Research agenda to improve food system

The second Mansholt lecture, on 20 September in Brussels, will be all about sustainable production of healthy food. In this lecture, WUR will explain to the European Commission what it will take to reform the European food system. One element of the proposed approach is an extensive research agenda with eight themes.
Albert Sikkema

illustration Paul Gerlach/Shutterstock

The EU research programme Horizon 2020 is due to end in 2020. The European Commission is working on the successor to this programme and asked Wageningen University & Research what the new research goals should be for food research. WUR’s answer can be found in two publications, both of which will be dealt with in the Mansholt lecture on 20 September.

In the first publication, Towards a European Food and Nutrition Policy, the authors Pieter van ’t Veer, Krijn Poppe and Louise Fresco stress that future European policy needs to connect up agriculture, nutrition and health and to set goals in partnership with the food industry. The policy on nutrition and health should not only establish guidelines for preventing disease but also encourage learning behaviour in the social environment because your diet is determined in part by your environment. The authors urge governments and industry to play a more active role.

Food Transitions

In the second publication, entitled Food Transitions 2030, Frans Kampers and Louise Fresco sketch the research directions and innovations that are needed over the next ten years in order to implement this integrated policy on nutrition and health. The European Commission had given them four topics: nutrition, climate, circularity and innovation. Frans Kampers, research strategist in the WUR Corporate Value Creation department, toured the Wageningen research domains and came up with eight areas of research. Together they form the Food Transitions 2030 research agenda.

Kampers says there is a lot at stake for the food sector over the next few years. ‘We use too many natural resources in the production of food, we are eating into biodiversity, soil quality and fossil fuels and we are ruining the atmosphere with an excess of CO2. Food producers need a ‘licence to produce’ from the general public and at the same time they need acceptable profit margins.’ The idea is that the eight research areas will provide solutions for these issues.

Science consortia

Science institutes and companies need to set joint long-term objectives so that the eight research themes can be worked out in detail, says Kampers. ‘For example, let’s say WUR, Unilever and FrieslandCampina jointly aim to reduce the amount of salt in food products by 30 percent over the next 20 years. If you want to do that, what needs to happen in five years? Or two years? Then you set interim goals and come up with research projects to achieve them. You could get SMEs involved in those short-term goals. This would lead to science consortia that formulate common objectives. The challenges are too big for individual parties. But if we join forces and the EU encourages this with substantial financial contributions, we can make this transition.’

The Food Transitions 2030 research areas

1. Plant and animal breeding

New breeding techniques such as Crispr-Cas let us change the properties of plants and animals very precisely. This offers opportunities for improving food security and reducing the use of pesticides and drugs, according to Frans Kampers, one of the authors of Food Transitions 2030. ‘But this is a subject for public debate. I hope we can achieve a turnaround so that we can use these technologies for sustainable agriculture.’

2. Robotics, sensors and Big Data

Rural areas are becoming depopulated because young people no longer want to slog away on a farm, says Kampers. ‘If they can let robots do the heavy work, living in rural areas will become more attractive. But you could also consider intercropping, in which crops are combined. We have shown that intercropping gives higher yields than monocultures with fewer inputs, but it is more labour intensive. You might be able to solve this problem with robots and precision agriculture.’

3. Blue Growth: producing food in the water

An example would be seaweed cultivation in deltas where the water contains many nutrients, says Kampers. The seaweed can then be processed in various food products. ‘However, you first need to have a good look at the amino acids in the seaweed to see whether they are appropriate in a healthy diet.’

4. From animal to vegetable food

Livestock farming can play a role in sustainable food systems but meat production is not sustainable at present. ‘The question is, what is the optimum combination of meat production and plant production?’ asks Kampers. ‘This transition also concerns consumers. I think we will only be eating meat once a week in 30 years’ time and meat substitutes once or twice a week. The challenge is how to implement this transition in terms of consumers’ food behaviour.’

5. Less food processing

We eat a lot of processed food and that is not good for the environment. Drying food ingredients and separating food out into individual raw materials uses up a lot of energy. It is also becoming increasingly clear that processed food is less healthy than unrefined products. ‘So the food industry should really starting producing less refined food products,’ argues Kampers. ‘That requires a switch in their processes.’

6. Digitization

The advance of digitization is giving media companies and food companies lots of data about our lifestyles. ‘I think the Googles of this world already know the contents of our fridges, or they will do in ten years’ time,’ says Kampers. ‘That means you can adjust your food to suit your lifestyle or have the fridge communicate with the delivery service. That will affect the entire food sector. We have to make sure that digitization serves public goals such as health and welfare.’

7. Reducing food waste

This research area focuses on such questions as why so much food is thrown away and what we can do to prevent this. Kampers: ‘We often make the wrong choices in our use of food. This touches upon the issue of good food education.’

8. Health

The final research area is all about the link between nutrition and health. What diet suits the biochemistry of our bodies? ‘Research into the relationship between gene expression and biochemistry and between diet and our intestinal flora is still in its in its infancy,’ explains Kampers. ‘You really want to find patterns between nutrition and health and work out how you can steer health through nutrition.’

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