It is clear more dedicated and strategic research is needed on plant-based foods and plant-based diets, says Siska Pottie, secretary general of the European Alliance for Plant-Based Foods (EAPF).
“We need better collaboration and better understanding of the value chain, from breeder to farmer to food companies to consumers. This is a call to have more specific funding, but not just funding but the right funding with the right focus,” said Pottie at the end of a webinar hosted by Bridge2Food.
Pottie, Gerard Klein Essink, CEO of Bridge2Food, and seven industry insiders spoke about why plant-based foods are so important to a sustainable food system, what it will take to get there and what some of the hurdles are to achieving the goals.
Klein Essink talked about the work being done with Bridge2Food’s Global Plant-Based Foods & Proteins EcoSystem the past three years with more than 110 companies and 300 individuals working together on standardization, harmonization and research from different parts of the value chain.
Using the ecosystem’s core pillars, he gave these minimum estimates of public research dollars needed to scale and accelerate for the next four years: $250M in crops, $500M in food and technology and $250M in diets. That is five times more than is currently being invested in public funding.
Panel members addressed five questions during the April 20th webinar.
Question 1: What is the role of plant-based foods in the transition towards a more sustainable food system?
“Plant-based foods have a lower impact on the environment,” said Catherine Lefranc-Millot, nutrition and health senior research manager with Roquette.
“Plant-based diets offer a lot of nutritional and health benefits in line with WHO recommendations.”
“It’s totally obvious we need to make this transition for our environment and for our health,” agreed Sonja Kalkhoven, R&D director at Upfield.
“We want to make the life of the consumer super simple, to not have them hesitate about why they would change over.”
(Watch the video of Question 1 here.)
Question 2: What are the most important areas for research?
“We need investment in specific topics like special crops, new crops, value systems that involve farmers,” said Matthias Krön, president of Donau Soja.
“I think it is very important that we create a perspective for European farmers because a lot of farm organizations don’t see value add at the farm … We need a strategy to link what we do, to what the consumer wants, with the value chain to the farm.”
“First and foremost, research needs to focus on taste and sensory,” said Michel Mellema, head of science & technology for Unilever’s the Vegetarian Butcher. “Sensory is not always seen as a serious academic topic yet.”
“There is no nutrition without good taste,” agreed Lefranc-Millot, who advocated for more research on nutrition and digestibility topics, with better communication and understanding about the results.
Kalkhoven would like to see more research into functionality of plant proteins, such as taste and nutrition, to drive the agenda forward.
(Watch the video of Question 2 here.)
Question 3: If it’s clear what’s needed, what is hindering the advancement of these research needs?
“Focus will help. Attention is currently spread over many different potential crops. It may be wise to choose a spearhead crop. Could we grow soya, pea, faba, fungi in Europe cost-effectively, minimally processed, to make a nice-tasting product that consumers actually buy? That would be the holy grail of the protein transition,” said Mellema.
“We need focus and funding,” agreed Anne Louise Dannesboe Nielsen, director of the Danish Technological Institute. “We really need to catch up in this field, so we need a lot of research. What are the crops? We don’t have to take the current commodities. We have to develop new. Then we have to develop the right products so consumers will take them up.”
“It’s clear there is a research gap for what we call these niche crops,” said Krön. “There is a strategic need to define a couple of crops we want to invest in in Europe and try to upscale them. There’s a need for public investment in this part, especially in the beginning … Focus has to be regional as there are different agronomic zones, such as Greece to Denmark.”
It’s also important to develop strategic investment that links the process and breeders, as they don’t currently speak the same language, said Krön.
“There’s a lot of work to be done in the middle linking breeders and the food industry together.”
(Watch the video of Question 3 here.)
Question 4: Could Europe develop itself as a plant-based food hub?
“An integrated strategy is needed,” said César González, manager public affairs with EuroSeeds. A regional approach would be required, individual member states shouldn’t be working independently, with more research on niche crops to create solutions.
“We need a research strategy, we need an upscale strategy and this is something we should work on together. No one can do it alone. But we can all do it together,” said Krön.
It would be important to define the common objective with so many countries, said Kalkhoven. “We need critical mass on the problems we’re trying to solve. We have to create that urgency. Then, indeed, make some choices and go for it.”
(Watch the video of Question 4 here.)
Questions 5: How could research for the plant-based sector best be funded?
“There is a broad variety of research ongoing,” said Paola Eulalio, research program officer DG Agri with the European Commission, in giving an overview of past and current funding programs.
“We need shorter, faster projects as the field is moving so fast,” suggested Dannesboe Nielsen. She also said there should be a way for SMEs to bring their innovative ideas to projects.
“There is a need for both public and private funding to unlock all possibilities,” said Gonzalez.
Pottie gave a description of a joint letter prepared with Bridge2Food and signed by 60 organizations that calls for the European Commission to direct more dedicated funding to the plant-based sector.
“It’s clear that there’s still a lot of research needed. If we could work together to define the crops, better understand the value chain. There are gaps and we need to continue to discuss this to clarify what’s needed,” said Pottie.
Pottie, Mellema, Dannesboe Nielsen and Krön will join other stakeholders to address value-chain research investments during one track at Bridge2Food’s Plant-Based Foods & Proteins Summit Europe, 21-23 June in Ede, Netherlands. Program information here. Sign-up here.
Leading up to the summit, experts from across Europe share their views on the investment need in this video series.
You can watch the full webinar here.