5 May 2018

Is France world champion of food sustainability?

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN), France is the world champion of food sustainability!

Based on the framework defined in the Milan Protocol developed by BCFN at the time of Expo2015 on food held in Milan in 2015 [read], EIU and BCFN calculated and published a Food Sustainability Index for the first time in 2016. At the time of the second publication of this index, end 2017, France appears at the top of the 34 countries for which the index was computed. 

The index rests on three pillars: (i) sustainable agriculture; (ii) nutritional challenges; and (iii) food loss and waste. Each pillar has an equivalent weight in the computation of the final aggregated index. The computation of the sustainable agriculture index is based on 19 indicators and 36 sub-indicators; the nutritional challenges index uses 11 indicators and 24 sub-indicators; and the food loss and waste index uses 6 indicators and 6 sub-indicators (see more details below and in “Food Sustainability Index Methodology”.

Although they employed more than 350 country experts and regional specialists, EIU and BCFN faced problems of availability of data and were sometimes obliged to resort to expert opinions/estimates.

While the index can be used to compare countries, its main purpose will be to help to monitor change in each of the countries for which it is computed and help identify dimensions in which action is required. It is potentially complementary to other existing food-related indexes such as the HANCI (Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index) produced by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in Brighton, UK, that measures the political commitment of governments to tackle hunger and undernutrition or the Global Hunger Index (GHI) produced by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) that aims at highlighting successes and failures in hunger reduction and at providing insights into the drivers of hunger.

Results in details

So it is France who got the “best mark” among countries analysed. The most performing countries are, in addition to France, Japan, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Portugal, Italy, South Korea and Hungary. Their good ranking is linked to “strong and effectively implemented government policy on food waste and loss, agriculture-related conservation and research, and nutrition education”. These countries are rich, have a high Human Development Index and have an important share of their population living in rural areas.

In the food loss and waste pillar, France comes first mainly because of policy measures in place since 2016 to reduce food waste [read the French law - in French only], followed by Germany, because of action taken to reduce waste at end-user level [read], by Spain and by Italy.

In the sustainable agriculture pillar, Italy comes first, in particular because of its water policies and its use of technologies to reduce water losses, and because of the adoption of techniques to adapt agriculture to climate change and to reduce GHG emissions by the sector (diversification of crops, new agricultural techniques and improvement of animal feeding). Italy is followed by South Korea (diversification of the agriculture system), France (agricultural education and research) and Colombia (reduction of the impact of animal feed and agrofuel cultivation on land).

In the nutritional challenges pillar, Japan comes first, because of the high value of its quality of life and life expectancy indicators. This country also shows a total absence of Vitamin A and Iodine deficiencies, a 100% access to drinking water, a low proportion of overweight adults and a low annual penetration rate of fast food restaurants, in particular

Food sustainability map

(Food sustainability index)

Download map: Food sustainability index map.png

The table below shows results obtained by a selection of countries for the global index as well as in each of the three pillars.

France is among the top 5 in each of the pillars. Italy is weak in nutrition. The UK, part of the second quartile, has a mediocre result for agricultural sustainability. This result is not surprising if one remembers the conclusions of a study of 2014 that depicted a failing British food system [read]. As for the US, they rank only in 21st position and have - not surprisingly - very weak results for agricultural sustainability and nutrition, particularly for this last pillar, given the food situation in this country which combines a high proportion of overweight people and huge needs in terms of food assistance (around $100 billion are spent annually to provide food assistance to the poorer groups of population). Regarding China and India, they have worrying lacunae in almost all aspects accounted for in this food sustainability index.

Food sustainability index: ranking obtained globally and in each pillar

by a selection of countries

Download table: Dimension table.pdf

Our comments

The results presented here are not really a surprise to those who are informed on the world food situation, in particular those who read An interesting thing to do will be to analyse changes in time of country performances in order to understand the evolution of their food system.

From this point of view, it is possible to make a few critical remarks on this commendable initiative. We will not go into the discussion of the detailed weighing of various indicators and sub-indicators in the computation of the index (the authors envisage four weighing systems: uniform, expert-based, policy-driven or outcome-based), but it is possible to say that while the environmental and health/nutrition dimensions are covered in a rather satisfactory manner, insufficient importance is given to the economic, social and political dimension of sustainability [read].

The important issue of the distribution of value added within the food system is overlooked while it is an essential ingredient of economic and social sustainability of the food system. Linked to this point is the question of governance of the food system and of the balance of power existing within it: is the food system strongly dominated by some economic agents that take the lion share of profits for themselves or, on the contrary, is the system managed democratically in respect of interests of all players and are profits distributed equitably in a way that all those who work in it can live decently?

The fact that BCFN is a foundation funded by one of the largest Italian agrifood industrialist may have something to do with this lacuna and the total lack of attention to the agrifood industry in the index. Although the executive summary, in its first paragraphs, makes it clear that the food system cannot be reduced to agriculture, in the rest of the report an essential - and very powerful - part of the system is mostly neglected in the analysis of the pillars of sustainability.

Let’s hope that this gap will be filled in the future so as to strengthen the objectivity, credibility and usefulness of the index computed by EIU and BCFN.

On another note, complacency should be avoided in France despite the country comes first in the EIU/BFCN ranking. On the contrary, as in France as elsewhere in the world, on can be seriously worried by the future of the food system and its sustainability. There are many threats on it (dramatic decrease of biodiversity in general and agrobiodiversity in particular, degradation of natural resources, acute crisis affecting farmers, constant deterioration of the quality of food and growing food contamination, etc.). We also need to remember that French agriculture is one of the biggest pesticide consumer in the world [read].

It is not clear how the importance of these threats that can become crucial for sustainability of the food system under certain circumstances, can be reflected by the index with an appropriate strength (e.g. what happens to the index if pollinators are close to disappearing or if the level of biological activity in the soil falls below a vital threshold), unless it is decided that if the value for a particular indicator fell below a certain threshold, this would trigger a sustainability warning.

This is, of course, the usual limit of a composite index.


Some more details on the components of the EIU/BCFN Index.

Food Loss and Waste

Food loss, Policy response to food loss, Causes of distribution-level loss, Solutions to distribution-level loss, Food waste at end-user level, Policy response to food waste.

Sustainable agriculture

Environmental impact of agriculture on water, Sustainability of water withdrawal, Water scarcity, Water management, Trade impact, Sustainability of fisheries, Environmental impact of agriculture on land, Land use, Impact on land of animal feed and biofuels, Land ownership, Agricultural subsidies, Animal welfare policies, Diversification of agricultural system, Environmental biodiversity, Agro-economic indicators, Productivity, Land-users, Environmental impact of agriculture on the atmosphere, Climate change mitigation.

Nutrional challenges

Prevalence of malnourishment, Micronutrient deficiency, Enabling factors, Health life expectancy, Prevalence of over-nourishment, Impact on health, Physical activity, Diet composition, Number of people per fast food restaurant, Economic determinant of dietary patterns, Policy response to dietary patterns.


To know more:

  1. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU),  Food Sustainability Index 2017, The Economist et Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, 2017.

  2. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU),  Food Sustainability Index Methodology, The Economist et Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, 2017.

  3. LOI n° 2016-138 du 11 février 2016 relative à la lutte contre le gaspillage alimentaire, Journal Officiel de la République Française, 2016 (in French).

  4. Klockner, J., Germany Has An Ambitious Strategy To Halve Food Waste By 2030, Huffington Post, 2016.

  5. The Milan Protocol on Food and Nutrition, Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, 2015.

Earlier articles on related to the topic:

  1. Policies for a transition towards more sustainable and climate friendly food systems, 2018

  2. What are the challenges to be met in order to secure a sustainable future for our food system?, 2017

  3. To eat more fruits and vegetables is fine. But which ones? 2017

  4. US Food and Agriculture: present and (perhaps) future situation, 2017

  5. Impressions on the world exhibition in Milano 2015 (Expo2015), 2015

  6. United Kingdom: a study demonstrates the failure of the British food system, 2014

as well as other articles under our “Sustainable agriculture” category.


Last update:    May 2018

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