How can we make sure there is healthy, safe and affordable food that has been sustainably produced in our shops in about ten or twenty years' time?
Wageningen University & Research has examined this question at the request of the European Commission. The question is important, given the widespread ecological concerns about climate change, sustainable energy, clean water and raw materials, as well as social concerns surrounding obesity and the ageing of the population. As ever, these problems also have implications for our food production, processing and sale.
In the publication Food Transitions 2030, Wageningen has outlined what it will take to achieve a sustainable food system: a circular, climate-friendly system that can provide affordable, reliable, healthy and sufficient food for everyone.
WUR will present its recommendations for European food policy at the Mansholt Lecture on 20 September in Brussels. The Mansholt Lecture is named after Sicco Mansholt, former Dutch minister of agriculture and European Commissioner for agriculture.
Europe has all the tools bring about that change, says Frans Kampers, the coordinator for several innovative technologies at WUR and co-author of the report. ‘Europeans feel the need to adapt, because we understand the consequences of climate change. We have the scientists and industry in the field of agro-food, and they are willing to cooperate. We have functioning public authorities capable of defending public values. And we have citizens who are organised, able to articulate what they think and who are prepared to enter into a debate about it.’
However, merely having conditions that could stimulate change does not make the process any easier. The margins for farmers and food-processing companies and supermarkets are small, and the food industry depends on large-scale production facilities that cannot easily be reinvented or replaced. This limits the scope for innovation. In addition, society considers some solutions more acceptable than others. Kampers takes genetic modification as an example: ‘Europe closed the door to GMOs at an early stage, while the rest of the world pushed ahead. As this also has an impact on us in Europe, it is crucial that we keep on asking how far developments can go instead of immediately rejecting innovations.’
Regulations present another obstacle to a change in direction, as they hamper innovation in the food sector, according to Kampers. ‘If you are a company and you want to modify your production process to save energy, and the end product changes slightly as a result, you have to build up an entire dossier to demonstrate that your product is still safe. As this involves major financial risks, companies often choose not to go down that road. At the same time, a lot of what we eat and drink every day – such as wine or soft drinks, because they contain alcohol and a lot of sugar, respectively – would never have made it onto the market under the current rules. So there's a double standard there. It’s also an illusion to believe you can describe, and therefore guarantee, “one hundred percent” safe food by means of rules. This has meant ideas produced by science and industry are being left to gather dust. Given the challenge we face, that’s something we really cannot afford.’
Back to the objective: to have a food system that meets our sustainability requirements and produces a sufficient quantity of affordable, reliable and high-quality food within twenty years. To this end, Wageningen has developed a research agenda with eight focus areas.
Consumers also have a role to play. Confidence in food can be a major benefit. You need food daily; proper nutrition is important for your health; there are values and standards connected with food; and eating and drinking are also social activities. As a result, it’s important that consumers value and accept changes and are prepared to think and talk about them. Involving consumers in innovations and being transparent about them means each effort has the chance to bear fruit.
The challenge we face with regard to our food in 2030 is so great as to warrant a Joint Technology Initiative for the agro-food sector, says Kampers. Such initiatives are major EU programmes for technology development to tackle significant problems, such as those around medicines and fuel cells. By channelling resources through such programmes, the EU is encouraging cooperation between business and science, government and civil society organisations, to get the necessary developments rolling. ‘By doing the same for the agricultural sector, the EU can provide key impetus to sustainable, future-proof innovations in the agricultural sector.’
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