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The wave of change in Europe’s food system

Farmers, companies and consumers are all helping spur improvements in EU agricultural production and diets.
Richard Zaltzman is chief executive officer of EIT Food. © EIT Food

Research and innovation play central roles in a Europe-wide push for sustainable, healthy and inclusive food systems.

A response to food production and consumption patterns tied to malnutrition, climate change and biodiversity loss, the endeavour has brought together a range of EU institutions including the food division of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, or EIT. Named EIT Food, it calls itself the world’s largest food-innovation community and is based in the Belgian city of Leuven.

Horizon Magazine spoke to EIT Food Chief Executive Officer Richard Zaltzman about the challenges and opportunities ahead. Zaltzman, a Briton, was appointed in January 2024 to lead EIT Food after serving as its chief impact officer and interim chief operating officer.

1. What’s your take on the recent demonstrations by EU farmers?

The recent protests by farmers are like nothing we’ve seen before. Farmers are on the front line of the transition to a more sustainable food system and so we must stand with them as they advocate for secure and sustainable livelihoods.

Practically, this means working with farmers to design innovative financial support mechanisms that enable and reward regenerative practice. While globally hugely damaging activities are currently being subsidised with trillions of dollars, small-scale farmers are being denied much smaller investments that would enable them to de-risk the commitments needed to move towards regenerative agriculture. 

2. Can consumers drive change?

Consumers’ purchasing decisions are ultimately what influences market trends. The more transparency that consumers demand in terms of the nutrition and sustainability of their products, the more that producers and retailers will need to respond.

Recent research from our Consumer Observatory showed that two-thirds of European consumers would welcome a universal label providing information on the environmental impact of food products. People want to eat in a sustainable way; we just need to empower individuals with the right tools to make informed decisions about what they buy.

3. How can healthier food remain affordable?

Ultimately, changes that make food production more sustainable, more resilient to climate change and more efficient are all important factors in keeping the cost of food affordable. This needs a multifaceted approach that addresses various aspects of food production, distribution and consumption.

For example, supporting regenerative agriculture can help ensure long-term soil health, which is vital to maintaining crops and ensuring they remain affordable rather than becoming increasingly scarce, expensive and challenging to grow.

And that’s not to mention the wider knock-on effects of poor nutrition such as reducing productivity and placing increased strain on healthcare systems.

4. How can the EU ensure healthier and greener food production?

Alignment among EU Member States is imperative to safeguard biodiversity and vital for food security and water security. We need the entire food sector to show up and work together – from farmers to food companies – to innovate and scale solutions that make food production healthier for people and the planet. 

Another challenge is navigating a complex value chain where lots of stakeholders from different sectors, with different goals, need to work together. If we want to create positive change that lasts and truly works for everyone, we need cross-sector collaboration to be at the heart of everything we do.

5.  What parts of the food chain are adapting fastest to EU goals?

There’s a huge wave of innovation taking place across Europe’s food chain. For example, in the field of protein diversification, cultivated meat has recently hit new milestones in production and regulatory approval needed to bring products like cultivated steak to the market.

And across Europe, farming is evolving, with significant efforts and initiatives from farmers and cooperatives in the shift to regenerative agriculture such as our recently announced Regenerative Innovation Portfolio.  

6. How should the EU involve other countries?

The EU’s food system does not exist in a vacuum; what happens in Europe in terms of food production, consumption and legislation has far-reaching impacts across the world.

We need to look at supply chains globally and engage in dialogue with organisations that represent producers worldwide. Understanding the different contexts in which foodstuffs are produced is key in ensuring food security and sustainability.

7. How best can EU research contribute to better food production?

As a response to growing crises within the food system, we at EIT Food have developed a mission-led approach to ensure our work delivers tangible impact.

Our missions help us form priorities to put a better shape and direction to solving issues surrounding healthy and sustainable food. These Missions are: healthier lives through food, net zero food system and reducing risk for a fair and resilient food system.

EU research that contributes to these three missions can help focus our collective efforts on improving outcomes for people and the planet.

8. Where does EIT Food fit into the whole transformation picture?

EIT Food serves as a catalyst for innovation. As the world’s largest and most dynamic food innovation community, we accelerate innovation to build a future-fit food system that produces healthy and sustainable food for all. ​

We do that by investing in projects, organisations and individuals working towards our three missions, unlocking innovation potential across businesses and universities, scaling up agrifood startups and equipping entrepreneurs with the skills needed to transform the food system. And we put consumers at the heart of our work, seeking to enhance consumer trust, improve health outcomes and reduce the environmental impacts of the food system.

9. How is EIT Food’s innovation focus tied to work on public engagement?

Successful innovation and public engagement are intrinsically linked. Ultimately, a new product is not commercially viable if consumers do not trust that it is safe, do not believe its claims or have doubts about how it was produced. This is especially true of novel foods such as cultivated meat.

Engaging and co-creating innovation with consumers is critical to delivering an inclusive agrifood sector that produces healthy, sustainable food for all. That is why EIT Food runs open calls for proof of concepts that create positive societal impact through public engagement initiatives – such as equipping individuals to make more informed choices, increasing transparency and enabling consumer involvement in shaping the future food system.

10. What does your background bring to the role of EIT Food CEO?

Witnessing the phenomenal speed at which technology has progressed has proven to me beyond any doubt that, with the right approaches, we have infinite capacity to meet the challenges the world is facing.

That’s the energy I want to bring to EIT Food – and why my ethos aligns completely with EIT Food’s mission to accelerate innovation to build a future-fit food system.

The views of the interviewee don’t necessarily reflect those of the European Commission.

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