The main function of the food system and its primary sector, agriculture, is to satisfy the basic human need for food, but sustainable food systems also maintain ecosystem health and contribute to social well-being. At the same time, the food system is one of Europe’s major systems of production and consumption, causing over one-fifth of all environmental and climate impacts.

Agriculture: where next?

While global food chains, market competition, industrial processes and increasing productivity have turned agriculture into a profitable economic sector, it is also one of the biggest contributors to environmental and sustainability challenges in Europe and worldwide. In tandem, the COVID-19 pandemic, recent geopolitical developments in Europe and socio-economic trends have driven attention towards agriculture and food systems. Our briefing 'Rethinking agriculture' reflects on what makes agriculture unsustainable today — and the types of agriculture we may want to preserve and support.

This briefing is part of an EEA series called 'Narratives for change', exploring the diversity of ideas needed to make our society more sustainable and fulfil the ambitions of the European Green Deal.

Early signs of a new food system?

Social innovation plays a pivotal role in transforming today’s food systems into ones that are economically and socially feasible, and sustainable within planetary boundaries. Our briefing presents the results of a systematic examination of emerging social innovations across the food chain, conducted to detect early signs of potentially important developments. It offers insights into the experimentation taking place in alternative ways to produce, trade and consume food.

Although there is no single definition, social innovation can be described as ‘the development and implementation of new ideas (products, services and models) to meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaboration.

Pollution from fertilisers used in agriculture: do you want to know more?

Share of the utilised agricultural area in the EU-27 used for organic farming over the period 2012-2020

Organic farming area in Europe: Austria in the lead

The European Green Deal set the target that, by 2030, 25% of the EU’s agricultural area should be under organic farming.

The share of the EU’s agricultural land under organic farming is increasing, rising from 5.8% in 2012 to 9.1% in 2020. This is encouraging, but the rate of converting land would need to be four times higher than this to reach the 25% target by 2030. The share is projected to reach 15% by 2031 and extra support under the European Green Deal and the new common agricultural policy could accelerate progress. However, reaching the target will still be challenging.

Our indicator also shows this information by country and how it changed between 2012 and 2020.

Tackling food waste

Some 57 million tonnes of food waste (127 kg/inhabitant) are generated annually with an associated market value estimated at EUR 130 billion. Food waste means that all the resources used to produce food — water, soil and energy — are also wasted. Also, the pollutants and greenhouse gases released during production, transport and marketing contribute to environmental degradation and climate change.

Read more about food waste and how it can be reduced in a circular economy.

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