Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / November 14, 2023

How do we want to produce and consume food in a more sustainable way?

In the face of anthropogenic climate change and its consequences, EU policy-makers and scientists met on 10 and 11 October 2023 as part of a workshop seeking science-driven solutions for sustainable food.

Photo credit: Getty images

Written by Svetla Tanova-Encke with Niklas Dreier.

In the face of anthropogenic climate change and its consequences, EU policy-makers and scientists met on 10 and 11 October 2023 as part of a workshop seeking science-driven solutions for sustainable food. The workshop organised by the European Research Council (ERC) and European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) included a session of the STOA ‘pairing scheme’ – a collaboration bringing scientists together with policy-makers to stimulate constructive exchange.

Merits of frontier research for democratic policy-making

At the opening session, Marc Angel (S&D, Luxembourg) emphasised the importance of scientific evidence as the foundation of the democratic policy-setting process. Furthermore, Christian Ehler (EPP, Germany), Chair of the STOA Panel, noted that even if it may not always appear helpful in finding a practical solution at a given time, basic research is vital in laying the foundation for more applied research and policy decisions in the future. Maria Leptin, ERC President, echoed this notion and underlined the value of social sciences in addition to the natural and life sciences to achieve sustainable food systems. Stressing the importance of scientific research as an empirical basis for policy-making, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Iliana Ivanova, demonstrated how both aspects mentioned by Marc Angel and Christian Ehler were incorporated into the Food 2030 strategy to achieve sustainable food systems.

Shaping consumer behaviour: A psychological lens

The first thematic session focused on consumer behaviour change, with psychological expertise provided by Sander Thomaes, Judith van de Wetering and Janina Seubert. The discussion focused on variables influencing the choice of sustainable foods, which include familiarity, culture and age profile. For instance, Judith van de Wetering’s research has highlighted that education tailored to the target population’s concerns is a crucial factor in the extent to which people change their eating behaviour.

Core pillars of the transition to a sustainable food system: availability, accessibility and affordability

Johanna Drake, Deputy Director-General of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, emphasised that society must ensure that sustainable food is accessible, available and affordable before envisioning a transition towards sustainable food systems. Moreover, a holistic approach to production, retail and consumption of sustainable foods is vital, and a high degree of fragmentation of political competencies into different areas of responsibility could hamper this approach. To discuss the state of future technologies for sustainable food production, the scientists on the panel drew on their ERC research. Hanna Tuomisto spoke about cellular agriculture and the potential for cell-cultured meat to replace conventional meat production. However, she noted several limitations, including that production is expensive, not widespread, and requires a large amount of energy. As green energy sources are therefore needed to make production sustainable, this underscores the need to approach the issue from an interdisciplinary perspective.

The role of an interdisciplinary dialogue

The interdisciplinary lens of the workshop continued on the second event day, with a panel discussion on the impact of food systems on society. Ivars Ijabs (Renew, Latvia) accentuated the complexity of the decision-making process addressing such issues due to the need to reconcile different interests and the necessity of not only basing policies on scientific data but also evaluating them scientifically afterwards. This complexity was further outlined by John Bell, Director at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, who pointed to the different levels of consideration that have been incorporated into the Food 2030 strategy. Advocating for multilevel governance, where different stakeholders, from citizens to scientists, have the opportunity to contribute to the policymaking process, he concluded:

‘Science has to give courage to politics. It has to give inspiration to citizens, space to innovation and respite to nature’.

Presenting his research into global value chains in developing countries, Rocco Macchiavello argued that the possibility to inform policies during knowledge production should already be in place. Yet, this dialogue between science and politics poses a number of challenges for both academics and political decision-makers.

As a challenge, Eric Robinson identified the need for scientists to flexibly and quickly adapt to contribute expertise to a policy in parallel to their other time-consuming obligations such as teaching.

In this vein, Eric Lambin highlighted the need for translating bodies positioned between science and policy-makers, who understand both the issues and constraints of science and politics and formulate evidence-based policy recommendations.

The STOA pairing scheme

To facilitate the translation process between policy-makers and scientists, some ERC grantees participating in the workshop as panellists spent a day shadowing a Member of the European Parliament. This allowed them to gain a practical insight into EU decision-makers’ work and ask questions in a face-to-face setting, with participating Members taking the opportunity to learn more about the research carried out by their scientist ‘pair’.

This exchange was part of the STOA’s regular ‘pairing scheme’ which aims to support a structured dialogue between scientists and policy-makers, to raise awareness about politically relevant, cutting-edge scientific issues and the importance of science for evidence-informed policy-making.

A recording of the event is available on our website.

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