This article is part of our special report Farm to Fork: what role for consumers and innovation.
Stakeholders, researchers, and policymakers are seeking to find the right place for innovation in the EU’s new flagship food policy with a view to empower consumers to make the best choices for themselves and the planet.
Committed to supporting the transition towards more sustainable food systems, the EU is currently weighing up which kind of innovation is needed to achieve this ambition.
The EU executive’s Farm to Fork strategy (F2F) features a number of measures to promote healthy and sustainable food production and consumption.
Unveiled at the height of the COVID-crisis, the F2F is also part of the EU’s efforts to recover from the pandemic.
The new EU research programme Horizon Europe will also contribute to the Green Deal’s ambitions by developing and testing solutions for a green recovery.
These topics were touched upon in a conference on the future of food organised by Europe’s leading food innovation initiative, EIT Food.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of research and innovation to tackle the challenges we face,” said agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski in a speech that kicked off the conference.
According to the EU’s farming boss, research and innovation are key to improving the circularity of food systems and developing alternative proteins and more sustainable farming practices, as well as for understanding consumer behaviour.
Although the F2F strategy, as the name implies, aims to increase the sustainable components throughout the whole food supply chain, consumers are expected to play a crucial role.
“We want to target consumers because if they are not motivated and ready to move along, we will have problems implementing a more sustainable food system,” said Sabine Jülicher, director for food and innovation at the Commission’s Directorate-General (DG) SANTE.
Consumer behaviour tracker
During the conference, a new tool developed by a team of multidisciplinary researchers across was presented.
Based on data from 18 EU countries, the EIT Food’s Trust Tracker works on the existing literature from various disciplines, included neuroscience, to explain the formation of consumer trust in the food value chain and the role of this trust in consumer behaviour.
Developers hope that this model could become the standard tool to measure trust in foodstuffs and far-reaching behavioural consequences, from approach to avoidance.
“Trust can make you do something or it can stop you from doing that very thing,” explained Sophie Hieke, head of consumer science at the European Food Information Council (EUFIC)
In the three years of its implementation, the tracker has shown that when consumers trust the actors in the food value chain, they are more confident in the integrity of their food.
The tracker has also revealed that European consumers tend to be most confident about the taste of the food they buy, followed by food safety, healthiness, authenticity and sustainability.
The Commission is expected to propose by 2024 mandatory front-of-pack labelling intended to give information to all consumers on nutritional and sustainable aspects of foodstuffs.
“We don’t want the consumer to be left alone, and that is why we are also addressing retailers to make it easier for consumers to choose healthy and sustainable options,” said the Commission’s Jülicher.
But the role of innovation in the F2F goes much beyond just ‘nudging’ consumers.
According to Jülicher, this ranges from the means of transport used for delivering food to the plant protection products and husbandry conditions to address the plague of anti-microbial resistance (AMR).
“There is a huge scope for innovation and any research is absolutely welcome,” she concluded.
Skills and education
In his opening speech, Commissioner Wojciechowski said that education and skills are also key to helping farmers successfully implement the F2F.
“We’re working on the aspect of the transformation agenda of higher education, which is particularly topical for how we can develop entrepreneurial skills, entrepreneurial education, to support the innovation capacity,” said Georgi Dimitrov, deputy head of unit innovation at the Commission’s DG EAC.
The EU executive recently put forward a policy initiative, the European Skills Agenda, that looks at underpinning the different industrial transformations and societal challenges that EU countries will face, including those in agriculture and food.
For the liberal MEP Irène Tolleret, greater focus should be directed to lifelong learning for farmers and the tools and resources that can drive effective skill development.
“If we want the digital precision of agriculture to help us, first of all, we need to have it working for all the farmers in the European Union, which is not at all the case in the rural areas,” she said.
She mentioned that strategic plans in the new Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) under negotiation may promote peer to peer support, demonstration, farmers’ discussion groups, hackathons as well as new and interactive training methods.
“We will not change the way we use new techniques in farming if the way we teach them is not simple and sexy,” she added.
According to Jannes Maes, president of the European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA), the most important skill that farmers will need in the coming decades is the ability to adapt to new situations, such as climate change, market fluctuations and changing policy frameworks.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]