“However, we also propose that fruit and vegetables should become more affordable.”
Interview with Eric Lambin, Chief Scientific Advisor to the European Commission, about the scientific consensus towards sustainable food consumption in the EU and the new scientific opinion on this topic.
If you rate the nutritional quality and the state of sustainable food systems in the EU on a scale between 0-10, from the worst to the best, which score would you give the EU?
Eric Lambin: Since we are a wealthy continent with diets that are diverse and nutritious but on the other hand rich in animal source products, I would rate the EU currently around the middle, at about a score of 6. We could however easily reach a score of 8 or 9 if food producers and consumers swapped some animal-based foods, generally associated with high CO2-emissions and high land and water use, for more plant-based foods, especially by emphasising plant-protein sources.
With their recommendations to lift barriers towards a more sustainable food consumption, the EU’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors asks for a stronger role of policy in shaping the future lifestyles of Europeans. “Policies should address the whole food environment, anywhere where food is obtained, eaten and discussed,” the scientists recommend. Will eating and drinking soon be under state control?
Eric Lambin: No, of course not. Consumers should always have the individual freedom to choose what they want to eat and drink. In the current situation though, we recognise that individuals are actually not fully in control of their day-to-day consumer decisions. They are influenced by advertising, product availability, packaging, product placement, cultural customs, individual habits, and by all sorts of information that form the food environment.
This is where public policies enter, to steer this food environment towards a direction that is more compatible with sustainability and public health. This environment should be shaped in a way that we are less pushed in directions that are not good for our health or for the planet. In the end, the consumer should be more enabled to make well-informed sustainable and healthy choices.
As scientists, you recommend bans of certain food advertisements or regulations on price and placement in the stores, or even a reformulation of whole product categories – all of this with the aim of contributing to more healthy diets and a reduction of CO2-emissions in agriculture and food production, about 20% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. Another proposal is a tax on red meat. Won’t these measures lead to an increase in food prices?
Eric Lambin: Not all food prices will go up, only those of the products of which a frequent consumption is not conducive to healthy and sustainable diets. Notably, we flag here processed and red meat and sugary drinks.
However, we also propose that fruit and vegetables should become more affordable, by decreasing VAT for example. Policies should also contribute to making healthy food more available and accessible for low-income households, who often turn toward less healthy foods because they are the cheapest. We recommend that revenues from these new taxes are used to reduce inequalities by financing focused food subsidies for low-income households.
But it is true that, according to our proposals, heavy red meat eaters would see an increase in their total food bills through taxation. The hope is that these consumers will adjust their decisions, because scientific evidence shows that people respond more to financial incentives than to information alone. The goal is not to burden consumers by making them figure out how to pursue healthy and sustainable diets by themselves but to direct them towards more healthy and sustainable products. Meat and sugar taxes simply integrate these costs into retail prices of these food products.
How then should politicians prepare citizens to face price increases for certain foods?
Eric Lambin: The scientific Evidence Review Report of the European Academies, which is the basis for our policy recommendations, discusses in detail how communication, information and education are a necessary – but not sufficient – prerequisite to the introduction of new food policies. We recommend that new food taxes should be accompanied by sustained communication campaigns before and during implementation in order to educate consumers about the rationale for such taxes and also about alternative diets.
There also is a timing and sequencing issue. New food policies cannot be started too rapidly, they have to be announced and introduced progressively over time. Pilot projects will help to better show the benefits of new policies.
We advocate for a gradual approach to taxing unhealthy and unsustainable food products. Understanding and acceptance by citizens and by all actors in the food system will be key. Otherwise, resistance may grow and could become counter-productive. As mentioned above, this also needs to include compensation mechanisms that avoid negative effects for people that have or would then face difficulties buying food.
Consumer labels to evaluate and compare food products play a crucial role for citizens who already want to act now. Nevertheless, they often face poor labelling schemes. For example, there is a general consensus about beef production being harmful to the climate. On the other hand, grass-fed cows can be helpful to save and maintain biodiverse ecosystems. Or, maybe less known, there are vast methane emissions from rice cultivation which is a cornerstone in plant-based diets. How to deal with the complexity?
Eric Lambin: Any sustainability labelling scheme has to be informed by some form of life cycle analysis based on reliable, fine-grained data. The complexity of environmental impacts of food products should be reflected by labels, because there are always trade-offs, be it in animal production or in plant cultivation.
Some production systems pose a heavier burden in terms of land, water and energy use than others. The energy input for transportation, storage and packaging of food products should also be calculated. Ideally, most categories of footprints would be reflected in labels, while ensuring that these labels are still understandable by consumers. Consumers should be helped in dealing with trade-offs when making informed decisions.
Unhappily, past examples of labelling on EU level such as ”nutriscore” or ”organic” led to more confusion than to solutions. How to avoid it?
Eric Lambin: Initially, several labels – such as “organic” – came from groups of private sector actors or governments. But inconsistency across regions or a lack of transparency have sometimes led to confusing situations. The EU has a key role to play in standardisation across all EU Member States.
Valid standards, based on evidence, are also key for sound labelling schemes which, in addition, require regulation and good governance. Public authorities should play a central role in integrating various perspectives after consulting key stakeholders that include industry, retailers and civil society. In the end, public institutions ensure the trustworthiness, validity and transparency of labels.
Should public authorities the communicators or influencers, too?
Eric Lambin: Not necessarily. Governments set the goals and roadmaps, provide solid scientific information and data, and define national dietary guidelines. Communicators and influencers can draw on these, but benefit from independence in creating and messaging in a way that best fit their intended audiences. This ensures a greater diversity in media and communication formats, to reach a greater variety of societal groups and age cohorts. Of course, disinformation and false advertising must be regulated and countered.
Better food literacy is seen as an important factor in your scientists’ opinion. Are our educational systems doing enough to raise knowledge and awareness about sustainable and healthy food?
Eric Lambin: There are great variations in educational systems between and within EU countries. Surely, awareness about climate change has grown in all countries, but still, much more could be done about food literacy, especially for children. Some promising initiatives such as offering more vegetarian dishes in canteens or providing environmental information about dishes being served could be scaled-up.
There is also a lack of sustainability criteria in national nutritional guidelines of many countries. Here, the Nordic Member States are forerunners: they recently have integrated sustainability into their dietary guidelines. We recommend that the EU supports efforts to make such an integration more general.
If a young family wants to know from scientists what the best diet for them and their kids would be, what do you recommend to them?
Eric Lambin: Our recommendations are primarily aimed at policy-makers rather than at individual citizens. But I would say that food guidelines of your country provide advice for balanced diets on the basis of current knowledge, accounting for the specificities of the food system of your country.
Generally speaking, diets in Europe are too high in meat and dairy products, so I would recommend to focus on a mostly plant-based diet. For most Europeans, this means consuming more legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. It also means consuming less meat, mostly less red and processed meat, less foods rich in saturated fat, salt and sugar, fewer snacks with poor nutritional qualities, and less ultra-processed foods, sugary drinks, and alcohol.
When it comes to animal-based foods, we should prioritise the consumption of sustainably sourced fish and seafood. If you find that you eat meat almost every day, why not try out some tasty vegetarian recipes? A shift in food practices to reduce food waste is also strongly recommended. There is broad scientific consensus that a mostly plant-based diet is not only healthier but also more sustainable for the environment than the average European diet.