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Strengthening Europe's food system against climate-driven shocks

Vulnerabilities in the European food system have been exposed in recent years through conflicts, climate events, and health crises. Is Europe ready to manage a multidimensional food crisis driven by extreme weather affecting global supply chains? A new crisis simulation exercise can improve preparedness and strengthen long-term resilience.

25 Apr 2024
7 min reading time

Wildfires are ablaze in the Mediterranean region, following long periods of drought. Rivers and reservoirs are drying out, soils are eroding, and invasive pathogens are capitalising on weakened plant resistance. As a result, production of European olive oil and other edible oils is diminished. Across Europe, the cost of food is spiking while farmer incomes are reducing. Social tensions are rising.

The situation escalates when extreme weather hits palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia – a key ingredient in many European food products. These nations impose a ban on palm oil exports to the EU due to perceptions of unfair treatment of local producers. Things go from bad to worse with the failure of soy and maize crops in North and South America, used for livestock and aquaculture feed in Europe. Meanwhile, European transport and electricity expenses are soaring, a secondary impact of dwindling water levels.

Don’t worry, this scenario is not happening – yet. These events were part of a fictional, but highly realistic, crisis workshop of the Food Alert project to stress test the European food system against climate events and shocks. More than 60 participants – including practitioners from the European Commission, member state governments, industry, civil society, academia, and media – were tasked with developing practical policy responses to a food crisis triggered by cross-border impacts of climate change.

Participants at the food crisis simulation workshop (Credit: Food Alert)

A realistic worse case scenario today

“Rather than looking at ‘black swan’ events we were looking at ‘grey rhinos’; these are vulnerabilities we already know but are not taking seriously,” says Piotr Magnuszewski, Scientific Director of the Centre for Systems Solutions, technical lead for the simulation. “It is a scenario that is entirely likely because it’s based on the real dependencies of the EU and it’s not so hard to imagine these really bad weather configurations happening simultaneously.”

The Food Alert project is sponsored by EIT Food and is run with six convening partners. Results from the workshop are detailed in a special report (1) published in 2024. It includes 12 policy ideas aimed at assisting policymakers in strengthening the resilience of the European food system and preparing the region for future shocks triggered by climate events.

"Rather than looking at ‘black swan’ events we were looking at ‘grey rhinos’; these are vulnerabilities we already know but are not taking seriously."

- Piotr Magnuszewski, Scientific Director of the Centre for Systems Solutions

Simulating a food shock in Europe

Stress test exercises are used in various contexts such as financial systems and critical infrastructure. But this is the first time that such a food crisis simulation has been used in connection with the transformation toward sustainability of the European food system.

Perhaps that is because Europe has enjoyed relatively high levels of food security in a global context (2). But in recent years, Europe’s food system has revealed vulnerabilities – especially due to “the three Cs” of conflict, COVID, and climate change (3). Empty shelves and sharp rises in food prices could be a warning sign of worse to come.

“It sounds so obvious that we need a stress test for food systems. But a couple of years ago that is not something we thought would have been necessary in Europe,” said Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, head of strategy and policy unit at DG Agri, speaking at the report launch event in Brussels.

During the workshop, participants watched videos of the fictional unfolding food crisis, and were given an interactive mobile phone app. They were assigned roles with diverging worldviews and perspectives in the field of food regulation, production, trade, and consumption. Working in subgroups, participants developed 12 policy ideas to help cope with food shocks over different timeframes.

Connecting policy with the real world to deal with climate events

When introducing any new policy, the challenge is always to weigh up its potential impacts over multiple scales and geographies. The real world is messy, interconnected, and hard to predict. As witnessed in recent years, EU-level climate and energy policies can provoke a backlash at national and subregional scales. Indeed, the policy simulation exercise in Brussels took place against a backdrop of farmer protests across Europe – many who feel they are bearing a disproportionate burden of the EU’s climate and Green Deal commitments (4).

Chris Hegadorn, Lead Organiser of the Food Alert project, says part of the disconnect between EU policy and its real-world reception is due to the absence of a systems approach. “The links are not well integrated between the food community, the health community, transportation and labour, infrastructure and security. There are still silos and a lack of coordination mechanisms,” he says.

A more joined up approach could be aided by a comprehensive Sustainable Food System Framework (SFSF) Legislation. But debates around the Europe’s green commitments are sure to be at the heart of the 2024 European elections. One recent study suggests European voters are becoming increasingly fractured into tribes regarding how Europe should tackle shocks and existential crises (5). Simulation exercises like the Food Alert project can help by focusing diverse groups of people on devising real-world solutions collectively.

Tractors parked and road traffic at a standstill, Brussels, February 2024
Tractors parked and road traffic at a standstill, Brussels, February 2024 (Credit: European Union)

Emerging food innovation solutions target a regenerative approach

Corinna Hawkes, Director, Division of Food Systems and Food Safety at the FAO, says that short-term actions to tackle food shocks and climate events should also lay the groundwork to mitigate the impacts of future shocks. “Essential here is to build human resilience: actions designed to bring short-term economic benefits or quick food fixes will fail over the longer term if they undermine the social fabric of our agricultural, rural and urban communities,” says Hawkes, a keynote speaker at the 5th Global Food Security Conference in Leuven, Belgium.

One essential component of boosting Europe’s longer-term food security is to protect and restore soils. Around 60-70% of European soils are unhealthy due to factors such as intensification of agriculture, urban expansion and climate change – costing the EU at least €50 billion a year (6). As well as impacting crop production, degraded soils are also major drivers of the climate and biodiversity crises and reduce soil’s capacity to retain water (6).

"Actions designed to bring short-term economic benefits or quick food fixes will fail over the longer term if they undermine the social fabric of our agricultural, rural and urban communities."

- Corinna Hawkes, Director, Division of Food Systems and Food Safety, FAO

Food tech innovation can help transform the European food system

To ensure the long-term health of soils and nature, new mechanisms are needed to support food producers in the transition to more sustainable practices: both financial and educational. What’s more, there is an increasing recognition that the burden for shifting to more regenerative food systems should be shared across the entire food value chain. A more collective approach can be enabled through initiatives such as the Regenerative Innovation Portfolio, which will see EIT Food match corporate partner funding up to €15 million over three years.

Startups and scaleups also have a key role to play in strengthening food security and reducing the impacts of a potential food crisis (7). EIT Food has supported a number of these companies through its entrepreneurship programmes. For instance, Ekolive has developed a patented eco-bioleaching that replicates natural soil formation within just a few days – a process that can take centuries.

EIT Food is also supporting data-based food innovations. Agritask has developed an agricultural intelligence platform that enables food producers to minimise supply chain risk and optimise sustainable farming operations. Similarly, GeoPard Tech has created a cloud-based analytics platform – to exploit the opportunities of digital farming, agronomy, and precision farming practices.

For a resilient food system, all voices need to be heard

Of course, food security issues vary significantly across Europe, driven by local climate, economics, and cultural differences. At the EU level, the launch of the Strategic Dialogue on the future of EU agriculture can help ensure that a diversity of perspectives is at the heart of resilience planning (8). It can set expectations for agrifood stakeholders and create incentives across the value chain.

“A healthy democracy needs an inclusive debate where the voices of people from different backgrounds are listened to and taken into account,” says Rejane Souza from Yara International, a speaker at the 5th Global Food Security Conference. “Governments and the food value chain have a joint responsibility to support farmers, an obligation we have to take very seriously if we want to deliver on the Paris Agreement and address food security at the same time, as both targets shall not compete and rather coexist.”

Ultimately, strengthening food security in Europe is also an opportunity to strengthen commitments to climate and nature targets, while reducing the potential for a food crisis and ensuring access to heathy food for all. The key is for actors in the food system to collaborate and co-create solutions. Funding mechanisms such as the EIT Food Impact Funding Framework can support in this endeavour by promoting ambitious, long-term collaborations that benefit us all.


  1. Food Alert project: Stress Testing the EU Food System, Food Alert Simulation Workshop Report
  2. Economist Impact: Global Food Security Index 2022
  3. BMJ: Global environmental climate change, covid-19, and conflict threaten food security and nutrition
  4. EIT Food: Farming in Europe: the changing landscape of food production
  5. ECFR: A new political map: Getting the European Parliament election right
  6. European Parliament: Soil Monitoring and Resilience
  7. EIT Food: 10 Agrifood Startups to Watch in 2024
  8. European Commission: Strategic Dialogue on the Future of EU Agriculture
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