France tops Food Sustainability Index

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

France has the most sustainable food system, according to the Food Sustainability Index, a data tool that should be used to drive a race to the top, say its creators.

Developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit in partnership with the Barilla Centre for Food & Nutrition Foundation (BCFN), the Food Sustainability Index (FSI) ranks countries on food system sustainability.

Using both quantitative and qualitative data on 38 indicators and 90 individual metrics, it assesses the sustainability of food systems according to three categories – food loss and waste; sustainable agriculture and nutritional challenges through an environmental, societal and economic prism.

Leo Abruzzese, senior global director of public policy at The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), presented the index to delegates at the BCFN Food Forum in Milan last week. The aim of the index was not to “name and shame​” but to highlight areas of best practice throughout the world and encourage a race to the top, he told attendees.

The Best Practice paper, based on the Index data, can be downloaded here​ while the full datasets can be found here.

European and Asian countries dominated the categories for high-income regions. For the third year running, France was praised for its regulatory environment that cuts down on food waste and loss, followed by Spain and Germany.

“It’s a figure that’s well-known but it’s still rather incredible that 30% of all food produced is wasted, from both a business stand-point and a humanitarian one," ​the public policy director said.

South Korea, France and Italy were top for sustainable agriculture. “We noticed that richer countries are trying to do more to reduce the intensification of agriculture. Clearly, intensifying agriculture helps with productivity but it degrades the land,” ​said Abruzzese.

Meanwhile, Japan, South Korea and Hungary were ranked highly for combatting nutritional challenges.

'On the right path' to fixing a broken food system

However, the EIU and BCFN were careful to note that a high score does not mean all problems have been solved, but that a country is “on the right path​” to addressing the issue in question.

High performers also have gaps that need to be addressed, Abruzzese said.

High meat and sugar intakes, a lack of young people in the farming profession and high levels of food waste at the consumer end are all areas where action is needed to address long-term food sustainability, he said.

The Index also ranks countries according to their income levels. The top-performing low-income country in 2018 was Rwanda, which scored highly thanks to some progress on nutritional indicators and low consumption of sugar and salt and a sustainable water policy.

“Food systems are complex and sometimes indexes can bring together large amounts of data and simplify them,” ​Abruzzese said. “The best way to think about [the FSI] is as a tool – one of many – that can be used to look at food systems […] and get the message across in a straight-forward fashion.”

The tool also highlights how a sustainable food industry can contribute to meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

 “The SDGs are outcomes, they don’t always tell you the inputs that are necessary to get there so we’d like to think the FSI can start to provide a roadmap in the area of food systems and how to achieve the SDGs.”

“[Input] tends to be around policy​,” Abruzzese said. “Policy matters a great deal and we’ve seen some strong policy initiatives around food loss and waste and climate change. We’re beginning to see governments take the right input to get the outcomes.”

According to Ertharin Cousin, distinguished fellow of global agriculture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the food system should be at the heart of efforts to achieve the SDGs and the Paris Agreement. “It’s all very much linked. If we do not address the challenges of a broken food system, we won’t achieve any form of planetary health or human health.”

A global index for a global challenge

In previous editions, the index evaluated 34 countries but this has gone up to 67, with the new countries located primarily in Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa.

“This is much more a global index now than previous years​,” said Abruzzese, noting that while it is important for all countries to move towards more sustainable food systems, high-, middle- and low-income countries will approach this in different ways, hence the importance of including all.

The EIU and BCFN also added new indicators to “round out​” the 2018 index. These include groundwater stress, an increasingly important area as underground reserves of water are being depleted for farming, and financial inclusion, or how easy it is for smallholder farmers to access finance. 

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