30. October 2007 15:32

The winding road from farm to fork: ESF - COST to hold conference on Food Systems

Food is a basic human need. But in an advanced society, it gets to us in complex ways. On November 5-6, the European Science Foundation (ESF) and the European Cooperation in the field of Scientific and Technical Research (COST) will gather experts on the food systems to consider the scientific and policy problems that face future European supplies. The conference, which will be held in Budapest, will take a medium and long-term look at where food comes from, the ways in which it is processed and distributed, and how it is sold and eventually eaten, known collectively as food systems.

The conference is part of the ESF-COST Forward Look “European Food Systems in a Changing World”.  Forward Looks, a flagship instrument of the ESF, are intended to allow scientists to meet people from the world of policy and help set the future research agenda – more specifically to explore future developments in multi-disciplinary scientific research in order to evaluate and improve scientific strategy and policy making, and helping research organisations to identify priorities.

Discussions at the Budapest meeting will cover trends in agriculture, and the processing, packaging, distribution and retailing of food in Europe, as well as its consumption. There will be discussions to sketch out future research needs in all these areas.  

Rudy Rabbinge of Wageningen University, a leading agricultural university in the Netherlands, is one of the chairs of the Forward Look on Food Systems. He points out that for most Europeans food is affordable and available.
“Europe has been investing intensively in food systems, but for each of the components the investment has been carried out in relative isolation. Now we need a more comprehensive approach. The different components of the food system need to be integrated so that the whole mechanism is optimized, not just individual components,” said Professor Rabbinge. Peter Raspor of the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia is the other co-Chair of this Forward Look.
Participants in the Budapest conference will stress that research is needed to underpin change and investment in the European food system. They anticipate innovation in the ways we produce food, and on the global effects; e.g. fresh water resources.  Political and regulatory changes will take place in Europe. Consumers change their food preferences in response to price changes and to their awareness of issues such as the environment and the increasing health problems, e.g. obesity.
But despite rapid change in European food systems, Sally Shortall, member of the organizing Committee of this Forward Look, says that what we choose to eat still says something very specific about us. Dr Shortall, who is based at Queen’s University Belfast in the UK, says that the food consumers have access to and the choices they make about them are markers of class, age and gender. People’s knowledge about food and their choices about what they eat are probably one factor in the different health outcomes of people of different class across Europe. But Shortall does not think our food choices are fixed.  Social policies can make a difference. She says: “A lot of attention is paid to preventing children from becoming obese. But children are very effective at communicating knowledge to their parents. If we can tell children about food choices we might affect the way whole families eat.”

Professor Rabbinge is clear that the conference will play a vital role in helping our thinking on the future of food. “This conference will result in a well defined research agenda and will win the commitment of industry, universities and other knowledge creators,” he said.  

This Forward Look is a multidisciplinary joint ESF/COST initiative which involves the ESF Standing Committee for Life, Earth and Environmental Sciences (LEE (formerly LESC)), the ESF European Medical Research Councils (MED (formerly EMRC)), the ESF Standing Committee for the Humanities (HUM (formerly SCH)), the ESF Standing Committee for the Social Sciences (SOC (formerly SCSS)) and the COST Domain Committee for Food and Agriculture (FA).

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Mr. Thomas LauE-Mail