Funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation and run by Aarhus University, Plant2Food sets out to bridge the gap between food and plant science by connecting food producers with scholars, leveraging their collective knowledge to further the progress of this food segment.
“There isn’t enough interdisciplinary collaboration between plant and food science researchers,” explained Sisse Marquina-Jongberg, senior scientific manager at Novo Nordisk Foundation. “We want to change that, we want to introduce a more holistic approach to tackling the challenges that exist in plant-based food processing.”
“One area where we want to gain better understanding for example is crop properties,” she added. “We know from consumers that certain products, such as plant-based mince and some types of cheese, could have off-flavors as soon as the packaging is opened. This is far from the experience that manufacturers want to deliver, and is an example of where research could help to make food products better by exploring why off-smells happen and how to avoid them.”
The program will also encourage research into new crop varieties fit for food production, and investigate how technology could be improved to develop better-tasting foods. For example, locally-grown crops such as cereals, faba beans and some types of legumes could benefit from further research into their functional properties.
For industry partners, there will be what the Novo Nordisk Foundation refers to as a ‘match-making’ process – a supervised pairing of industry stakeholders with researchers over reaching common goals. This stops short of product development, however.
“We are talking about very basic science, which should benefit everyone in the long run,” explained Marquina-Jongberg. “We want to create a level-playing field, so the findings that result from research carried out within the platform will be ‘open-source’ – participants won’t be able to patent them, though if industry stakeholders want to incorporate these findings in their own product development further down the line, they can do so separately.”
Speaking of funding, Novo Nordisk Foundation will contribute up to €27m (US$28.1m) to the program, which is expected to launch in Q1 2023 and last five years. Eighty-percent of the grant will be for project-funding with 20% designed to cover the cost of running the program.
The projects that will be admitted into the scheme will be approved by a review committee of international experts supported by the platform secretariat run by Aarhus University to ensure transparency. Apart from pitching the original idea, the process of submitting a project involves several rounds of open dialogue, including co-ideation where members of the Plant2Food network contribute to better define the proposed project idea, and co-creation, where partners fully develop the research project.
After that, the proposal is submitted, reviewed by the review committee, and if successful, would receive funding and commence. To ensure the project stays on track, the secretariat will follow-up regularly, and finally, the findings from the research will be published and shared openly.
In addition, Food & Bio Cluster Denmark – the country’s national cluster organization which represents small and large companies and institutions within the food and bio resources sector - will focus on translating the research into practice by linking researchers and industry so that the research carried out by the universities is disseminated and translated into practice in the companies.
Industry partners that have already signed up as stakeholders include Arla Foods, Danish Crown, Chr. Hansen, and UK’s Meatless Farm. In addition, more than 20 companies have signed letter of support so far, including Nordic Seed, Syngenta, KMC and Naturli Foods.
While industry partners cannot apply for research funding, they can participate as project partners without any co-financing, we were told.
In addition to Aarhus University, the other university partners in Plant2Food are the University of Copenhagen, the Technical University of Denmark and Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands. As partners, the four universities will have access to the funds allocated for research.
Lars Visbech Sørensen, director of Food & Bio Cluster Denmark, said the body is already in talk with a large number of companies that have expressed a need for new and long-term solutions. “The food industry is pursuing new, innovative solutions within plant-based foods to meet a growing market. For example, there is a high demand for new ingredients that are grown in Denmark and can contribute to an improved taste experience.
“This is precisely why we need research into new ingredients and varietal development of existing protein crops that have good cultivation characteristics in the Danish climate. An improved ingredient base can contribute to the whole plant-based food industry becoming a new position of strength for the Danish food industry.”
Claus Felby, senior vice-president of biotech at the Novo Nordisk Foundation, added: “We need to rapidly develop foods that can feed a growing world population without over-utilizing the planet’s resources. Plant2Food creates a unique opportunity to make Denmark a leader in developing plant-based foods and ensure that we leverage the huge potential already existing in Denmark’s research community and companies and build networks with the best international experts in the field.”