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Is collaboration the key to transforming the food system?

10 December 2020

Over six months have passed since the publication of the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy and the food system is facing mounting pressures. Is a positive future of food now more dependent on collaboration than ever before?

Europe is considered to set the “global standard for food that is safe, plentiful, nutritious and of high quality” (1), but in the lead up to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 the EU Farm to Fork Strategy says that, through a unified and common approach, it must also become the global standard for sustainability and resilience. 

Faced by growing challenges of greenhouse gas emissions, food waste, food insecurity and malnutrition, the issues to address are manyfold and are becoming increasingly urgent. 

The nature of these challenges is such that the most needed solutions are those which look at the food system as a whole. These solutions will completely reshape the complex web of relations linking together all the players involved in food production and consumption, following a logic that goes beyond the traditional linear value chain model. 

It is not just about farmers, processors and retailers; it is also about governments, consumers, local authorities, European institutions and all actors who influence the conditions in which the food system operates.

Moving everyone in the same direction according to an agenda of concerted and coherent efforts, such as the EU Farm to Fork Strategy or the UN SDGs, requires dialogue and collaboration. But in the agrifood sector, collaboration cannot be taken for granted, because the food system is marked by a high level of fragmentation.

How is the food system fragmented?

Agrifood value chains include a complex list of players, such as farmers, processors, manufacturers, retailers and consumers, resulting in diverging interests and perspectives. These differences can act as barriers to unifying agendas and finding collaborative solutions to tackling some of the food system’s biggest challenges.

Fragmentation also exists in the market structure. SMEs are considered to be the backbone of the agrifood sector (2), with 90% of all agrifood workers being employed in small to medium sized businesses (3). There are 285,000 SMEs in the food industry in Europe (3), and in 2016 there were 10.5 million agricultural holdings in the EU, two-thirds of which were less than five hectares in size (4). All these players will need to participate and contribute to the transformation of the food system, with a level playing field that allows them to do so.

There are also some 450 million consumers in the EU (5), who will also need to do their part if we want to improve the food system from farm to fork. Affordability and access to food remains a top priority for the majority of consumers (6), especially in the current challenging economic context. But a growing part of this group wants food that is both healthy and sustainable (6) and industries and governments are expected to deliver.  

Public policies that shape food production and consumption are arguably fragmented too. At the EU level, from agriculture and trade, to food safety and food labeling, and research and innovation (R&I), the European food policy framework is “a complex and integrated structure of sectors whose governance is ensured by various EU sectoral policies.” (7)  

Until the adoption of the EU Farm to Fork Strategy by the European Commission in May 2020, the EU had previously never made an attempt to bring all these different food-related policies under a common strategy. And even this bold and unprecedented Strategy has been met with some concerns due to the unclear linkages with another major piece of EU policy, the Common Agricultural Policy.

However, the Strategy identifies the whole food system as the right level to intervene and calls on all stakeholders to play an active role in order for its ambitious plans to be successful.

Some of the key 2030 targets of the Farm to Fork Strategy 

How do we tackle fragmentations within the food system? 

Collaborating with consumers

It is clear that the transition to a better food system will not happen without a shift in people’s diets, says the Commission in its Strategy (1). Consumers are expected to do their part. But in order for them to become actively engaged with the transformation of the food system, rather than remain passive and often reluctant followers, they need opportunities for collaboration. This needs to be with not only industry and the other players involved in food production, but also in the design of new solutions to improve the food system.

Moreover, through their behaviour and choices, consumers are key for the uptake of new solutions, products, services and business models - and even policies - which will need to become mainstream in the food system.

This means that to realise the ambitious targets of the Farm to Fork Strategy, policymakers, businesses and academics must ​focus on the needs of consumers, their motivations and barriers to change, and how innovation can support them in becoming active changemakers. 

Consumers and COVID-19 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on the agrifood sector, which has been affected by supply chain disruptions and changing consumption patterns. The analysis of this impact and its consequences has generated useful insights on consumer behaviour and expectations, which will guide the future of collaboration within the food industry. 

According to the recent EIT Food report, Food Foresight: Impact of COVID-19 on the agri-food sector in Central and Eastern Europe, one of the most important trends is “a more aware and educated consumer, who wants to be more informed when making food purchasing decisions” (8). This suggests that consumers are now, more than ever, wanting to become an active part of the food value chain and are pushing for transparency.

This surge in consumer engagement with food is also supported by a study recently published by EIT Food in partnership with Aarhus University on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on consumer food behaviours. The survey of 5,000 consumers in 10 European countries revealed that lockdown measures may have caused lasting behavioural changes in relation to food consumption (6), such as buying more locally and eating healthier. 

Referring to the study, Professor Klaus Grunert, Head of Section of the Department of Management at Aarhus University, said “the industry has a real opportunity to innovate to meet consumer needs” (6). This will have a huge impact on the agrifood sector, but the opportunities for innovation are not limited to consumption. 

Co-creation

Collaboration across the value chain will allow the food sector to offer innovative solutions from the Farm to Fork Strategy, and consumers will have the chance to play a bigger role in the way food is sourced, produced, processed, distributed and consumed, through co-creation.

EIT Food defines co-creation as “a process of collaborative innovation that results in new value creation as well as value capture between key strategic parties and target groups. Ideas are identified, shaped and improved together, collaboratively and transparently. It starts in the early stages of innovation development and the cooperation continues throughout all phases such as ideation, design and implementation, whereby the results are mutually beneficial to all involved parties.” 

At EIT Food, we are piloting this approach through our RIS Consumer Engagement Labs. These pre-competitive workshops give consumers the chance to co-create and focus on ideation or development of new product concepts in collaboration with university researchers, industries, SMEs or startups.

Collaboration across the value chain

Alongside greater collaboration with consumers, the transformation of the food system also requires greater collaboration across the value chain. This means breaking down some of the barriers that have traditionally kept apart farmers, food processors, manufacturers and retailers.

The adoption of the EU Farm to Fork Strategy has made this collaboration more urgent than ever. Given the need to implement systemic change and to reshape the food system, collaboration between the different segments of the value chain is key.

Christiane Lambert, President of the EU Committee of Professional Agricultural Organisations (COPA), recently authored an op-ed on the importance of farmers’ cooperation with other food chain actors in delivering on the Farm to Fork’s sustainability objectives. Interestingly, in this piece Lambert states that often “what the citizen says it wants, the consumer is not ready to pay. Enhanced communication and improved dialogue, bringing consumers and farmers closer together could certainly help with this.” (9) The message highlights the challenge of squaring the circle linking demand and supply, sustainability and affordability, in a context where different players across the value chain seek to maximise value and return on investment.

Innovation can make a significant contribution to solve this conundrum. But its chances of success will be higher if it is the fruit of a collaborative work involving different stakeholders. 

At EIT Food we strive to facilitate these interactions. Our network of more than 230 partners covers a wide range of organisations operating at all stages of the value chain, and beyond, from farmer cooperatives, to food processors, manufacturers, retailers and consumer organisations. They collaborate in our innovation, education and consumer engagement projects as well as in our Business Creation activities.

Collaboration between institutions and international initiatives

With the backdrop of COVID-19, the need for action and collaboration between governments and institutions has become even more important. Faced by the challenges of the pandemic but also by the pressing need to tackle climate change, international institutions and agencies are generating a momentum towards greater collaboration also in the agrifood sector.

The 2021 UN Food Systems Summit plans to achieve just that. This will be a unique opportunity to strengthen global multilateral and multi-stakeholder collaboration to find solutions to the current food system challenges and launch bold new actions to ensure progress is being made to meet the UN SDGs by 2030. “The need is urgent, and our ambition is high. For this reason, this must not be ‘just another conference’. We must act together,” said Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed (10). 

 

In an interview recorded by EIT Food at the 2020 Future of Food Conference, Dr Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director, GAIN, and Chair of the UN Food System Summit Action Track 1 ‘Ensuring access to safe and nutritious food for all’, stated, “the EU can demonstrate that it is an SDG ready organisation. It can focus on its own food systems and get EU policies in order, but it can also unleash its incredible scientific capacity on fundamental issues and improve food systems around the world. The UN Food Systems Summit is about fundamental change, and when I think of fundamental change I think of research and innovation.”

EIT Food is already actively collaborating with other organisations involved in the preparation of the Summit and sees this as an opportunity to shape a global agenda for the transformation of the food system, looking beyond Europe. One of the big challenges the Summit will need to address is how to ensure a sufficient level of coordination and collaboration, to share and replicate best practices and solutions, and avoid duplication of efforts and waste of resources. There are many other partnerships and initiatives like EIT Food which are investing in innovation, capacity building and education. EIT Food is very eager to connect with these initiatives and build channels for information exchange and creation of synergies. 

The EIT Food community 

Collaboration across the value chain from farm to fork, collaboration with consumers and collaboration with other institutions is at the heart of our mission at EIT Food. We are building an inclusive and innovative community across the food value chain and beyond, including startups and entrepreneurs, corporates, industry leaders, investors, students, academics and consumers. 

We want to strengthen and grow this community, but we also want to extend our network of collaboration beyond it and engage with other international institutions, national and regional governments, professional and trade associations, as well as other R&I partnerships, especially those operating in the future Horizon Europe framework. To this end in 2019 we launched our annual Future of Food Conference, and we hope to continue this journey in the coming years.

Meanwhile, we are working hard to engage with a larger audience of consumers and raise their interest in the transformation of the food system. Our FoodUnfolded platform is designed to do just this.

However, we are in the early stage of our journey and we very much hope that others will join along the way. “By bringing all players together, we are building a shared vision for the future of food, and a shared agenda to transform it and make it better,” says our CEO, Dr Andy Zynga. 

 

A collaborative future 

We are inviting you to engage with food and become part of the transformation of the food system. Whether you are part of a food initiative, a policymaker, an agrifood startup, a food corporation or simply want to learn more about food and the opportunities to make change, we urge you to engage with our community and collaborate with us. Learn more about how you can get involved with EIT Food and the wider agrifood system here.

Further reading

Sources

  1. European Commission: Farm to Fork Strategy
  2. United Nations: Support small businesses through COVID-19
  3. FoodDrinkEurope: Priorities for a policy framework to support SMEs
  4. Eurostat: Farms and farmland in the European Union - statistics
  5. European Commission: Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs
  6. EIT Food: EIT Food report reveals lasting impact of COVID-19 on European food behaviours
  7. European Parliamentary Research Service: European Union food system
  8. EIT Food: Food Foresight: Impact of COVID-19 on the agri-food sector in Central and Eastern Europe
  9. The European Files: The role of farmers and their cooperation with other food chain actors in delivering on Farm to Fork sustainability objectives
  10. United Nations: Leading experts chosen to drive five priority areas for UN Food Systems Summit
EIT Food

About The Author: EIT Food

EIT Food is Europe’s leading food innovation initiative, working to make the food system more sustainable, healthy and trusted.

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