Is there a means to increase the sustainability of food production and, at the same time, encourage people to eat more healthily? Can small changes to our diet have a significant impact on our health or on the environment? Are the measures currently being implemented by governments and health authorities effective at tackling the major problems associated with food? To begin to answer all of these questions, Louise Fresco, chairperson of the Executive Board at Wageningen University and Research, believes we need to conduct in-depth, interdisciplinary research into food, nutrition and health, not only in the Netherlands but across Europe.
Karin Zimmerman, coordinator, and Pieter van ‘t Veer, scientific coordinator, are responsible for the overarching European network for sustainable nutrition and health that is bringing these disciplines together.
'Google' for food, nutrition and health
Researchers are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain data, resources and services in the fields of food, nutrition and health on account of the global spread and multilingual nature of the various sources, and the different forms that these sources take. It is therefore essential that researchers come together and work in a more systematic way so as to harmonise their methodology and data. This will allow each country to benefit from the research, as well as Europe as a whole. No ‘separate’ Google exists for food, nutrition and health – at least not yet.
Building an overarching European infrastructure network (FNH-RI)
Six countries are currently working to build an overarching European infrastructure network to help overcome these problems, the Food Nutrition and Health Infrastructure (FNH-RI). The network will serve as a means of standardising and harmonising data that has been amassed by companies, researchers and consumers, including till receipts, customer cards and data collected through smartphone apps, plus scientific research. Zimmermann explains:
The infrastructure comprises an overarching area in which a range of databases and source files are linked together and made accessible to the research community. The other area of the infrastructure is a platform for consumer data, where data can be stored with the aid of specially developed apps and in such a way that consumers can upload their data in near real time.
The first steps in the design of the infrastructure have been implemented as part of the RICHFIELDS project, focused most specifically on consumer research. The platform will facilitate research into behaviour that is decisive in purchasing, preparing and consuming food, simply by looking at aspects such as search queries for recipes, shopping lists and visits to restaurants. By sharing your data as an anonymous consumer, you contribute to research that aims to encourage healthy and sustainable nutrition and diets. To researchers, this data is a gold mine.
Pieter van ‘t Veer, professor in nutrition and scientific coordinator for the RICHFIELDS project, explains that today, dieticians know every possible detail about the nutrition that we need, that sociologists know everything about the factors that influence food choices and that psychologists even understand these factors at individual level:
RICHFILEDS focusses on the consumer area, i.e. what does the immediate environment of a consumer look like and what is his or her daily food pattern? Van ‘t Veer says that consumers have a difficult time making the right, or healthy, choices. There may be social or societal pressure to eat certain food or pressure from colleagues or friends. At parties, there is added temptation from the food that is available. The art is in linking data about a consumer, who usually moves within a very small environment and who is triggered by biological and social reflexes from day to day, to a global system that itself is linked to the limits of our planet’s opportunities. Conceptually, the two areas are very far apart, yet still connected. FNH-RI and its Consumer Data Platform will help to link the two.
Zimmermann explains: ‘If you consider societal challenges such as food safety and food sustainability, the consumer naturally plays a pivotal role. Nevertheless, it’s important that the behavioural changes that we want to see are supported by consumer data through innovations by suppliers who work in collaboration with the food industry.’
Van ‘t Weer anticipates that by 2050, we will have achieved a straightforward and efficient exchange of extremely comprehensive data on all levels thanks to this research infrastructure. At that point, it will be just as easy to find answers to research questions as it is finding answers to everyday questions using Google today. He says that we are currently experiencing a data revolution, but also a societal revolution in terms of food and nutrition. This also means that research and science are in transition and must be ready for a future that takes into account the limits of the planet’s ability to accommodate growth.
FNH opens the way for pioneering research to support the diet of the future and offer us a sustainable future.