Facilitated by the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health (IFNH), the University has been engaged with EIT Food since its inception in 2018. EIT Food is Europe’s leading food innovation initiative, working to make the food system more sustainable, healthy and trusted. It is funded by EIT (European Institute of Innovation and Technology) which was developed by the EU to strength Europe’s ability to innovate. EIT Food is one of eight EIT innovation communities which facilitate partnerships between research, academia and industry to address key societal challenges.
From involvement in 16 collaborative, pan-European projects in 2018 to 40 projects in 2020, EIT Food funding has brought approximately 8 million euros to the University. The 2020 projects covered the wide breadth of EIT Food functional areas – education, innovation, entrepreneurship and public engagement. Earlier this month, IFNH organised an EIT Food special event to look back at this significant project portfolio, share outcomes, results and lessons learned and explore how these experiences could be used to develop future opportunities and collaborations.
The breadth and scope of the University’s EIT Food projects was clear to see in the workshop’s four breakout sessions. In the Agriculture session, presentations were given on a range of topics such a vertically farmed leafy greens; seaweed supplementation to mitigate methane (CH4) emissions by cattle; and integrating precision farming in a computer game.
The behaviour and consumer trust breakout session included talks on a project to help people change and monitor their habits with respect to nutrition and physical activity (Food4Health); consumer attitudes towards healthier processed meat products; and building a business model to enhance consumer trust and influence decision making using a sustainability transparency labelling system.
In the food processing and production session, presentations were given on integrating innovative sugar and fibre technologies to produce clean label sugar reduced products demonstrated through cereal bars (SuReBar); new food solutions for cancer patients (Oncofood); and a project designed to support healthy eating by developing a new food manufacturing technology and a B2C business concept for at-site customised production of healthy snacks (Health SnaP).
The education break out session included presentations on projects such as Microbiome Push which focused on the applications of microbiomes in different segments of the food chain; WeValueFood which educated, engaged and advanced young Europeans’ knowledge of and appreciation of food thereby empowering the next generations to make the best choices about the food that they eat; and Focus on Farmers to recruit farmer champions and technology ambassadors to train in relevant aspects of technology and develop engagement activities.
So, what did we learn? Given the enormous scope and breadth of the projects, would there be any commonalities?
Unsurprisingly, the effects of the pandemic emerged as a key challenge facing 2020 projects. Some projects were greatly affected by the impact of COVID-19, such as being unable to establish pilot fields in the CleanFruit project looking at standardisation of innovative pest control strategies. However, others such as the annual online TrustTracker survey, were only affected minimally, if at all. Some encountered industry partners who were forced to change strategic course overnight because of the pandemic. But what was clear was the flexibility and creativity that the researchers were able to employ in moving to, and embracing, online working.
Some projects, especially those reliant on conferences and workshops, found that it was possible, even preferable, to move online. Although understandably it did create some tensions, such as the difficulties encountered in relationship building when online only, cultural differences being better understood when face to face and struggles to co-create in online workshops. However, online networking became much more accessible, giving people a voice where they might not readily have had one. Researchers also reported positive effects on online engagement work, with higher attendance than in-person sessions and physical events.
Another commonality was around partner working. EIT Food has a massive ecosystem of partners, with approximately 70 core partners and a large number of network partners and Rising Food Stars (smaller start-up organisations). This gives the University a great opportunity to work with a huge breadth of partners on EIT funded projects and critically to deliver and develop organisational relationships to undertake projects outside of EIT Food. However, it also presents challenges. Big consortia can be complex, and with some projects having as many as 17 multidisciplinary partners in multiple countries, strong leadership and project management are required. Having a team member dedicated to a project full time helped facilitate regular meetings and communication between partners, overcome challenges in project administration and made collaboration online easier. Similarly regular communication and taking the time to understand who the key contacts are and to develop good working relationships is critical. Researchers recommend thinking carefully about which partners to choose and that sometimes patience and diplomacy with industrial partners is key: mismatched commercial and scientific goals can be difficult to reconcile. Clarity on all sides is especially needed where large consortia have multiple partners all with different priorities and interests and different levels of involvement.
Another challenge that was highlighted was the EIT Food funding cycle, which has typically been one year. EIT Food encourage ambitious targets (KPIs) which can make research projects challenging and intense. There can also be difficulties with the January to December programme windows, meaning some key work goes on in winter which can be an issue for agricultural projects. The good news is that multi-year projects are expected as part of the keenly anticipated 2022-2024 EIT Food call, due any day now, which should help address some of these problems.
So what’s next? Reviewing what’s been achieved in the last year allows us to learn from those experiences to make things easier and better in the future. It allows us to celebrate our successes, our educational and research outputs and the great collaborations with industry and academic partners, using these as a foundation to explore and develop future opportunities. But perhaps most importantly, it aids connections between colleagues; EIT Food has brought parts of the University together that didn’t know the other existed. There is so much complementarity across the University and IFNH’s role is fundamental in working across research themes to support interdisciplinary developments, funding and research dissemination in EIT Food projects and beyond.
In closing the event, Ian Givens Director of IFNH highlighted the importance of bringing together many parts of the University into EIT Food activities. He also thanked Kate Green for masterminding the event and other IFNH staff and Jo Watts (DTS) for making the event so successful.
Donna Walton is Research Communications Business Partner for the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health (IFNH).