Unveiling the news this week at an AgriResearch Conference in Brussels, Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner Phil Hogan said: “Continued investment in support of science, research and innovation will contribute to the development of a more productive and sustainable EU agriculture and food sector.”
The funding proposal is a significant expansion for Project Horizon, which was launched in 2017 to support “knowledge and innovation” in the sector. In the six-year funding cycle to 2020, the EU will have spent a total of €6bn on food research and innovation.
Project Horizon was designed to facilitate efforts to make European food production more sustainable and food healthier. The programme also hopes to deliver rural development.
The initiative builds on the long-term strategic approach to EU agricultural research and innovation, published in 2016. These priorities are “strongly aligned” with common agricultural policy objectives, the Agriculture Commissioner noted.
The proposed boost to R&I funding comes in contrast to a planned 5% drop in the CAP budget.
The total CAP budget for 2021-27, adjusted for inflation, will be about €365bn versus the existing budget (excluding the UK) of €382.5bn in 2014-20.
The cuts have met with fierce opposition from farming groups such as France’s FNSEA, which described the EC proposal as “unacceptable”.
“This is a huge disappointment for the Europeans and for farmers,” the farming union said in a statement.
‘How far we have travelled’
Hogan said that the achievements of the Horizon project are based on a “unique” framework. Since 2014, agriculture policy has taken a “leading role” in supporting research and innovation in the agri-food space, the Commissioner continued.
“We have developed a new and unique framework which builds on the strengths of our two European policies, the CAP and Horizon 2020, working in close synergy,” he suggested.
“At European level, Horizon 2020 has doubled its resources for agriculture and food research.”
Horizon 2020 has selected around 150 projects of interest, with double this levels still to come and an overall investment of €1.8bn, Hogan revealed.
“These are mostly large and ambitious transnational projects, delivering excellent science-based answers to the challenges we set out in our calls for projects. There are also bottom-up projects such as thematic networks which translate academic science into practical tools for farmers and speed-up innovation.”
To stimulate innovation, the EC has developed “new tools” for the 2014-20 period, including the European Innovation Partnership on agricultural productivity and sustainability (EIP-AGRI). Under this ‘multi-actor’ project, the EC hopes to bring research and practice closer together. Six hundred EIP-AGRI organisations have already been formed, with 3200 “operational groups” expected by the end of 2020.
“By 2020, the EU will have invested over €1bn in 180 Horizon 2020 multi-actor projects: around 60% of the overall budget for agricultural research calls.”
New tech and digital opportunities
As the European food sector works to deliver a sustainable and secure food supply, Hogan suggested that it will need to seize the opportunities presented by digitalisation and new technological developments.
He noted the “huge potential” of “technological development and digital transformation” in addressing the current and future challenges facing our food systems.
Speaking at the same event, Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas said the additional funding for the 2021-27 period will support the use of big data in food production, to ensure the traceability of foodstuffs and to provide science-based advice on food safety and health.
Moedas suggested that there is currently a disconnect between data science and agriculture and stressed the potential offered by emerging tech to develop precision farming. He noted that consumers are increasingly interested in the provenance of their food, flagging the would-be transformational impact that emerging developments like blockchain could have on the supply chain.
With this ramped up innovation budget, the Commission intends to “innovate the entire food chain” and to invest in areas that are “merging the physical and the digital,” Moedas concluded.