Providing sufficient safe, nutritious and affordable food to a fast-growing world population against a backdrop of climate degradation and natural resource scarcity is one of the key challenges we currently face as a planet. Transforming Europe’s food systems via a dietary shift away from traditional animal protein sources and towards plant and alternative protein sources that are nutritious, tasty, affordable and produced within sustainable food systems is one of the key actions that can be taken to help secure a sustainable food supply chain for generations to come.
For this reason, ‘alternative proteins’ have been a key focus of the European Commission’s research agenda in recent years, with a number of large multi-centre projects funded under the Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe research programmes. These projects are actively exploring alternative proteins from numerous angles, including production methods, scientific and technological qualities, health, allergenicity, environmental aspects, commercialisation potential, and consumer acceptance.
Going forward, a more holistic and comprehensive EU regulatory framework is needed in order to support the development of the alternative-protein sector. To this end, an online Policy Roundtable event was held recently to facilitate discussion between researchers, policy makers, and other stakeholders working in the space. In attendance were representatives from six EU-funded alternative-protein projects (NextGenProteins, Smart Protein, ProFuture, SUSINCHAIN, LIKE-A-PRO, Giant Leaps), collectively known as the Horizon4Proteins collaboration. Also in attendance were the European Research Executive Agency (REA) officers who work directly with these projects, as well as representatives from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and a number of EC Directorate-Generals (DGs), including RTD, AGRI, GROW, SANTE, EMPL and CLIMA. All of the research project consortia partners were invited to join the audience in order to further contribute to the discussion.
In his opening remarks, Paul Webb, Head of Green Europe’s research department at the Europea Research Executive Agency, described how research, while crucial, is never enough on its own. In the case of alternative proteins, the research must fundamentally connect with policy in order to ensure successful real-world applications.
This set the scene for a morning of lively debate between the panel members and the audience. Firstly, the three key policies underpinning food systems research (the EU Protein Strategy, which is due for launch in Q1 2024, the Farm to Fork Strategy, and Food 2030) were presented by representatives from the DGs of AGRI, SANTE, and RTD, respectively. This was followed by an overview of each of the Horizon4Proteins projects by the respective coordinators, with a focus on specific policy challenges identified on the projects. Thereafter, three plenary discussions with varying themes (protein diversification; policy support; economic development) took place, with extensive engagement from both the panel members and the audience.
The points raised during these rich discussions were highly valuable to all involved. They highlighted to policy makers the main concerns and specific needs for policy support among those aiming to further develop the EU alternative-protein sector. They will also help to sharpen the focus of the policy briefs being developed as practical outputs on each of the projects, identifying the policy points that most urgently need to be addressed.
The final remarks at this event were delivered by Amanda Jane Ozin-Hofsaess, the REA Project Officer for the project cluster, who was enthusiastic about the insightful session, saying she appreciated the opportunity to listen and learn, and that she looks forward with interest to next steps in this area.
As for these next steps, a joint Horizon4Proteins policy brief will soon be launched to address a number of specific policy actions that the group wishes to see implemented. These will include:
- Small changes to current EU food labelling and marketing standards that are needed to make plant and alternative protein-based products more available and accessible to European citizens.
- Incorporating minimum criteria for plant-based foods into public-food procurement, which could facilitate a shift towards plant-based diets on a significant scale.
- Meaningful support for plant and alternative proteins (such as favourable VAT rates), which are essential to allowing these sectors to thrive.
- An audit of the novel-food authorisation process in order to ensure that novel protein products are helped, rather than hindered, in accessing the EU market.
- Maintaining economic sustainability as a key focus, thus ensuring that the livelihoods of local growers and farmers in Europe are preserved, in any food-systems transition.
A continued two-way flow of information between policy makers and researchers will be essential in order to ensure effective and evidence-based policy making. A project meeting later this year has already been identified as an opportunity to continue the discussion.
You can view the Policy Roundtable event here. To learn more, follow #Horizon4Proteins and the Smart Protein project social media accounts.