Food System Analysis

The food system contributes significantly to environmental impacts, among others on climate change1 , land use and biodiversity. Moreover, the food system is affected by significant inefficiencies along the entire value chain, both in terms of resource inputs and of the high amount of food waste generated at each stage (from primary production to consumption)2 . However, unavoidable food waste could represent an important source of materials, following circular bioeconomy principles. Adopting life cycle thinking and assessment is crucial to assess both impacts and benefits of food value chains and to support the identification of potential interventions towards a more sustainable food system.


Regarding the overall environmental footprint of the EU food system, the JRC is developing an assessment framework to monitor the evolution of the overall environmental impact associated with EU food consumption by means of selecting a number of representative food products which more than 70% of food consumption in mass of consumed food products and beverage, applying life cycle assessment and calculating 16 impact categories3 . Besides, there was the monitoring of the evolution of impacts over time. The baseline assessment done for 2010 and 2015 has been then used to test scenarios of impact reduction along the food value chain, both as technical (e.g. efficiency improvements) or behavioural transitions (e.g. dietary shift ). Such framework allows as well the assessment of the impacts of the EU food system against the Planetary Boundaries as absolute sustainability reference and as a pathway to define targets to achieve environmental sustainability.

Regarding food waste, JRC applied food system analysis to support the ambition of food waste reduction set by the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 12.3: ‘by 2030 halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels, and reduce food losses along production and supply chains including post-harvest losses’4 . Moreover, the European Commission has been dedicated to fighting food waste and has committed to achieving the SDG 12.3 target, first in the European Circular Economy Action Plan5 and more recently, by reiterating this objective in the recently published Farm to Fork strategy6 . JRC has worked on assessing both food waste generation as well as food waste prevention actions. Key findings of JRC research are presented in a brief prepared for the European Commission’s Knowledge Centre for Bioeconomy (KCB)7.

Regarding food waste accounting, the EU food system has been modelled by means of mass flow analysis in order to assess how much food is wasted throughout the food supply chain, and to inform strategies to reduce and valorise (give added-value to) the food waste generated in the EU. The model could be applied at both the EU and Member States levels.

Regarding food waste prevention, the JRC has been supporting the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste (FLW) by: i) developing a framework for the evaluation of food waste prevention actions and its use in assessing the effectiveness and efficiency of such actions8 ; ii) developing a prevention actions calculator for practitioners to assess the net economic benefits and net environmental savings – based on Life Cycle Assessment – of food waste prevention actions9 ; and iii) reviewing and assessing existing studies quantifying food waste in the Member States10 , towards identifying the main limitations and data gaps that hinder comparability of studies.


Food waste valorisation and green chemistry entry into play when food (or its parts) cannot be consumed by humans, other options, including reuse, recycling and recovery, should be considered in order to avoid waste disposal. Recycling includes options that yield low added-value products, such as bioenergy carriers (e.g. biogas and biomethane, bioethanol, biohydrogen, bio-oil, biochar), compost, etc., and options that can give rise to high economic added-value products. However, for the development of future sustainable industrial processes focused on the valorisation of food waste, critical aspects such as (i) the technical feasibility of the processes at industrial scale, (ii) the analysis of their techno-economic potential, including available quantities of waste, and (iii) a life cycle-based environmental assessment of benefits and burdens need to be considered. Although a plethora of food waste valorisation pathways exist, they are mainly developed at lab-scale. Further research is necessary to assess upscaled performance, feedstock security, and economic and environmental assessment of food waste valorisation 11

It is essential to ensure at an early stage of development that such technologies present indeed less environmental burdens to guide investment and technology deployment towards a sustainable economy. The JRC is developing in the exploratory project PLANET BIO (visible only in "JRC connected" internal network) an innovative robust framework for the environmental assessment of emerging technologies for biobased products, as essential decision support for policy makers and investors in the selection of sustainable production pathways. By comprehensively assessing new technologies and their potential upscale through the lens of prospective LCA and considering alternative development scenarios, the framework will help to foster eco-innovation, to minimise impacts and to unveil trade-off, towards a sustainable circular bioeconomy.


1FAO, 2013. Food wastage footprint. Impacts on natural resources. Summary Report

2Caldeira, et al. 2019. Quantification of food waste per product group along the food supply chain in the European Union: a mass flow analysis. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. 149, 479–488

3Castellani, et al. 2017. Consumer Footprint. Basket of Products indicator on Food. JRC Technical Reports. EUR 28764 EN. Publication Office of the European Union, Luxemburg

4UN, 2015. Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. United Nations Resolution A/RES/70/1

5European Commission, 2015. COM (2015) 614

6European Commission, 2020. COM (2020) 381.

7Sanchez Lopez, J., Caldeira, C., De Laurentiis, V. and Sala, S., Brief on food waste in the European Union, Avraamides, M. editor(s), European Commission, 2020, JRC121196.

8Caldeira, et al. 2019. Assessment of food waste prevention actions: development of an evaluation framework to assess the performance of food waste prevention actions, EUR29901 EN; doi:10.2760/9773

9De Laurentiis, et al. 2020. No time to waste: assessing the performance of food waste prevention actions. Resources, Conservation & Recycling. 161: 104946.

10Caldeira, et al. 2019. Review of studies on food waste accounting at Member State level, EUR 29828 EN; doi:10.2760/340637

11 Caldeira C., Vlysidis A., Fiore G., De Laurentiis V., Vignali G., Sala S. Sustainability of food waste biorefinery: a review on valorisation pathways, techno-economic constraints, and environmental assessment. Bioresource Technology. 312, 123575

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