Policy needed to transition to healthy sustainable diets: ‘If you want to change diets, you need to change food environments’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Change the food environment to make healthy and sustainable diets the 'default' choice, EU policymakers urged / Pic: GettyImages-sergeyryzhov
Change the food environment to make healthy and sustainable diets the 'default' choice, EU policymakers urged / Pic: GettyImages-sergeyryzhov

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European food policy needs to create ‘enabling environments’ that mean healthy and sustainable choices are the default, according to a coalition of civil society organisations.

In a joint policy briefing​ published today (13 October), the EU Food Policy Coalition argued "the physical, economic, political and socio-cultural context in which consumers engage with the food system" ​plays a pivotal role in shaping demand. Changing the food environment is therefore key to transitioning to a sustainable and healthy food system, the report suggested.

Adopting a ‘food environment approach’ means recognising that people’s food choices are shaped by the contexts within which they are made. Therefore, the most ‘effective and equitable’ way to shift consumption is to ensure that the foods that contribute to healthy, sustainable diets are the most available, accessible, affordable, pleasurable and widely promoted.

“The bottom line is that if you want to change diets equitably and effectively, you need to change food environments. And to create enabling food environments for healthy and sustainable diets, you need regulation as the main driver of change,”​ Nikolai Pushkarev, Policy Coordinator at the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) said.

The briefing describes the main characteristics of food environments and their potential to create ‘unprecedented changes’ in food systems by ‘empowering, rather than putting the burden on citizens’. It especially focuses on the commercial determinants influencing food choices.

The paper sets out seven ‘entry points’ for action on food environments and provides a list of possible policies to serve as examples. These range from regulatory standards to govern food characteristics, to stricter labelling requirements, restricting the promotion of ‘nutritionally poor’ food and aligning prices with the ‘true cost’ of food to make sustainable and healthy options more economically appealing.

“Both pricing policies and fiscal incentives are part of the action framework, as well as action on promotion and marketing,”​ Puskarev told FoodNavigator. 

“The main focus should be on food system level effects, rather than on individual food level. Individual foods can contribute to sustainable consumption patterns, for instance if they are produced to higher standards, but ultimately it's the impact of consumption patterns that matters most.”

Aligning policy action with Farm to Fork and Green Deal goals 

Promoting a healthier and more sustainable food system is ‘critical’ in today’s Europe, where food consumption patterns are undermining people’s health and perpetuating unsustainable production systems.

This issue has been recognised by the European Commission through its Farm to Fork Strategy and Green Deal. But current diets put the attainment of European food policy objectives out of reach, the EU Food Policy Coalition believes.

“The Farm to Fork Strategy aims at creating a sustainable food system by 2030. If we want to ensure this transition and meet the targets, we need regulations to be shaped within a different narrative,”​ explained Federica Dolce, EU Policy Manager at Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE).

The briefing calls on public authorities to step-up their role in creating enabling food environments, which can generate important co-benefits, such as driving demand for socially just supply chains, and foster agro-ecological and climate-proof production models with high levels of animal welfare.

Madeleine Coste, Policy Officer at Slow Food, stressed that it needs to be easy and affordable to access sustainable food. “Food,”​ she said, “that is healthy and produced in an environmentally friendly way, but also food that is culturally rich, produced by farmers who receive adequate pay and by farm workers who are treated fairly, and which respects high animal welfare standards. Citizens are making clear they want better and sustainable food, and food environments should be shaped to meet their expectations.”

Meanwhile Olivier De Schutter, Co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), said the policy brief also demonstrates the need to move from individual to collective responsibility.

"This new policy brief by the EU Food Policy Coalition confirms what many of us have been saying for years: to get to sustainable food systems, continuing to place too much responsibility on individual consumers misses the mark. Ensuring the food systems transition we need means working to change the very food environments that condition our choices. And only proactive action by EU, national, and local policymakers, joined up with food industry and civil society engagement will unlock this transition."

Seven action points 

7 dimensions of food environments 

Some of the main questions addressed 

 Examples of policies and actions (indicative and non-exhaustive) 

Food characteristics 

What is the nutritional composition of foods? What specific (regulatory) standards exist to ensure the safety, environmental, social and animal welfare credentials of food products? How is food packaged? 

- Marketing standards 

- Environmental product-specific regulations and standards 

- Regulatory standards on the levels of certain nutrients in food 

- Product reformulation policies 

- Antibiotics use regulations 

- Legislation to end the use of cages in animal agriculture 

- Fisheries regulations 

- Pesticides regulations 

- Minimum wage and labour regulations for food workers 

- Food safety regulatory standards, including on food contact materials 

- Actions to promote bulk purchasing for retail 

Food labelling 

Are foods labelled in a way to make better choices easily and transparently identifiable? Does it make the better and more sustainable choice more appealing? 

- Simplified nutrition labelling 

- Labels highlighting socio-economic, climate and environmental sustainability throughout the value chain 

- Origin labelling 

- Animal welfare ‘tiered’ method of production labelling 

Food promotion 

How are foods marketed and advertised? Are foods that drive ill health and undermine other sustainability objectives freely and widely promoted, or are restrictions in place? Are systems in place to ensure healthy and sustainable options are promoted?  

- Rules restricting the marketing, advertising and sales promotion, including online, of nutritionally poor food  

- Rules against misleading advertising and claims, including ‘greenwashing’ 

- Criteria to ensure public money is only spent on promoting foods associated with sustainable diets, excluding foods with high negative environmental and animal welfare footprints 

Food provision 

What are the characteristics of the menus and foods on offer through public procurement, including in schools, canteens, hospitals, and in restaurants and other out-of-home or home delivery settings? How is urban planning organised, for instance in terms of the density of fast food outlets and the availability of spaces that build community through eating food? 

- Minimum sustainability criteria for public food procurement, including with a view to promote more healthy, plant-rich and less meat-heavy menus 

- Target for organic food in schools  

- Quick service restaurants apply nutrition and sustainability labels 

- More healthy plant-based options in take-away meals 

- Commercial urban planning strategies to reduce the density of fast food outlets 

- Support for social restaurants for vulnerable groups 

Food retail 

How is the availability of foods associated with sustainable healthy diets in retail outlets? How are in-store environments organised? Is food retailed in a way that adds further value to the socio-cultural experience of food? Are short food supply chains and direct producer to consumer distribution systems available, accessible and affordable? 


- Policies supporting mission-led food business models, to achieve social as well as economic impacts, such as through community supported agriculture initiatives and short supply chains 

- Store layouts improve positioning of food associated with sustainable healthy diets, such as healthy and environmentally-friendly plant-based foods   

- Policies to support local market infrastructures 

- Nutritionally poor foods are removed from sale near check-out counters 

Food prices 

Do relative prices favour foods that contribute to sustainable healthy diets, while reducing the attractiveness of nutritionally poor food and food with a heavy climate and environmental burden? Do non-stigmatising fiscal interventions exist to support access to good food for people in low-income groups? Do food prices support decent incomes for producers who employ methods that are better for consumers, climate, the environment and animals? 

- Pricing policies to align food prices with the true cost of food and to lower the relative price of the more sustainable food options 

- Fiscal incentives for people living on low incomes 

- Minimal VAT for fruit and vegetables, pulses and nuts  

Food trade and international agreements 

Do international trade and investment agreements have provisions in place to protect and foster enabling food environments? Are there international agreements to improve the sustainability of food? Do EU internal market trade rules enable sustainable food systems? 

- Import standards at the same level as EU environmental, social and animal welfare standards, coupled with assistance to non-EU producers from lower income countries to fulfil these standards 

- A food sustainability chapter in trade agreements that is binding and enforceable 

- Food sustainability impact assessment before negotiations 

- Action to tackle dual quality of food within the EU 

- Allowing public food procurers to purchase from local suppliers within the EU 

The EU Food Policy coalition​, brings together civil society and organizations working towards refining and advocating for a shared vision​ of sustainable food systems at the EU level such as NGOs from a broad spectrum working on food systems, grassroots social movements, farmers organizations, organizations of fishers, trade unions, think tanks and research groups.

Supporting organisations:

AIM, ARC2020, BEUC, BirdLife, CFFA, CiWF, EEB, EHN, EPHA, Euro Coop, Eurocities, Eurogroup for Animals, Feedback, FoEE, FTAO, IFOAM Organics EU, IPES-Food, OSEPI, PAN Europe, SAFE, Slow Food, Unesco Chair in Sustainable Food Systems, Urgenci, WWF

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