Interview: EU platform charts future of agro-business

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An EU strategic research agenda for plant sciences envisions the wider use of plants that could replace chemicals and fossil fuels and guarantee enough safe food for future generations.

The Plants for the Future technology platform presented, on 25 June 2007, its long term vision and strategic research agenda up to 2025. The vision identifies five priority challenges for research: healthy, safe and sufficient food and feed; plant-based chemical and energy products; sustainable agriculture, forestry and landscape; vibrant and competitive basic plant research; and consumer choice and governance. 

“Plants for the Future is about better integrating the plant science in the whole chain of sciences and industries to develop technologies for better use of plants,” explained Dr Markwart Kunz, one of the platform’s inovators and a board member of German sugar manufacturer Südzucker.

“The main R&D challenge for all crops is the input-output ratio. We need to try to reduce the input and try to improve the performance of crops. Thus, reduce the need for fertilisers and water supply for example, and increase the crops’ stress resistance at the same time. It is also about getting rid of some components inside of plants that are not so healthy.” 

Other challenges include broadening the use of plants as well as their use for bioenergy purposes and as a source for chemicals. “Our forefathers used the potential of plants far more than we are using it today. Today we are using plants nearly only for food, feed and construction. In the future we aim to use plants for energy and as a source of chemicals,” said Kunz added.

Asked whether it is a challenge convincing people of the benefits of, for example, genetic modification to grow plants adapted to specific purposes, Kunz said that he understands that if people are healthy, wealthy and surrounded by a huge variety of food how it is difficult to imagine a future scenario in which food is more scarce. “If people don’t need something new today, they don’t want it now…But they might need it in the future and that is why we need to act and research now, so that people can continue to live in a healthy and wealthy condition.”

Declan O’Brien from the International Federation for Animal Health-Europe (IFAH) commented on societal acceptance of new technologies: “It is certainly a limitation to innovation. Many companies are concerned that if they use cutting-edge technologies…in ten years time, when they are ready to put products onto the market, society will actually reject the new technology, or its derived products.” 

“It is putting a break on innovation in our animal-health sector, as well as on others. Companies are simply saying they won’t take the gamble and prefer investing their millions of euro in something more standard, in which they reasonably believe that they can get a licence in ten years time, instead of investing in cutting-edge technologies.” 

“We can develop new crops,” said Wilhelm Gruissem, president of the European Plant Science Organisation. “It is at the heart of the platform’s strategic research agenda and of the future knowledge based bio-economy (KBBC).” 

Another member of the platform, Roberto Tuberosa, regretted that “there is a lot of propaganda out there”, adding that stronger backing at political and media level is needed. 

To read the full interview with Dr Markwart Kunz, please click here.

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