Food innovation – from calls to produce as naturally as possible to new techniques that replicate nature

In times where the impact of climate change can already be felt in agriculture, it is very likely that environmental degradation will also put pressure on our food system.

The European Union has already realised this challenge and has come up with proposals to meet these challenges on time. Food 2030 and Food 2050 are key proposals for what needs to be done in the next legislature 2019-2014.

On 9 July, the EESC organised a debate on Innovative Food, entitled: unblocking innovation – shaping Food 2030 – envisaging Food 2050 at its premises in Brussels. The conclusions from the debate should feed into the EESC's ongoing input into a comprehensive food policy and the Committee, as a representative of Europe's civil society, has come up with possible solutions in this regard in several of its opinions.

Opening the event, Antonello Pezzini, President of the temporary Study Group on Sustainable Food Systems referred to taste as a possible changer of our food preferences. Trends are changing. We cannot force people to buy food they are not used to. Nevertheless, we need to see the enormous possibilities we have, i.e. insects or plants, if European markets are to try them out.

The special guests at this scientific debate were newly elected MEP Sarah Wiener from the Austrian Green Party and MEP Norbert Lins from the German Conservative Party.

While Sarah Wiener called for reverting towards a more natural way of life, making biology and ecology instead of industry the partners of agriculture, Mr Lins underlined that his party was more open to innovation because a purely ecological agriculture cannot feed the world. 

Like Mr Pezzini,  the Irish food and consumer lawyer Raymond O'Rourke also talked about trends.

20 to 25 years ago, all the European concerns focused on food safety and now we have a food safety model in the EU which the whole world wants to copy.

Today's concerns about food are driven mainly by five lifestyle trends:

  • Engaging Experience: consumers want moments of discovery and delight, sharing stories and spaces with others;
  • Health & Wellbeing: Consumers want to eat, drink and live to optimise their body's systems;
  • Fuller lives: Consumers want to use their time to be as productive and sociable as possible and want to be helped, not hindered, by tech;
  • Responsible living: Consumers want to have a positive impact on society and the environment;
  • Community & Identity: Consumers want to express their own views and values and those of their community.

Focusing on the second and fourth factors, the consumer is more and more aware of the importance of food for their health, and the impact of food production on climate, for instance. It is vitally important to make positive choices for the environment, such as textiles made of pineapple leaves, or restaurants and supermarkets that prioritise zero waste.

Europe now has the chance to look at global markets (learning from them) and pursue a holistic approach to food policy, investing in innovation and sustainability.

Camille Perrin, from the European Consumer Organisation BEUC, said that food, health and sustainable behaviours were all about education.

When consumers are informed of the impact food has on the environment, they want to do something about it. Some studies, however, show that the "sacrifices" consumers are willing to make are not very creative, i.e. when it comes to insects, most people in Europe are against this kind of food as well as laboratory food. They would rather reduce their consumption of meat, which is a more natural and traditional approach.

The dilemma lies in the price. Consumers want to buy healthy and sustainable food, the price has a large influence on choice.

Consumers' growing appetite for sustainable food is clear, but there is a lot of confusion when it comes to labelling. If products reflected their impact on the environment, with a colour code for instance, it might have a positive influence on consumer choice.

According to Massimo Burioni from the European Commission's Directorate-General for Research & Innovation, we have come to a point of total imbalance when it comes to the food system.

Even though we are much more efficient in producing food than we were before, we are still using many non-renewable resources, and we are producing much more than we consume (about 30%).

But we are also one of the major importers of food, which poses risk for us because if something goes wrong in the global food chain, it will take less than a week for Europe to feel its effects.  In addition, we cannot forget that 90% of the food we consume comes from soil and only 10% from the sea, meaning that humanity depends on agriculture to live.

In order to tackle the problems, we need an efficient solution. What counts in the end, is the ability to feed everybody, to reduce waste and to improve the impact on the environment.

Food 2030 focuses on nutrition, climate, circularity and innovation. We might think that no longer eating meat would solve the problem but this is not true. However, moderate changes in food consumption i.e. a reduction of animal-based consumption – could significantly reduce GHG emissions from agriculture production.

If we tried to replace meat and intended to feed the world as we do today, we would have to cut down the entire Amazon rainforest. Balance and sustainability means solving problems, not creating even bigger ones!

Franz Ulberth, from the EC's Joint Research Centre (JRC), said that the objectives of Food 2050 were to identify possible future challenges and to assess whether the current regulatory framework is sufficiently resilient to deal with the challenges.

The foresight approach does not predict the future, but considers it as something that can be shaped by looking at different scenarios.

The JRC looked at different drivers regarding:

  • Global Food
  • Regional Food
  • Partnership Food, and
  • Pharma Food.

The key insights showed that the EU's legislative framework on food safety is robust and appropriate. However, risk assessment approaches should be harmonised, official control and inspection services adapted to future needs, effectiveness of EU nutrition policies improved, and investment made in providing food safety and nutrition education to the public.

Further contributions included:

  • Peter Verstrate from MosaMeat reporting on their cultured meat;
  • Gilles Boin, a French food lawyer elaborating on the possibilities of cannabis hemp;
  • Christophe Derrien from IPIFF talking about the insect industry today;
  • Italian food lawyer Giorgio Rusconi on Tackling Food Fraud and how science can help protect authenticity and attest origin;
  • Peer Lohman from the Swedish University of Agricultural Science explaining new breeding techniques, and finally
  • Bernd van der Meulen from the European Institute for Food Law speaking about Data Protection and Food.

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