The European Commission is placing its food strategy at the centre of efforts to deliver on commitments made under the Paris Climate Change deal and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Speaking at the Food2030 conference in Brussels this week, Carlos Moedas, EU Commissioner for research, science and innovation, stressed the need to accelerate innovation in the food sector to deliver on sustainability goals and improve population health.
“We cannot meet these commitments without higher ambitions for research and innovation in our food systems… We need to see transformative, breakthrough changes. Not just incremental changes,” he told an audience of researchers and industry representatives. “This is possible today because we are on the verge of the next technological revolution and it is coming to food and nutrition.”
Moedas said that taking action in nutrition and climate were of the “utmost importance” and stressed the potential offered by a circular economy approach.
“Through the circular economy, our food systems can better deliver nutrition and combat climate change. The circular economy is about smarter use of resources. It is about jobs and growth where people live. It is about applying research in concrete ways. And here a lot still needs to be done,” Moedas argued.
Technological ‘revolution’ combats climate change
A priority in the adoption of a circular economy is to evaluate the use of waste streams, such as biomass, Moedas said. “We need regions to use their unexploited biomass potential to invest in the circular economy. They should work with industry and researchers to develop solutions for climate and nutrition challenges. For example to provide new sources of protein so that we will stop wasting waste in the food sector.”
Louise Frisco, President of research at Wageningen University, also believes that the food sector must embrace “disruptive change” to develop future food systems that are fit for purpose.
According to her assessment, the first step on this path this entails “applying and improving” our current knowledge to develop a more integrated food system – including finding new uses for biomass.
“Our tools here are to improve genetics, robotics, big data. And the tools are there to master the position control we need currently in agricultural production and in the whole food chain. Not wasting so much energy, or wasting better, but to fine tune genetics to different conditions of production. And remember, producing biomass is the first step in secondary production, including also animals.
“This helps not only producing food but also assisting in mitigation and climate science. Mitigation, if we know exactly how CO2 can be fixed by plants, forests and grasslands will help us to make agriculture part of the solution,” she said at a Food2030 summit on harnessing R&D.
Moedas held a similar view: “When we think of food in 2030 we need to think… what impacts do our food systems have on climate? Normally people think of this in a negative way… however, we need a far higher ambition if we are to succeed and for this we need to change our thinking. Soils can absorb huge amounts of carbon. The oceans are actually the largest absorber of carbon in the planet… Agroforestry plays a very imp role we need new research on how agriculture can get carbon back into the soil and keep it there. We need to produce incentives so that farmers use these methods. We need to change the narrative and show how the food sector can also play its role to combat climate change.”
Digital innovation delivers personalised nutrition
In the area of health, Moedas predicted that personalised nutrition will have an expanding role to play, taking the example of advances in personalised medicine as pathing the way.
“We need to start thinking about personalised nutrition. We have to go from the idea of nutrition to personalised nutrition because if all of us here were fed the very same food we would not at all feel the same way.”
Frisco suggested that an integrated approach would allow food systems to become “inclusive” – with tech as a key tool to further the nutrition agenda and combat noncommunicable diseases. ”Maybe a quantum jump can be made. Maybe it’s not just about education in schools… maybe it’s about sensors and early warning systems so we can help people on the brink of diabetes to make better choices.”
Joachin Von Braun, from ZEF B: Department of Economic and Technological Change, revealed that European researchers have commenced work with partners from 130 academies around the world to develop “a common template taking a food systems approach as its point of departure”.
Under this scheme, Braun highlighted personalised nutrition as one of the significant areas in need of further research.
“The main themes we are focusing on in the European report [are] productivity, waste reduction, bioeconomy, food science, markets, digitalisation, climate change, livestock and plant breeding, the oceans, land use water, soils, better data, personalised nutrition, triggering consumer behavioural change, innovative foods, healthy diets.
“The emerging strategic dimensions include the research agendas but also the critical interface between research and nutrition. Sensitive food systems and environmental sustainability and a heavy emphasis on vulnerable groups in Europe.”
This kind of ecosystem is vital for the development of breakthrough innovations, according to Walter Van Dyke, professor of technology and innovation management at the Vlerick Business School.
“Where the real innovation comes from, this large ecosystem… electronics meets food, meets farmer… this ecosystem of players is considered a bubbling soup. Innovation is about managing outward from this Darwinian soup.”
Van Dyke suggested that technology-based innovations such as “personalised cooking” will start small but open up new markets. “Disruption is a process where you typically have a foothold and then the expansion of the market,” he suggested.