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.

Modern food systems constitute complex global networks of production, processing, manufacturing, supply, retail, services, and consumption. Agriculture is the main food production sector complemented by fisheries and aquaculture. The food system includes many other sectors and actors involved in the processing, distribution, transport and consumption of food.

Global food chains, market competition, industrial processes and increased productivity have turned modern agriculture into a sizeable economic sector but this has also created challenges for the environment and climate. For example, agriculture is the source of 11% of all greenhouse gases emitted in the EU, and it remains a significant contributor to the emissions of harmful air pollutants, such as ammonia.

Agriculture, fisheries and the food system are also key drivers of biodiversity and habitat loss through land conversion, soil degradation, overfishing, water abstraction, and chemical and nutrient pollution. Moreover, human health is directly dependent on the sustainability of the food system. Unhealthy diets, exposure to chemical residues in food and packaging, and contamination of drinking water are just some examples of this critical link.

At the same time, agricultural production and the resilience of the food system are themselves dependent on natural resources and processes, and sensitive to environmental degradation and climate change. Reducing these environmental pressures and adapting to their impacts is, therefore, necessary in order to protect food security, farming land and farmers’ livelihoods.

Agriculture and food systems also deliver important benefits to people and the environment, including through the accumulation of CO2 as carbon in vegetation and soils, conserving semi-natural habitats and wildlife species, and more efficient technologies, social innovations, and circular economy practices. These solutions must now be incentivised and scaled up, paying attention to the risk of trade-offs and maximizing co-benefits whenever possible.

Recent data and indicators from the EEA and other EU institutions show that:

    • Agricultural area, including arable lands, pastures and mosaic farmlands, covers 39% of the EU’s total land area.
    • Agricultural areas are the most affected land category by land take. 1.4% of agricultural areas were lost in the EU-28 due to conversion into urban areas between 2000 and 2018.
    • Organic farming in the EU has been continuously increasing since 2012 and extended over 9.1% of the utilised agricultural area. It is projected to reach 15%, which can be accelerated by the foreseen additional support from the European Green Deal.
    • Agriculture is the source of 11% of all greenhouse gases emitted in the EU, including over 54% of all methane emissions.
    • Despite legislation addressing nutrient pollution, the average nitrate concentration in EU groundwaters did not change significantly from 2000 to 2021.
    • Agriculture also contributes to 94% of all ammonia emissions.
    • Based on data reported under the Habitats and Birds Directives, agricultural activities (together with urbanisation) are the most frequently reported pressures for both habitats and species.
    • In 2020, one or more pesticides were detected above thresholds of concern (a risk to human health) at 22% of all monitoring sites in rivers and lakes across Europe. In terms of soil pollution, 83% of agricultural soils tested in a 2019 study contained pesticide residues.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) represents the main policy tool in the EU to ensure a stable food supply, safeguard farmers’ income, and protect the environment. Despite significant investment in the environmental objectives of the CAP and efforts by the EU and Member States, agriculture’s contribution to environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, water scarcity and greenhouse gas emissions has continued.

The need for a systemic change involving all actors along the food value chain has been increasingly recognised. Agriculture and food systems have been at the core of recent policy developments under the European Green Deal, including the zero pollution action plan, the EU biodiversity strategy for 2030 and the European climate law.

The central component of the strategic policy efforts is the Farm to Fork strategy, which aims to accelerate the transition to a sustainable food system by introducing regulatory and non-regulatory initiatives, building on a reformed Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy as tools to support a just transition.

EEA's assessments show that, despite the advances achieved under the EU’s farm to fork strategy, the existing EU policy mix is characterised by gaps and inconsistencies that limit the potential to achieve transformative change. 

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.

Reducing impacts of pesticides

Widespread pesticide use is major source of pollution — contaminating water, soil and air, driving biodiversity loss and leading to pest resistance. Human exposure to chemical pesticides is linked to chronic illnesses, such as cancer, and heart, respiratory and neurological diseases.

The EEA briefing ‘How pesticides impact human health and ecosystems in Europe’ summarises the latest knowledge on how chemical pesticides impact our health and the environment and presents good practices to reduce their use and risk across Europe. It showcases good practices for how to reduce pesticide use and manage the associated risks without jeopardizing food supply.

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

Alt text: Infographic showing the share of the utilised agricultural area in the EU-27 used for organic farming over the period 2012-2020 in a vertical bar chart. Long description: The Y axis depicts the percentage of total utilized agricultural area and the X axis depicts the year. It shows a steady increase in the share of utilized agricultural area dedicated to organic farming, growing from just under 6 percent in 2012 to just over 9 percent in 2020. On the far right flank of the figure, separated spatially from the rest of the data, is a bar depicting the organic farming target of 25% in 2030.

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.

Picture of a worker waist-down, wearing waterproof boots and standing on the left, using a large yellow hose to spray a large pile of red tomatoes.

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