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FW for sustainability assessments

Safeguarding our future: creating a framework for sustainability assessments

Sustainability is a key element of a growing number of policies in Europe and worldwide, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the EU Green Deal. Among the human activities that impact upon sustainability, the food and feed system is recognised as one of the main drivers. A number of SDGs focus on the environmental impact of food and feed production and consumption. Measuring progress against objectives and targets is of the utmost importance in the transition towards a sustainable food system. We therefore plan to discuss possible approaches to defining a framework for sustainability assessments of food systems and how to make it operational, taking account of methodological challenges and opportunities. Such a framework could support policymaking in relation to the environmental, social and economic impacts of the food system.


The concept of sustainability is founded on the growing evidence that human, animal, and environmental health are inextricably linked. A legislative framework for sustainable food systems is now under development (scheduled by the European Commission for 2023), which will aim to ensure environmental, social and economic sustainability. It will consist of a comprehensive set of principles and requirements for the sustainability of food systems and provide a basis for ensuring policy coherence at EU and national level.

EFSA is committed to supporting the objectives of the upcoming legislative framework. To this aim, over the next years, EFSA will revisit its risk assessment methodology so that it can look beyond food/feed safety to take a broader perspective, leading towards a “one health-one environment” approach that includes sustainability. Such assessments will support efforts to ensure the sustainability of the EU’s food and feed system as well as to meet policy targets and citizen demands.

Background – Challenges and opportunities

Ensuring the sustainability of the EU’s food system is one of the major goals of the EU’s Green Deal, and in particular the Farm to Fork strategy, which sets out a series of initiatives to transform the food system. This transition will be a highly complex and uncertain process. Setting out a clear path for transformation will also require the development of approaches for assessing and monitoring sustainability. A clear definition of sustainability and a set of criteria, principles and indicators are also needed as well as tools (a framework) that would help in monitoring progress made towards reaching sustainability goals.

Agreeing a common definition and a framework is extremely challenging since sustainability is a broad, interdisciplinary and value-laden concept and food systems are intrinsically variable (e.g. differing consumption patterns and lifestyles). Various stakeholder and cultural groups might have conflicting objectives and perspectives e.g. maximizing efficiency (productivity per energy-, material- and land inputs), prioritizing yields over the resilience and adaptive capacity of the food system, prioritizing food demand versus staying within ecological and social limits. Moreover, in the EU food system, which is open and dependent on international trade, a trade-off is needed between securing food supplies and externalizing their impact. Pressure on the domestic environment would significantly increase if all agricultural production were to be reinternalized within the EU. For these reasons, different stakeholders will need to be consulted at all steps of the process, which therefore needs to be community-based, interactive and participatory. This is especially important since change in one part of the system has knock-on effects on various other parts and the same actors affected by the transformation should have an opportunity to take part in shaping it.

While several operational approaches have been developed and proposed for assessing the sustainability of food systems, they often vary in scope, scale, and the disciplines involved. Therefore, a better understanding of the advantages and limitations of different methods is needed. Key concepts remain under discussion, which will need to be made operational in supporting sustainability policies, such as those related to life cycle thinking, the early integration of sustainability considerations in product design (such as the Safe and Sustainable by Design (SSbD) system), the use of conceptual models (such as the DPSIR causal framework), anticipation science and the relational theory of systems. A number of quantitative assessment methods are also available to translate the concepts into practice such as for example via system dynamics models and Integrated Assessment Models. Examples of those methods include Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), Cost–Benefit Analysis (CBA), Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), Input-Output analysis, Multi-Scale Integrated Analysis of Societal and Ecosystem Metabolism.

Moreover, sustainability is inherently future-oriented, therefore methods such as back-casting, foresight and in particular scenario analysis are necessary to manage the process of transition. These methods may share some common indicators, but the analytical processes, metrics used and field of applications are quite different. Other frequent weaknesses of existing frameworks are the partial coverage of sustainability issues (e.g. applicability to socio-economic aspects) and limited capture of key factors and processes.

On the other hand, defining a framework for sustainability assessments could bring about numerous opportunities:

  • It could assist discussions on available options for sustainability assessments and the measurement of performance against potential benchmarks and thresholds. The development of a metric for sustainability assessment could support the future design of policy measures, as well as their assessment and monitoring, and improve the appraisal of impacts and benefits.
  • A broader focus on sustainability and its multiple components could also prevent risk migration (across different environmental compartments, societal sectors etc.) and facilitate a thorough consideration of trade-offs, risk-benefits and inefficiencies.
  • It could support the monitoring of progress made towards meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ex-post evaluations. When used in an anticipatory fashion, it can also support ex-ante impact assessments.

Scope and objectives

The framework for sustainability assessments within the food system is understood as a set of guiding principles (e.g. minimizing pollution, increasing material efficiency, system variability), criteria, indicators (pressures, impacts, reference/thresholds, performance indicators, baselines, targets etc.), metrics, protection goals, scenarios, performance requirements, as well as the assessment/analytical tools for the evaluation and quantification of sustainability throughout the lifecycle of a product at multiple scales (land parcel, farm, landscape, region or state). Different frameworks might need to be applied depending on the scope of the assessment (products, processes, systems, technologies, diets etc.). Such a framework should assess impacts comprehensively and holistically, highlighting possible trade-offs and burdens shifting (across different environmental compartments, societal sectors etc.), considering the transfer of impacts between life cycle stages, or environmental/social compartments.

The objectives of the session are to:

  • Discuss the advantages and limitations of different approaches and identify challenges related to the creation of a framework for sustainability assessments of the food and feed system at multiple scales (by product/sector/whole system/technology/diet or farm/land parcel/landscape/region/state/global).
  • Define relevant questions for research and policy such as: What is the most relevant scale for sustainability assessments? Is it possible to develop a single headline indicator to characterise the sustainability achievements of the food system?
  • Showcase studies, examples and good practices (e.g. SSbD for plant protection products and examples of the application of LCA; case study of the sustainability of organic farming).

All sustainability dimensions (social, economic and environmental) will be presented as a general introduction. Particular attention will then be focused on the environmental dimension.

Time Duration Talk
09:00 5

Opening and welcome

Anne-Katrin Bock, Joint Research Centre (JRC)

Part I - Framing of the issue

Time Duration Talk
09:05 10

The vision: legislative Framework for Sustainable Food Systems

Alexandra Nikolakopoulou, European Commission

09:15 15

Components and operationalisation of a framework for sustainability assessment

Serenella Sala, Joint Research Centre (JRC)

09:30 10

Sustainability assessment of food and agriculture systems: A global reference framework

Gianna Lazzarini, Research Institute of organic agriculture (FiBL)

09:40 10


Anne-Katrin Bock, Joint Research Centre (JRC)

Part II - Use, opportunities and challenges of a framework for sustainability assessment

Time Duration Talk
09:50 10

Sustainability assessment of agricultural systems: criteria, opportunities and challenges

Antoine Messéan , National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE)

10:00 10

Designing safe and sustainable by design chemicals and products

Xenia Trier, European Environment Agency (EEA)

10:10 10

System-scale sustainability assessment based on societal metabolism and scenario analysis

Ansel Renner, Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona

10:20 15


Anne-Katrin Bock, Joint Research Centre (JRC)

10:35 30

Coffee break

Part III - Possible way forward – Breaking the silos: embedding, integrating, harmonising and scaling up of tools for the co-design of best practices for sustainability assessment

Time Duration Talk
11:05 55

Panel discussion moderated by Tobin Robinson

Serenella Sala, Joint Research Centre (JRC) | Hanna Tuomisto, University of Helsinki | Andrea Hagyo, European Environment Agency (EEA) | Roberta Sonnino, University of Surrey | Antoine Messéan , National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE)

12:00 5

Wrap up and concluding remarks

Anne-Katrin Bock, Joint Research Centre (JRC)

Session Coordinator

Session coordinator
Angelo Maggiore (EFSA)

Session Contributors

Session contributors
Fulvio Ardente (JRC)
Lorenzo Benini (EEA)
Stef Bronzwaer (EFSA)
Carla Caldeira (JRC)
Yann Devos (EFSA)
Davide Gibin (EFSA)
Andrea Hagyo (EEA)
Ybele Hoogeveen (EEA)
Aleksandra Lewandowska (EFSA)
Francesca Riolo (EFSA)
Serenella Sala (JRC)
Juan Riego Sintes (JRC)
Giuseppe Stancanelli (EFSA)
Xenia Trier (EEA)