is one of my big passions. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020 it changed our eating habits a lot - money was tight, but I had more time to cook and I tried to think about how I be more responsible in the choices I make. I've been trying to work with local fishers and retailers to find ways we can encourage people to buy fish that is local and sustainable. But I have the feeling people's choices are more dictated by the supermarkets.

Thomas, France


The GMO debate

Since the mid-1990s, the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment and the marketing of foods derived from genetically modified crops has resulted in a scientific and public debate. What have we learned from the public reaction?

Is labelling enough?

Using labelling, the food industry is communicating to the consumers that a product contains a certain ingredient or additive, or whether a product has been produced using specific production methods (e.g. organic). Is this enough to ensure transparency?

Novel foods: a risk worth taking?

Despite much interest in Europe due to their nutritional and environmental advantages, novel food products (such as insect protein) also have very high product failure rates.

Consumers and alternative proteins

European consumers have little appetite for innovative options for replacing red meat. On average, as few as 10% of consumers would be willing to replace meat with insect protein. 13% would agree to replace conventional meat with cultured meat.

Consumers want choice

Most European consumers (54%) say they do not want someone to tell them or decide for them what they should or should not eat.

Transparency for consumers

Shouldn’t consumers have the right to know how far their food has travelled and how it was grown, produced and transported within the food system?

Whose responsibility is food waste?

Is it more that consumers need to throw less food away, or more that producers need to ensure reasonable shelf-life?

How can we trust food systems?

Public attention to food safety and food fraud is increasing: e-coli outbreaks, Fipronil eggs contamination and the horsemeat scandal have shaken consumer trust in food in the recent past. How can food systems ensure transparency?

Crisis-proofing our food systems

The 2020 COVID-19 outbreak shook up our food systems as well as our patterns of consumption. How can we ensure that our future food system can withstand a crisis?

Convenience vs sustainability

Some shifts in the food system require changes in people’s habits. Are consumers prepared to sacrifice convenience for sustainability?

The cost of a healthy diet

Peoples’ dietary styles are influenced by their living conditions and the socio-cultural environment. People with less money, insecure working conditions and poor living conditions tend to buy low-price food with high fat and sugar content.

Globalisation of diets

Foods from across the world are increasingly popular and ingredients for diverse cuisines are more widely available in local supermarkets. Is it acceptable to shorten supply chains if it means we reduce this diversity?

What role for the consumer?

Are the general public simply the ones at the receiving end of the food supply system? Or should they be self-organised, pursuing their own interests according to their values and degree of information, driving the development of our future food systems?

Instagrammable food systems?

Social media has changed the way we eat. There is a trend towards food that is considered aesthetically pleasing: it has to be ‘clickable and likable’. People are increasingly influenced in their food choices by what they read online. What role does this play in shaping our food systems?

Consolidation in our supply chains

Big changes are happening in Europe’s food supply chains. We are seeing unprecedented consolidation across industries as well as ever-bigger players in the processing and retail sectors. This consolidation has increased efficiency. But hasn’t it also made us more reliant on a handful of suppliers, who control what to grow, produce or to sell?

Making our food industry competitive

How can we ensure that our food systems provide jobs and economic growth?

Instability of a globalised food system

With globalisation, international food systems are increasingly vulnerable to geopolitical instability. In 2007–2008, volatility in international food markets caused sudden price spikes leading to political tensions, with widespread food riots and popular unrest. Is this a risk we are prepared to take?

Food deserts

Many rural areas — which have usually been considered as places of food production — paradoxically have become “food deserts” in the sense that disadvantaged groups cannot access fresh, quality, nutritious foods at an affordable price.

Food as a human right

How can we ensure a food system that complies with the right to be free from hunger and malnutrition, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Food: a commodity or commons?

Food has long been seen as a product, something private to be bought and sold for profit. What if we started thinking of food as a public good; a common resource managed by local communities?

Food as identity and culture

Food cultures and traditions have shaped European culinary heritage. What place is there for a European identity in our future food systems?

What is a food system?

The food system includes everything related to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, as well as how we dispose of it. That means the environment, people, processes, infrastructure, institutions and the effects of their activities on our society, economy, landscape and climate.


Combating malnutrition is one of today’s greatest health challenges. Globally, over 800 million people are chronically undernourished, facing daily food shortages, while more than 1.9 billion adults are overweight, of whom over 650 million are defined as obese.

Increasing global demand

The world’s population is expected to rise from 7 to 8.5 billion by 2030, and to 9.7 billion by 2050. According to the FAO, food supply will have to increase 60% by 2050 to meet demand.

Food poverty in Europe

In 2016, over 9% of the EU population was unable to afford a quality meal every second day. That’s 43 million people.

Nutrition transition

Globally, countries whose diet is currently based on rice and vegetables are now tending to shift towards diets that are more heavily dependent on animal products. This requires more available land.

Natural resources are needed

High-quality land, water and nutrients are needed to produce food. These are under threat due to over-exploitation, pollution, the impact of climate change, competition for land and shortage of available water.

Technology addressing food security

Over the last fifty years, advances in food production technology have largely kept pace with demand on a global basis. Today, around 6 billion people do not go hungry, a considerable improvement upon the situation 50 years ago when a larger share of the world population was starving.

Alternative food networks

Alternative food networks are food systems that go against conventional food supply chains for ethical, environmental or economic reasons. These rapidly expanding food networks are typified by the growth in sales of fair trade, organic, local, regional and speciality foods, and projects such as farmers’ markets, permaculture, box schemes, allotments and community fridges.

New alternatives to pesticides

Biopesticides control pests in agriculture using naturally-occurring substances. Integrated Pest Management strategies emphasise crop growth with the least possible disruption to ecosystems. Both have been suggested as solutions to sustainably replace conventional pesticides in farming.

Pollution due to agriculture

Up to 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the food system. Excessive and sometimes improper use of fertilisers and pesticides has also led to a degradation of soil and water quality. Improper management of agricultural waste contributes to local and regional air pollution.

Environmental costs of food production

The combined environmental costs of food production is estimated to amount to some $12 trillion per year, increasing to $16 trillion by 2050.

Globalisation of food production

In recent years, food production methods and systems have been increasing in scale and intensity in a globalised context. This transformation in the economy of food production has seen the rise of integrated ‘agri-business’ and multinational manufacturers, the process of retail concentration, and increasing distance between producers and consumers.

Local contexts for food production

This trend in food systems focuses on communicating value-laden information about the place of production to consumers. Many European countries have a long tradition of communicating origin and place-based food quality to consumers and EU law protects many geographical indications.

Loss of biodiversity

The biodiversity of natural ecosystems provides important, although largely unvalued, services to both human populations and the environment: providing food, purifying water, controlling floods and droughts and regulating climate. At global level, biodiversity has been declining for decades. If the destruction of ecosystems is not addressed sustainably, losses will be irreversible.

Genome engineering in farming

Advances in genome engineering offer immense potential for modern animal and plant breeding. New possibilities include building plant resistance to pests, diseases or environmental threats, creating biopesticides and prolonging shelf life.

Indoor farming for cities

Systems such as hydroponics or aquaponics can grow plants in soilless nutrient solutions in buildings within cities. New technologies such as LED lights make production all year round possible and environmentally friendly, in controlled conditions with no need for access to soil.

Blockchain technology

Blockchain is a new technology that adds an extra level of security for the food industry. Companies can use blockchains to ensure their supply chains are transparent, protecting them against scandals that can hit industry.

Cultured meat

Cultured meat uses technology to produce meat from animal stem cells without killing the animal. This helps address concerns about animal welfare and land use, but also means it might be possible to change the biochemical composition of meat to make it a healthier or specialised dietary product. Start-ups have been working to cultivate meat from cells since 2016.

Meat-eating is on the decline

Just over 40% of European consumers say they have either stopped eating red meat or have cut down due to environmental concerns.

The EU’s food and drink industry

Europe's food and drink industry employs 4.72 million people, and generates a turnover of €1.2 trillion and €236 billion in value added, making it the largest manufacturing industry in the EU.

Biobased food packaging

Plastics are used to package 37% of the food we eat and the average European uses 30kg of plastic packaging per year. There is a trend towards replacing fossil-based plastics with bioplastics which are biodegradable.

The future of packaging

New technologies go beyond active and intelligent packaging, allowing digital connectivity. Intelligent packaging solutions will communicate actively in the value chain, manufacturing, distribution and the consumer’s home environment.

Food waste

The FAO estimates that each year approximately one third of food produced for human consumption in the world is lost, degraded, contaminated or wasted. Societal solutions include raising awareness to avoid food waste, or setting up food sharing and upcycling networks. Technological solutions include using food waste to produce biofuels or biopolymers.

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