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Dispatches from the CIAA Congress

Partnerships and science are key to food for the future

By By Jess Halliday in Brussels , 22-Nov-2010

The EU food sector can remain competitive and tackle challenges that lay ahead by forging strong partnerships, looking outside its own borders, and putting scientific advances to the best use, an expert panel on the future of food concluded.

The first session of the bi-annual congress of the CIAA (Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU) in Brussels on Thursday was a wide ranging debate on the challenges faced by the food sector and food security around the globe.

The congress theme was People Planet Partnership, and Monica Marshall, deputy director and global head of public-private partnerships of the UN World Food Programme, threw down the gauntlet to the industry to engage in more public-private partnerships in developing countries, and to “do well by doing good”.

“A generation ago companies had to chose between doing well and doing good”, she said. “Now they do both, but only because they do not have the choice. Food security is the first threshold on the way out of poverty, and poverty is not good for anyone’s business.”

She emphasised that companies have an interest in promoting development to create new markets for themselves in the future. The BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – have proved themselves by becoming economic powerhouses. The next generation of developing countries are the likes of Indonesia, Bangladesh, Ghana have potential, but only “if the population has the health to create the wealth.”

She encouraged industry to innovate and provide nutritional products that make the best use of resources in a local context – such as nutritional bars from broken cashews, or nutritious meals from cassava that do not just taste of starch.

Frank van Lierde, executive vice president of Cargill’s food ingredients and systems business, emphasised the need for tacking interdependent challenges in the world today, where for example the price of oil and the number of ships carrying steel influences the price of grain, and property markets are linked to food prices.

“Our new world needs new thinking, must work together to tackle the interdependent challenges.”

Trade on the rise

In terms of global food trade, John Finn, agriculture counsellor at the World Trade Organization secretariat, pointed out that the world has changed since the still incomplete Doha round of trade talks commended in 2001, since when food prices have steadily risen.

As prices are going up, importing countries have reduced tariffs in an effort to bring stability, while some exporting countries have introduced restrictions. Finn expects such control measures to continue, and non-tariff barriers to increase too, such as stringent quality and labelling standards in developing countries and retailers that exclude some world producers from the most lucrative markets.

The way ahead with science

Jesus Serafin Perez, president of the CIAA, emphasised the need for innovation and new ideas to support the industry’s competitiveness in his welcoming speech at the congress.

“Our industry can help find solutions but in a time of unprecedented economic challenges let’s not kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Our industry’s competitiveness needs to be supported not undermined. We must not stop innovation, we must not stymie new ideas.”

His view was shared by farmer Tony Pexton, chair of the UK’s NIAB (formerly National Institute of Agricultural Botany), who said that the emphasis at the start of his farming career was on producing more – and yields have been doubled, quality improved and waste reduced through science. Now, however, there is the same call for higher production, but with additional challenges of the need to limit water, energy and fertiliser use, and to have a lighter footprint.

The answer all along the food chain must be science based research – regulation must be as light as possible, consistent with science, and being aware of the unintended consequences, he said. “Science and knowledge transfer are ways of coming with the perfect storm. We are facing huge challenges now, we have to adapt.”

Pexton and Attilio Zanetti, CEO of Zanetti SpA and vice-president of the CIAA, both urged a reconsideration of genetically-modified foods. Zanetti, who spoke on the need for SMEs to combine the best of new technologies with tradition, said: “GMOs were hastily condemned. It is time to give them balanced reconsideration.”

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