Climate change is considered a driver for environmental sustainability actions in the food system, despite the lack of a comprehensive environmental policy framework and the absence of specific regulation in the food domain. According to EFSA, while a broad range of studies and reports examined the impact of climate change on food security, few scientific research and public policies have focused on food safety and nutrition quality.
To respond to the challenges of sustainability – defined as ‘development that meets present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (United Nations, 1987) – over the last few years a wide array of visions and actionable policies have been developed based on the principles of the triple bottom line (TBL). TBL focuses on economic development, environmental protection, and social equity. Environmental measures – aimed at fighting climate change – are not, however, included in a comprehensive legal framework. Given this context, what is the EU law doing to take on the challenge of climate change in the food sector?
Within the EU legal framework, sustainability is mentioned among the objectives of the EU in the art. 3 of the Treaty of European Union (TEU), which specifies that ‘the Union […] shall work for the sustainable development of Europe based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress, and a high level of protection an improvement of the quality of environment’. Moreover, art. 114 (3) of the Treaty of Functioning of European Union (TFEU) provides that the Commission will take ‘a high level of protection’ in the proposals regarding harmonisation of law concerning health, safety, environmental protection and consumer protection. In the food domain, the General Food Law (Regulation (EU) No 178/2002) commands to adopt the precautionary principle (art. 7) and specifies in art. 5 that one of its objectives is to protect ‘animal health and welfare, plant health and the environment’.
Nevertheless, even if sustainable development and environmental protection are mentioned in Treaty articles and regulations, they are considered in general terms and the regulatory measures addressing the issue are limited. In my opinion voluntary indications of sustainability and actions against food waste are two underestimated issues that can tackle this limitation and promote a long-term change.Both types of intervention could be developed to engage consumers and producers in targeting environmental food sustainability.
Labelling and indicators of sustainability
Food safety regulation is a blend of public laws and private food standards. More in detail, a standard is a set of rules about minimum requirements for products, processes and producers. Therefore, they include certain ecological, economic and social criteria that must be fulfilled to award a certification for the food production or food itself.
Private standards refer to voluntary measures that have occurred in parallel to public regulation with the purpose of indicating and certifying specific sustainability-related issues. According to scholars, the scope of such initiatives is to fill the gap between existing state driven regulation and the arising consumer demand for environmentally-friendly products. These voluntary private standards aim to label products or producers fitting the standard from other products available in the market. Consumers are advised about the compliance of these products with trademarks, logos, symbols. Hence, these standards are becoming an increasingly important regulatory tool, encouraging informed choice by communicating sustainability attributes of products.
A higher level of guarantees for consumers is provided by the standards certified by third-parties considering the level of independence of the certifying body. Among these private schemes, ISO 14000 is arguably the most important in fighting climate change. That is a family of quality standards published by the International Organization of Standardisation (ISO). The standard consists of guidelines related to the environmental management system, which refers to how an organisation acts to minimize its harmful impact on the environment, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
A fitting example of private schemes comes from the wine industry. A study has revealed how this sector approaches sustainability issues – such as greenhouse gas emissions in vineyards – and how sustainable practices are implemented. Namely, it analyses the ‘indicators’ (defined by OECD as ‘parameter or set of parameters that provides information about a phenomenon and whose meaning goes beyond the properties directly associated to the parameter value’) considered in three projects which used voluntary measures certified by third-parties in order to create a common framework for ‘environmental indicators’ in the wine supply chain. Recourse to reliable indicators as ‘selected variables that support decision-making processes through measurable facts’, along with recognized standard subject to third-party accredited organisation, could be a strategy to improve product environmental sustainability.
Apart from ISO 14000, ‘Global Gap’ for good practices in agriculture, ‘Friend of the Sea’ that endorses a responsible fishing system, ‘Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’ are other examples of third-party schemes in the food sector.
Thanks to these labels, consumers could be aware about food-related environmental issues and make a choice to fight climate change.
Actions against food waste
Besides labels coming from private voluntary standards, fighting against food waste is another way for food laws to tackle climate change and contribute to sustainable development.
At the EU level, since 2015 sustainable development is mainly fostered via the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This agenda is built on the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and it introduces Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. Sustainable management of environmental resources, climate change and sustainable production and consumption are included among these goals. Specifically, goal 12.3 indicates ‘by 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduced food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses’.
Moreover, the IPCC calls for urgent change to land use, farming practices and dietary habits in order to limit global warming to 1.5. degrees Celsius. Climate change is already affecting the food system as a whole. While food waste can occur as a direct result of climate change, reducing it has also been identified as critical to lower greenhouse gas emissions and improve food security.
One-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted, FAO estimated in various occasions. In 2013 food waste had a carbon footprint of 3.3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, meaning that if waste were a country, it would rank third behind US and China in greenhouse gas emission.
The EU has not yet developed a specific legal framework for addressing food waste, although the Directive (EU) No 98/2008 on waste established a ‘waste hierarchy’ including five levels of action: prevention, preparing for re-use, recycling, other recovery and disposal. Moreover, the European Commission adopted in 2015 the ambitious ‘Circular economy package’, namely an action plan for the EU economy which sets out a concrete set of measures covering the whole product life cycle – from production and consumption to waste management – and the market for secondary raw materials. The revised EU waste legislation, adopted on 30 May 2018, calls on EU countries to take action to reduce food waste at each stage of the food supply chain, monitor food waste levels and report on progress.
Despite the lack of a legal framework, there are regulations that indirectly have an impact on food waste. Among these regulations (concerning, for example, marketing standards, contaminants and microbiological hazards, pre-market approvals and claims), ‘food information law’ can have a meaningful impact on food waste. According to Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 (‘food information to consumer’, FIC), it is compulsory to indicate the expiry date of the foodstuff either with a ‘best before’ date or a ‘use by’ date. Namely, ‘best before’ (or date of minimum durability) indicates the date until when the food retains its expected quality (attributes such as nutritional properties, taste, color). ‘Use by’ indicates the date until when food can be eaten safely, and beyond this date a food is considered legally unsafe. An unclear distinction between these two indications may induce consumers to misunderstand the date and ultimately to thrown away food ‘safe for consumption’. Producers – responsible for the indication in the label – could also choose a date not based on safety concerns for marketing reasons or precaution.
The European Commission, supported by EFSA, is currently developing an EU scientific and technical guidance on date marking, which is expected to be finalized by the end of 2020.
In this context Winston Churchill’s famous quote comes to mind: ‘the era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences’.The devastating effects of climate change already occurred, it is a question of how EU food law can help reducing them.The potential of policies and legal instruments, in a long term challenge, lays in the fact that they are critical elements of response to environmental issues, even more if integrated with other disciplines. Food laws, indeed, can help meeting product safety and consumer information requirements while also respecting the environment. In this context, labels are effective tools because they focus on informing consumers. Specific issues related to the lack of understanding of labels or to underestimating the potential of standards may hinder consumers in choosing more conscious behaviours. Furthermore, greater clarity can avoid reducing the opportunistic behaviour of food producers in label indications. Since food regulation is an arrangement of public regulation and private standards, a potential strategy at the European public level could be to create a unified label with the aim of harmonizing information that enhances the sustainability of the product, while at private level, encourage the use of sustainability standards.
Marianna Vanuzzo is a PhD Researcher in Food Law at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. Currently, she is visiting researcher at Wageningen University. Her research investigates the principle of transparency in EU food law. Before starting her PhD, Marianna worked in a law firm in Milan and as a legal assistant for the civil and criminal Court in Monza.