What will drive the European food sector towards more sustainability? Three scenarios for 2035

Many social and technological trends are influencing our food system – but what could the European food sector look like in 2035 and which role will play sustainability? To answer these questions, a new study within the European FOX research project presents three scenarios of alternative developments for the food sector along its entire value chain – from production and processing through packaging and logistics to sales and consumption. Each scenario has a different focus on policy, industry or research.

The future of the European food sector depends on a multitude of factors such as food policies and regulations, international trade, raw materials, agriculture, consumption habits, and many more. A precise prediction of what the European food sector will look like in 2035 is impossible – but scenarios enable a structured examination of conceivable alternative development paths, make the future more tangible, and help their users to act in a future-oriented manner. Alternative scenarios shed light on different options for action and support decision-making.

How obtain future scenarios?

How do we obtain detailed, consistent and trenchant future scenarios? As a first step, researchers from Fraunhofer ISI conducted a trend analysis to identify the key factors influencing the food sector on the basis of existing future studies. From this they developed future assumptions for core scenarios that were enriched by the FOX consortium and external experts. This led to three final scenarios of different pictures of the future European food system.

The first of these three scenarios is called “Policy secures sustainability“ and imagines a future world where the states own agricultural land, produce food suited to local conditions and care for the well-being of its citizens, who trust their government to provide nutritious food and ensure food accessibility. In this future, politicians have recognized that sustainable agriculture is vital to national food security. The state also has access to data along the entire food value chain which makes it easier to analyze people’s purchasing behavior and to incentivize them to live a healthy lifestyle. For consumers, aspects such as sustainable production or fair trade are important, but price and quality are crucial when choosing food. As a result, there will be very few food labels.

Sustainable produced food

In the second scenario “society drives sustainability“, people drive developments in their search for a healthy and sustainable lifestyle – economic growth is no longer the main paradigm. Agricultural land is in the hands of many; local biodiversity is rated very highly, and many fresh foods are produced within a 1-mile radius. Consumers are prepared to accept high food prices if food is produced in a sustainable and socially acceptable way, and they also like to grow their own fruits and vegetables or buy food at local farmers’ markets. In this future, the role of national government is limited, but there are well-organized local government bodies. Food is sold mainly in e-commerce stores or via e-commerce delivery, and the entire food logistics is organized by retailers. Conventional supermarkets no longer exist.

The third future scenario is called “A CO2 currency and retailers dominate trade and consumption“ and is characterized by dynamic technological progress, a competitive environment, and unlimited growth. Retail and sales have huge market power and the shift towards online food purchase is complete – also due to AI and data availability that help retailers understand general buying behavior. Agricultural production has to be economically successful, and global trade focuses on cheap food which has a negative impact on food quality and security. Sustainability is still important in the sense that sustainable products can boost business – sustainability is also priced in for all products in the form of a CO2 price. As raw materials are scarce and expensive, food waste is avoided and a circular economy is the new paradigm. The power of national and local governments is limited.

Dr. Björn Moller, who coordinates the FOX research project at Fraunhofer ISI, summarizes: “Our three future scenarios paint very different pictures of how the European food system could evolve until 2035. But they also have one thing in common: It is clear that the food system will change towards more sustainability – and this change is urgently needed due to intensive resource use and the high CO2 emissions of the current food system. Indeed, this change depends heavily on political decisions, which actors set the tone, how values and attitudes towards food and nutrition develop, and how consumers behave. Our study raises the question about the main driver of this transition – policy, citizens or food retailers? In any case, actors who want to shape the future of the food sector must play an active and decisive role concerning the production, distribution and buying of food.“

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.

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