The Club of Amsterdam organised a conference about the future of Food & Biotech on October 28 2003. This report will give you a brief summary of the topics and the discussion between the panel and the participants of the Club of Amsterdam. The participants of the event filled out a questionnaire. The results are given in this report as well. Patrick Crehan (Crehan, Kusano & Associates sprl) was the host of this evening.
The food sector is a dynamic sector. The Western food consumption is changing. Easy to prepare meals and functional food are getting more popular. In 1980 the acceptable preparation time for food in the US was 30 minutes but it is now only 8. In 1996 35% of food consumed was pre-prepared and this has now risen to 65%. The food service sector is growing faster then the supermarket sector in the USA. The development of new food products has high costs and risks. 90% of new food products fail in their first year.
The agricultural sector is the base of the food sector. Between 1970 and 1980 agricultural company’s main focus was price competitiveness. Will price competitiveness be the most important factor in the future as well? Or will for example quality, safety and animal welfare become more important? 85% of the participants agreed that we need new technologies to get a higher quality of food. 46% of the visitors doesn’t mind that food gets more and more medicinal habits.
Europe wants to develop a knowledge economy. This means that more money will be spent on research and development. Liam Downey (Honorary Professor of Agriculture in UCD, recently retired as Director of the National Agricultural and Food Development Authority (Teagasc), Ireland) hopes that this money will go to research on quality of food, food safety and welfare of animals in the food sector. According to Liam Downey we need knowledge based sustainable rural economies. However the knowledge economy is not just about doing more research it also means developing a capacity to apply the results of research.
The food industry is growing towards development of a third generation of functional foods. This includes newly developed functional ingredients and food based on mechanistically proven efficacy. Jan Willem van der Kamp (Programme Director Biotechnology, TNO) thinks that Europe will miss some opportunities and benefits on GM food crops because of their policy. The production of GM food crops has significant environmental benefits and farmer benefits, related to soil management, CO2 reduction and farm economics. So far there are no indications of safety risks of these materials For a number of reasons it is difficult to see GM having any impact on food and biotechnology in Europe for at least 5 years. For the moment the benefits are outweighed by the risk to producers, in particular by risks related to the public perception of GM. This has probably been aggravated by the public perception of pressure from countries such as the US to accept GM food products. Furthermore the benefits provide by GM foods can often also be obtained by other means.
Great changes have taken place in food research both in the way that research is conducted and in the focus of research. New sciences have emerged such as proteomics, nutrigenomics and metabolomics, often as a result of collaboration between the food and pharma industries. Such research attempts to link our understanding of food with an understanding of how the human body works at the molecular level. The benefits of this will not come for a while and in the meantime biotech research is shifting from Europe to the USA and China.
77% of the participants thought that The Netherlands will miss economic opportunities by the discussing to long on biotech. 62% thought that the government should push the discussion around biotech. 62% would like to have more (political) influence on the developments of biotech & food, for example by a referendum. 38% of the visitors already try to influence biotech by buying or not buying genetic modified food. 69% of the participants believe that biotech is able to provide a more environment friendly food production. 85% thought that the government should promote the development of new technologies for example by subsidies, to increase the quality of food.
It is possible that the attitude of consumers regarding GM crops will change in the future, due to perceived benefits. Will GM crops be able to bring sustainability and a higher quality? And will it help in feeding the world? Another scenario is that other options will replace GM crops.
Food safety became an issue because of a number of incidents. Biotech in the agricultural sector needs to be transparent. Jeanine van de Wiel (Head of Unit, Safety Assessment of Novel Foods, Health Council of the Netherlands) recommends transparency in decision-making, stakeholder consultation and the expert advisory reports. Governments should not only regulate risk assessment but also structure and facilitate risk management. Jeanine underlined broader issues concerning the acceptance of new foods in particular the issue of freedom of choice for the consumer, the coexistence of conventional, biotech and organic foods, as well as concern about the monopolisation of biological resources and decline in biodiversity. All the participants who filled in the questionnaire stated that the right to know what they eat is important to them. 62% of the visitors thought that people are overreacting to the uncertainties of biotech.
Joost van Kasteren (freelance journalist) thinks that the world needs biotech to increase the food production. In the future we have to feed 10 billion people. Roel Bol (Director, Department of Trade and Industry of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality) states that WTO plays an important role in the world food sector. WTO sees food as a non-economic topic. If we can not convince USA and the others to have food and biotech on the global agenda, nothing is going to happen. At the moment food safety is a national affair of the countries. Europe has highly developed control systems. Countries outside of Europe are only able to export the food of a high quality. The local people of the exporting countries run the risk of getting diseases by only consuming food of a poor quality.
The evening finished up with a discussion on the cultural dimension of food, the rituals around eating, the role of tradition in food and broader aspects of lifestyle and identify in the modern world.
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