Sustainable food systems: what can Europe bring to the table?

Published: 21/09/2021

The United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), held during the UN General Assembly in New York on 23 September 2021, is expected to set the stage for global food systems transformation. What input will the EU bring? And why should food businesses, including those active in the EU, care about it?

The first-ever global Food Systems Summit aims to use the high-level political momentum of the UN system to bring about positive, tangible food systems transformation – changing the way we grow, produce, distribute and consume food. This is needed to drive sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and to – urgently – get back on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

Dubbed the “People’s Summit”, the UNFSS brings together concrete recommendations, commitments and ”game-changing propositions” following ample dialogues over the past 18 months among countries as well as a large variety of different food-related constituencies around the world – food producers, youth, civil society, Indigenous People, academics, policy-makers. Meanwhile, more than 130 countries are expected to announce national commitments at the Summit, and the private sector is also gearing up activity.

The EU’s contribution to the UNFSS

The European Union (EU) has taken an active interest in the Summit. This is logical given its ambition – as expressed in the European Green Deal – to become the first climate neutral region in the world by 2050, as well as its Farm to Fork Strategy ambition to become a global leader in food sustainability.

Consequently, the Council of the EU has adopted a position on the EU’s priorities for the Summit, which reaffirms the EU’s determination to “lead by example in taking forward the post-Summit transformation process, together with all relevant stakeholders.”

It is positive to see that the EU values a collaborative approach to food systems transformation, involving public and private actors. In this context, one of the “game-changing solutions” offered by the EU, alongside a plethora of food-related legislation, is the EU Code of Conduct for Responsible Food Business and Marketing Practices. The Code, a multi-stakeholder initiative that brought together all key EU food supply chain representatives from ‘farm to fork’, as well as food businesses of major scale and impact, has already promised to be a successful mobilisation tool for generating forward-looking sustainability commitments, which will be monitored for progress against (SDG-related) targets.

Implications for European food businesses

Whereas the programme of the UNFSS conference on the 23rd of September is unlikely to be a source of inspiration in itself, food businesses in- and outside Europe should pay close attention to the deliberations and outcomes of the Summit: 

  1. First of all, any conclusions and positions of convergence of the UNFSS (including a “Statement of Action”) will be taken along to other major upcoming international conferences such as COP26 in Glasgow (November 2021) and the Nutrition for Growth Summit in Tokyo (December 2021). It will set the global political direction on food policy and systems transformation for the years to come. It can also inspire companies to align their activities (better) to the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030.
  2. Secondly, the European Commission has already announced that it will put forward a proposal for an EU legislative framework on Sustainable Food Systems in 2023, which will no doubt take into consideration the sentiments expressed during the Summit process. There are also implications for the EU’s trade agenda as the European Commission has already announced to strengthen the agri-food sustainability chapter in trade negotiations.  
  3. Thirdly, a wide range of country-level commitments are expected to be announced by political leaders, potentially impacting on food production and consumption policy at national level. Also, new financing pledges are expected to be announced.  
  4. Fourthly, it is expected that the Summit will follow up on the recommendations of the Scientific Group of the UNFSS, which argues that science, technology and innovation can and must play a pivotal role in food systems transformation, providing potential opportunities for new business. 
  5. Finally, new “Multi-stakeholder Coalitions of Action” are emerging as a consequence of the Summit. One such example is the Zero Hunger Pledge for the Private Sector.  

What is FoodDrinkEurope doing?

The EU cannot take the lead in food sustainability globally without the positive, active engagement by the private sector. Nor can the EU be expected to reach global sustainability goals on its own. It is therefore in our common interest to make the UNFSS, and particularly its follow-up in the imminent term, a success by joining forces and advancing the food sustainability agenda together in sync.

At FoodDrinkEurope, we are committed to help achieve more sustainable food systems and, in that respect, support the EU’s priorities for the UNFSS – before, during and after. In the run-up to the UNFSS, FoodDrinkEurope co-organised with partner Thought for Food three “Independent Dialogues” in 2021 to discuss how to enable game-changing innovation and support young entrepreneurs with their big ideas. Furthermore, as Chair of the Task Force that helped to develop the EU Code of Conduct, FoodDrinkEurope co-hosted an affiliated session of the UNFSS’ pre-summit (held from 26-28 July 2021 in Rome) with the European Commission to present the Code to a global audience, with the hope to inspire and encourage further engagement from food companies across the world.

The Summit is certainly not where our commitment stops. In support of the objectives of the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy, our recently published de-carbonisation roadmap for the European food and drink industry to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 is a testimony of our long-term drive to advance our sector and play a continuous, leading role in the transition – and more is in the pipeline. 

The UNFSS has the potential to ‘set the noses into the same direction’ on global food systems transformation. Let’s hope it will not be a once-off event which will soon be forgotten, but rather be a major building block of a long-term global commitment to make things better, together.

Want to know more about the sustainability initiatives of FoodDrinkEurope’s members? Check out our industry actions page. Interested in learning more about our policy views on food systems transition? Find more here.

By Dirk Jacobs

Director General