Scientists map out action plan on food industry research

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food

The EU's researchers have received funding to map out a course of
action on developing food production in the bloc.

The European Science Foundation (ESF) says the funding will be used to develop a broad research agenda focusing on all aspects of food systems, including health and environmental issues, such as security and sustainable development. The research could help the EU's food companies meet the research and development challenges posed by increased global competition.

The plan fits in with the European Commission and the food industry's call for more research and development spending as a means of remaining innovative and competitive.

European food systems are in process changing, driven by technology, government policy and globalisation, the EFS stated in announcing the research's direction.

"For example, technological advances have changed peoples' diet through the provision of a greater range of 'convenience' or 'fast foods',"​ the research institute stated. "Environmental regulations have altered the conditions for the farming and fishing industries and increased public awareness has created consumer pressure in many areas including food safety and animal welfare."

This EFS's "Forward Look" project will attempt to outline the effects of the changes.

"The challenges that lie within European food systems are no longer only manifested through the provision of safe and healthy food. In a wider context they also strongly influence an increasing number of environmental and societal goals,"​ the EFS stated. "A broad interdisciplinary approach, indicating a wider scope of implications throughout society, is therefore essential if we are to fully understand what can be achieved and how."

Rudy Rabbinge, a main contributor to the project said the work will involve collaboration between various disciplines, unifying concepts, methodologies and approaches.

"The accomplishment of the objectives set out in this Forward Look will eventually aim to provide policymakers with the required tools to establish a more equitable balance of food security within European societies,"​ Rabbinge stated.

Food and nutrition issues such as BSE, GM crops and obesity will be examined along with the politics behind trade and global environmental change.

In a key policy document last year the EU's food industry association called on members to boost research and development (R&D) spending as a means of remaining innovative and competitive.

The association blamed the poor rate of technology transfer from the research phase to the application stage as a major barrier to innovation in the industry.

In a bid to turn the trend around the Confederation of Food and Drink Industries (CIAA) met with scientists on 2 February in Brussels to formulate a strategic agenda for research in the EU. The plan will be delivered to the European Commission in March this year in a bid to channel more of the bloc's research funding into the industry.

The meeting is part of the European Technology Platform (ETP) on Food for Life, launched by the CIAA last year. The ETP is a bid to focus research spending on health, quality, manufacturing, production consumer trends, food safety, supply chain management, communications, training and technology transfer.

The CIAA noted that the EU's research efforts have been fragmented and low due, in part, to the composition of the sector with its many small and medium sized businesses.

As a result, there are no effective drivers for large R&D investment in industry, the CIAA noted. National governments and the EU have further contributed to fragmentation by not supporting breakthrough science for the agro-food sector because their focus has been largely centred on food safety, the CIAA stated.

The CIAA hopes to encourage increased R&D spending from the private and public sectors and target research on the priorities outlined in the document. It also hopes to involving more of the smaller companies in the innovation process.

The European agro-food industry is the largest manufacturing sector in Europe. The food and drink industry had a turnover of €810 billion euro in 2004 and employs about four million people. There are about 280,000 companies operating in the sector, of which 99 per cent are classified as small and medium enterprises (SME).

But low spending on developing new products and processing techniques coupled with sluggish export growth, has made the EU's food industry vulnerable to increased global competition, according to the CIAA. The bloc's spending on R&D remains lower than in other economies when expressed as a percentage of output. The figure is known as "R&D intensity" .

Even though the amount spent on R&D in the EU rose by 20 per cent between 1997 and 2001, it accounted only for 0.24 per cent of output in 2001, far beyond the average of 0.35 per cent of its main competitors, the CIAA stated.

Food companies in Australia, Japan, Norway and the US all spend relatively more on R&D than the EU. Japan sits on top of the pile.

Related topics: R&D

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