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Healthy and safe food for the future - A technology foresight Project in Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia

Final Report Summary - FUTUREFOOD6 (Healthy and Safe Food for the Future - A Technology Foresight Project in Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia)

How will the supply and demand sides of food markets look like in the year 2020 in Central and East European countries? The FUTUREFOOD6 project invited a large number of experts from six Central and East European countries (Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia) to deal with this question.

A large number of experts participated, coming from a variety of different disciplines, and from different positions. Managers of food producing companies, representatives of chambers of commerce, and experts working in consumer organisations, ministries or certification agencies accepted the invitation to contribute to the topic either via questionnaires, oral interviews or as workshop participants. Teams of experts took care that sound techniques were applied to information gathering, processing and analysis. This comprehensive undertaking was based on technology foresight, a new scientific methodology, which has proved to be a highly successful approach when it comes to addressing complex scenarios with a multitude of stakeholders involved. It is an adequate tool for dealing with potential long-term development paths of an entire industry including horizontal and vertical dimensions, supply and demand side aspects, or policy options and requirements.

By getting all major stakeholders involved, technology foresight is able to identify which technological, economic and social developments are in sight under different potential frameworks. The result includes the experts' expectations regarding the market infrastructure to be established and maintained by governments. The approach offers ample opportunity to discuss food policy issues. The project's focus was on food safety and security from a long-term perspective.

About thirty oral interviews per country plus over 400 questionnaires (key technology survey) were conducted with different types of food experts and stakeholders in the six countries where they were offered the opportunity to express their views. Interviews addressed the present situation with regard to certain aspects of food safety and healthiness, whereas the key technology survey collected expert views regarding the development and application level of a catalogue of technologies. The analysis of results allowed for a classification of technologies. 'Key technologies' are those from which the respondents expect a strong positive impact on food quality, consumers' health, employment, economic growth and food safety. 'Strategic' is an emerging technology whereby the country seems to be well positioned. Finally, a technology is labelled as 'consolidated, if it has reached a level, which is regarded as sufficiently high. Four technologies were identified as 'key technologies' in all six countries: one referred to control systems, two belonged to the group of package technologies and the fourth one was nanotechnology applicable as an instrument of dosage control.

None of these four technologies, however, reached 'strategic' status, whereas three of them qualified as at least 'consolidated'. This means that in many aspects the Central and East European food industry is still characterised by technological backwardness and will have a long way to go to fully catch up with Western European standards.

In workshops, experts from the six countries concluded that they regarded four special states as highly desirable long-term targets (so-called 'future visions').

In vision 1, through their purchases, consumers reveal their preference for a significant portion of regional products in their total food portfolio, and especially local producers are able to make best use of this opportunity thanks to favourable preconditions prevailing in the entire food chain and its infrastructure. Local production helps to protect the environment thanks to short transportation journeys, supports cultural diversity and strengthens local economies. Local producers benefit from EU promotion of Protected designation of origin (PDO), Protected geographical indication (PGI), and Traditional speciality guaranteed (TSG). To become reality, this vision will have to overcome a number of barriers such as high costs of production, distribution and brand development, or an inadequate regulatory framework in its own country as well as in potential export destinations.

In vision 2, the food industry of the Central and East European countries manages to reach within Europe a strong position as a producer of healthy and safe food of premium quality. The countries' food industry enjoys EU consumers' confidence thanks to knowledge-intensive production, high quality thanks to strong competition and the application of strict quality rules and controls alongside the whole food chain, which guarantees traceability from farm to fork. Cooperation between the individual elements of the food chain is strong, and the industry operates at the forefront of technological development.

The participants of the expert forum, which developed this vision, have identified a number of factors, which might hinder the vision's realisation, such as predominance of small and medium-sized local producers, whereby they have difficulty to gain shares in international food markets. Main reasons for that could be complex and costly certification requirements or difficulties to make it to the shelves of large retail chains in an oligopolistic market.

The third future setting, which the experts qualified as highly desirable, is national development strategies, which put emphasis on support of food-related research and development as well as on cooperation within the food chain, paying special attention to functional food (vision 3). Such strategies would be the adequate response to socio-economic developments characterised by shifts of consumer preferences towards functional food in societies, which are increasingly becoming knowledge-based.

Vision 4, finally, sees the Central and East European agro-food sector as characterised by a properly trained workforce capable to operate new knowledge-based farming systems that are profitable at farm level; the agro-food industry is based on knowledge and intellectual assets and capable to produce competitive market-required food products that are environmentally sustainable, that cope with emerging climate changes and that are, with increasing importance, energy efficient. To develop in such a direction, the region will have to remove barriers such as deficiencies in the educational system, in training-on-the-job schemes, in access to information; barriers such as continued underdevelopment of rural areas and of the SME sector; and barriers between research and its practical application.

It was found that the experts tend to attribute an important role to improvements in the regulatory framework at different levels; to governments' more active support for SMEs, to research institutions and cooperation between them; or to better food-related knowledge of all stakeholders thanks to easier access to information, improved supply of educational services to both infant and adult citizens; and to stronger civil society organisations.

The project has opened the floor to thinking about long-term development trends with regard to food taste, safety and healthiness in Central and East European countries. At the same time it has also initiated reflection about desirable long-term goals and ways of realisation. And, it has managed to mobilise cooperation among a large number of stakeholders from different angles and countries.

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