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Leading scientists call for a new approach to food security

21 September 2009 European Science Foundation

A new report by leading food and sustainability scientists calls for Europe to take a new approach on food security, prioritizing health and sustainability in research and using a holistic view when making policy. The report has been jointly chaired by Peter Raspor, professor of food science and technology at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia and Rudy Rabbinge, professor of sustainable development and systems innovation at Wageningen University, the Netherlands.

The European food systems in a changing world "Forward Look" report is an in-depth analysis by scientists of critical research areas that can support and increase the competitiveness of the European food system. A food system includes all the processes involved in feeding a population: growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption, and disposal of food and food-related items. It is published today by the European Science Foundation and the European Cooperation in the field of Scientific and Technical Research (COST).

Europe faces a complex web of changes and challenges to feed a population of 500 million people. Increasing fuel costs, climate change, shifting dietary habits, shortage of resources, such as soil and water, and agriculture's economic viability are just a few factors influencing food supplies.

The report shows new perspectives and opportunities for research, and explores the future of food and food systems. It finds that research needs to be geared towards health, particularly prevention of diseases that are related to lifestyle and demographic changes, and sustainability, including the effects of global warming and of the use of biomass for energy or fuel production.

The report concludes that a productive, more environmentally-friendly, and internationally more acceptable European food system is possible:

* European policy makers should make clear choices based on well-defined objectives and goals. Policy discussions need to focus on achievable goals, rather than instruments.
* Europe should withdraw from policies that either undermine the agricultural development in developing countries or promote unsustainability spirals in terms of land, water and natural resources use.
* European food systems need to be considered as integrated systems rather than as individual activities.

"The European food system urgently needs upgrading and strengthening, both in the constituent parts and the system as a whole," said Professor Peter Raspor, co-chair of the Forward Look evaluation. "We recommend a scenario-based approach that analyses the implications of policy and management options within a set of coherent, internally-consistent storylines of credible futures at the European scale."

The rapidly-growing awareness of issues such as climate change and shifts in energy policy are raising fundamental concerns about Europe's food security in relation to other needs of society. Until now, research has been concentrated on technical and policy issues for agriculture, fisheries and feed/ food but this has generally been limited to specific aspects of food system activities rather than considering a scenario-based approach over a longer timescale respecting specifities of food supply chains.

Professor Rudy Rabbinge continues: "These scenarios take a 25 to 40 year perspective, as many key uncertainties are likely to play out strongly over the coming decades. Responding to these uncertainties today will reduce future impacts and costs substantially."

The following research priorities are identified for national and European agencies:
(1) Comprehensive explorative scenario studies to help analyse the tradeoffs between food security, other social interests and environment goals, and to guide analyses of the different outcomes of food system activities for different pathways.
(2) Research on the key activities related to food security, in the context of the European food system. This is needed for in-depth studies on technical coefficients and social, economic and environmental aspects of development paths within each of the food system activities.
(3) Greater consideration of food safety and the links between food and human health. Consumer confidence in food quality and safety needs to be supported through reputable and transparent studies including behavioural research on consumption patterns.

The report is available online www.esf.org/publications

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