Providing sufficient safe, nutritious and affordable food to a fast-growing world population against a backdrop of climate degradation and natural resource scarcity is the predominant food systems challenge of our times. A dietary shift away from traditional animal protein sources in Europe 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 within the European Commission’s research agenda, with a number of large, multi-centre projects funded under the Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe research programmes in recent years. These projects are actively exploring alternative proteins from numerous angles, including methods of production, scientific and technological qualities, health, allergenicity and environmental aspects, commercialisation potential, and consumer acceptance.
A more positive and comprehensive EU regulatory framework is needed to support development of the alternative proteins sector going forward. To this end, an online Policy Roundtable event was recently held to facilitate discussion between researchers, policy makers and other stakeholders working in this area. 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 REA officers who work directly with these projects, representatives from EFSA, and representatives from a number of EC Directorate-Generals (DGs RTD, AGRI, GROW, SANTE, EMPL and CLIMA). All of the research project consortia partners were invited to join the audience to further contribute to the discussion.
In his opening remarks, Paul Webb (Head of Department for ‘Green Europe’ research, REA) described how research, while crucial, is never enough ‘on its own’. In the case of alternative proteins, the research crucially needs to connect with policy in this area to ensure eventual successful real-world applications. This set the scene for a morning of lively interaction and debate between the panel members and audience. Firstly, the three key policies underpinning food systems research (the EU Protein Strategy [due for launch in Q1 2024], Farm to Fork Strategy, and Food 2030) were presented by representatives from DGs 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. Next, three plenary discussions with varying themes (protein diversification; policy support; economic development) took place with huge engagement from both the panel members and the audience. The points raised during these rich discussions will have been very valuable to all involved. They highlighted to policy makers the key concerns among those aiming to further develop the EU alternative proteins sector and specific needs for policy support. They will help 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 on this event were delivered by REA Project Officer for the project cluster, Amanda Jane Ozin-Hofsaess, who was enthusiastic about the insightful session, saying she appreciated the opportunity to listen and learn, and looks forward with interest to next steps in this area.
As to next steps, a joint Horizon4Protiens policy brief will soon be launched to address a number of specific policy actions that the group wishes to see implemented. Small changes to current EU food labelling and marketing standards are needed to make plant and alternative protein-based products more available and accessible to European citizens. Including minimum criteria for plant-based foods in public food procurement could facilitate a shift to plant-based diets on a significant scale. Meaningful supports for plant and alternative proteins innovation (like favourable VAT rates) are essential to allowing these sectors to thrive. Consideration must be given to the novel food authorisation process to ensure that novel protein products are helped, rather than hindered, in accessing the EU market. Economic sustainability must remain a key focus, ensuring that the livelihoods of local growers and farmers in Europe are preserved, rather than lost, in any food systems transition. Finally, a continued two-way flow of information between policy makers and researchers will be essential to ensuring effective, evidence-based policy making. A further event at 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 our project social media accounts.