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Background

The world faces enormous challenges of supplying food and biomass in a sustainable manner under the escalating pressures of climate change, environmental degradation and population dynamics. In addition, Covid19 was a reminder that the world needs to be better prepared for next pandemics of human, animal and plant diseases as well as other disasters that can disrupt food supplies. Part of that preparedness will be to complement existing food systems with sustainable local food systems.

Addressing these challenges requires transformative change and unprecedented innovation as well as integrated strategies for sustainable food and biomass systems.  On the EU-level such integrated initiatives include the European Green Deal, the Farm to Fork Strategy, the EU 2030 Biodiversity strategy,  “Food 2030” and the July 2020 European Council decision on the Recovery Plan.

Critical to successful development and implementation of integrated strategies for sustainable food and biomass systems is that they are multidisciplinary, based on evidence and impact assessment, developed in a transparent and inclusive manner, including developing country perspectives.

Objective

In the context described above, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) has established a program to support the preparation and execution of multi-disciplinary research and education projects on sustainable food and biomass systems.

Characteristics

While the projects developed with the support of the program will vary in nature, they will have several common characteristics, such as:

  1. multi-disciplinary and integrative: drawing upon all relevant disciplines and strengthening synergy between education and research
  2. collaborative and open: developed and conducted in collaboration between universities and research institutes in the EU and beyond, in consultation with other relevant organisations, and applying to the extent possible the concept of Open Science.
  3. Evidence based and results-oriented: aimed at providing decisionmakers and other stakeholders with substantiated, tangible tools to make informed decisions, including decisions that involve ‘trade offs’ between different aspects of sustainability.
  4. Serving a broad audience, including researchers, educators, students, policy makers in national, EU and international organisations, private sector actors, farmers, and the general public.

Modus operandi

The program will provide support to the development and execution of the multidisciplinary projects by:

  • Bringing together a consortium of interested research and education groups at universities and public research institutes.
  • Collecting and sharing topics that could be addressed in the projects.
  • Preparing proposals for multi-disciplinary projects and promoting coherence in the development and execution of the projects.
  • Communicating with national-, regional and international organisations to share information and views relevant to the program and the projects.
  • Assisting, through collaboration with specialised departments, with the identification of potential budgets and application for funding.
  • Conducting outreach activities, such as debate events and participating in other fora.

The program works as follows: When there is a convergence of suggestions from consortium members and/or other organisations for topics to be addressed in a multidisciplinary project, the program leadership will produce a brief outline for a project and discuss that with departments specialised in funding. If these departments assess that there are realistic avenues to obtain funding, then the outline will be sent to the consortium members, with the invitation to indicate interest and relevant expertise. When there is sufficient interest and expertise among consortium members, then a full project proposal will be prepared in collaboration with interested consortium members and funding departments. During the drafting process, other stakeholders (e.g. organisations and private sector) may be approached to explore collaboration. After finalisation of the project proposal, the program leadership will work with the funding departments to finalise and submit the proposal.

 

Contact


The VUB Multidisciplinary Program on Sustainable Food and Biomass Systems is coordinated by the Office of the Vice-rector for Research Policy of the VUB. Feedback on the program and indications of interest in participation can be sent to: Prof. Piet van der Meer, Office of the Vice-rector for Research Policy, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Pleinlaan 2, 1050 Brussels, Belgium, pieter.jan.van.der.meer@vub.ac.be.

The heart of the program is a consortium of groups at universities and public research institutes multi-disciplinary research and education projects on sustainable food and biomass systems.

While it is the collective of input of the consortium members that decides whether proposals for projects will be developed, other stakeholders can participate in the projects.

The current 112 consortium members are:

  • Institute for Plant Biotechnology and Cell biology, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, Austria
  • Laboratory of Plant Genetics, Faculty of Sciences and Bioengineering Sciences Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • Brussels Human Robotics Research Center, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • Centre for Private and Economic Law, Law Faculty, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • Social and Cultural Food Studies (FOST), Department of History, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • MOBI research group, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • Department of Hydrology and Hydraulic Engineering (IR-HYDR), Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • Department of Business – Marketing & Consumer Behavior, Faculty of Social Sciences and Solvay Business School, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • Research group Microbiology, Faculty of Sciences and Bioengineering sciences, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • Marine Biology (WE-DBIO), Faculty of Sciences and Bioengineering sciences, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • Community Ecology (WE-DBIO), Faculty of Sciences and Bioengineering sciences, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • Biology Department, Faculty of Sciences and Bioengineering Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • Functional Ecology of Plants and Ecosystems (WE-DBIO), Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • Research Group of Industrial Microbiology and Food Biotechnology, Department of Bioengineering Sciences, Faculty of Sciences and Bioengineering Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • Laboratory of Analytical, Environmental and GeoChemistry (AMGC), Faculty of Sciences and Bioengineering Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • Multidisciplinary Institute for Teacher Education (MILO), Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • EnvEcon, Departement of Engineering Management, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Antwerp, Belgium
  • PhotoBioCatalysis Unit at Crop Production and Biocatalysis Lab (CPBL)-Science, Biomass Transformation Lab (BTL)-EIB, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
  • Crop Nutrition Unit at Crop Production and Biostimulation Laboratory, Interfacultary School of Bioengineers, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
  • BioMatter – Research group for biomaterials and tissue engineering, Faculty of engineering, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
  • LL.M. in International Business Law, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
  • Pharmacognosy, Bioanalysis & Drug Discovery (PBDD), Faculty of Pharmacy, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
  • Plant Physiology and Molecular Genetics Laboratory, Faculty of Sciences, Interfaculty School of Bioengineers, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
  • Laboratory on Landscape, Urbanism, Infrastructures and Ecologies (LoUIsE), Faculty of Architecture, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
  • Agroecology lab, EIB, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
  • Laboratory of Applied Molecular Genetics, Department of Biotechnology, Faculty of Bioscience Engineering, Ghent University, Belgium
  • Department of European, Public and International Law, Faculty of Law, Ghent University, Belgium
  • Laboratory of Biochemistry and Glycobiology, Ghent University, Belgium
  • Center for Microbial Ecology and Technology, Department of Biotechnology, Faculty of Bioscience Engineering, Ghent University, Belgium
  • Centre for Synthetic Biology, Faculty of Bioscience Engineering, Ghent University, Belgium
  • Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT Europe, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
  • Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO), Belgium
  • Transversal activities in Applied Genomics, Scientific Directorate Expertise and Service provision, Sciensano, Belgium
  • Service Biosafety and Biotechnology (SBB), Scientific Directorate Expertise and Service provision, Sciensano, Belgium
  • Laboratoire de Physiologie et de Génétique Moléculaire des Plantes Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
  • Technology Transfer Office Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
  • Ghent European Law Institute (GELI) Ghent University, Belgium
  • Interdiciplinary BioSciences Expert Group; including Microbiology (MIC) unit and Biosphere Impact Studies (BIS) unit Belgian Nuclear Research Center, Belgium
  • ILVO
  • RADIUS Thomas More University of Applied Sciences
  • RADIUS Thomas More University of Applied Sciences
  • Group of Biotic Stress, Plant Virology, Agrobioinstitute, Sofia, Bulgaria
  • Department of Agro-ecology Agricultural University of Plovdiv.
  • Department of Plant physiology, biochemistry and genetics Agricultural University of Plovdiv.
  • Renewable energy sources, climate and environmental protection Energy institute Hrvoje Požar
  • department of Crop Management Systems, Crop Research Institute Czech Republic
  • Research Group Agricultural Systems and Sustainability, Department of Agroecology, Aarhus University, Denmark
  • Danish Centre for Rural Research, The Department of Sociology, Environmental and Business Economics (SEBE) University of Southern Denmark
  • SME
  • Laboratorio de Biotecnologia Vegetal, Colegio de Ciencias Biológicas y Ambientales, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador
  • Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute (AGERI), Agricultural Research Center (ARC) Giza, Egypt.
  • Microbiology, Biotechnology, and Molecular Biology CY Cergy Paris Université
  • Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, University of Goettingen, Goettingen, Germany
  • Institute of Political Science, Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany
  • Hohenheim Research Center for Bioeconomy, Universitaet Hohenheim, Hohenheim, Germany
  • Department Physiology of Yield Stability, Institute of Crop Science, Faculty of Agricultural Sciences Universitaet Hohenheim, Hohenheim, Germany
  • Institute for Biosafety in Plant Biotechnology (SB) Julius Kühn-Institut, Germany
  • Law University of Bayreuth, Germany
  • Constitutional and Administrative Law, Public International Law, European and International Economic Law, University of Passau, Passau, Germany.
  • Veterinary Faculty, School of Health Sciences, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece
  • Faculty of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Environment, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece
  • Hungarian Research Institute of Organic Agriculture
  • Food & Agriculture Foundation, Amity University Uttar Pradesh, Noida, India
  • Plant & AgriBiosciences Research Centre (PABC), Ryan Institute, National University of Ireland Galway, Ireland
  • Plant molecular Biology and Environment, Department of Science and Health, Institute of Technology Carlow, Carlow, Ireland
  • Department of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences Università Politecnica delle Marche, Ancona, Italy
  • Institute of Forestry Lithuanian Research Centre for Agriculture and Forestry, Lithuania
  • Université du Luxembourg
  • Centre for Research and Innovation, Quest International University Perak (QIUP), Malaysia
  • International and European Law, Faculty of Law Maastricht University, Netherlands
  • Maastricht Centre for European Law, Maastricht University, Netherlands
  • Food Claims Center Venlo, Maastricht University, Netherlands
  • Maastricht Working on Europe/Studio Europa Maastricht University, Netherlands
  • Institute for Agricultural Research Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria.
  • NTNU Food Forum, NTNU-Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway
  • Department of Sociology and Political Science NTNU-Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway
  • Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB), College of Agriculture and Food Science, UPLB University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB), Philippines
  • Institute of Computer Science (ICS), College of Arts and Sciences, University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB), Philippines
  • Department of Polish and European Industrial Property Law, Institute of Law Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, Poland
  • Department of Agronomy, Warsaw University of Life Sciences, Poland
  • Research Department, Breeding and Virology Lab Statiunea de Cercetare-Dezvoltare pentru Pomicultura Bistrita, Romania
  • Agriculture and rural economics Romanian Academy-Institute of Agricultural Economics, Bucharest, Romania
  • Department of Agronomy, Institute of Field and Vegetable Crops (IFVC), Serbia
  • The Faculty of Economics Subotica, University of Novi Sad, Serbia
  • Forest Research Institute National Forest Centre, Slovakia
  • Crop Science Department , Kmetijski Institut Slovenije - Agricultural Institute Of Slovenia
  • Department of Animal Science University of Ljubljana, Biotechnical Faculty, Slovenia
  • Citriculture and Crop Production, Instituto Valenciano De Investigaciones Agrarias, Spain
  • Center of Agriculture and Engineering, Instituto Valenciano de Investigaciones Agrarias (IVIA), Spain
  • Center of Agrobiodiversity, University Polytechnic of Valencia (COMAV), Spain
  • Department of Plant Breeding, Sveriges Lantbruksuniversitet, Sweden
  • Gothenburg Centre for Sustainable Developmen GMV University of Gothenburg and Chalmers University of Technology Gothenburg, , Sweden
  • Biotechnology/Synthetic Biology Lund University, , Sweden
  • Research Division Agroecology and Environment, Biosafety Research Group Agroscope, Eidgenössisches Departement für Wirtschaft, Bildung und Forschung WBF, Switzerland
  • FoodOmics Laboratory, Food Engineering Department, Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey
  • International Food Biosafety and Biotechnology Research and Extension Center, Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey, Beytepe Campus
  • General Directorate, Sustainability Tekfen Agri, Turkey
  • Crop and Natural Resources program; Livestock and Fisheries program; and Technology Promotion and Outreach program, Mukono Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute, NARO, Uganda
  • Innogen Institute, University of Edinburgh and The Open University, UK
  • Crop Genetics and Crop Transformation Group , John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental & Rural Sciences (IBERS), Aberystwyth University, UK
  • School of Engineering University of Warwick, United Kingdom
  • School of Life Sciences,  University of Warwick, United Kingdom
  • Department of Statistics University of Warwick, United Kingdom
  • Food GRP team University of Warwick, United Kingdom
  • Research and Innovation Directorate University of Zimbabwe, Harare, Zimbabwe

The way in which the program works is that in continuous communication with consortium members and other organisations topics pertaining to sustainable food and biomass systems are collected and discussed. When there is a convergence of suggestions from consortium members and/or other organisations for one or topics to be addressed in a multidisciplinary project, the program leadership will produce a brief outline for a project.  

The section Topics below gives a summarised overview of the type of topics that have been suggested. The section Projects give a summary of submitted projects and of projects under preparation or consideration.

1. projects

A. Submitted projects

Crop Improvement Compass

The “Crop Improvement Compass (CIC)” aims to contribute to the EU F2F strategy by:

1) Collecting, curating and storing information relevant for plant breeding aimed at strengthening the sustainable production of food, feed and biomass; 2) producing guidance for long term strategic plant breeding related research; 3) making the collected information accessible to stakeholders through an open database; 4) laying the foundation for a European counterpart of similar activities; 5) assessing the feasibility and utility of expanding the CIC to non-EU countries.

A proposal for the CIC has been submitted under Horizon 2020 in January 2021.  This project proposal did not reach the threshold required for H2020 funding. The VUB program consortium is currently analysing the Commission review with a view to strengthening next proposals and possibly resubmit a revised version of the CIC project to a call under Horizon Europe.

B. Projects under preparation or consideration

Protein Diversification Compass

The project aims to collect, curate, assess and share multidisciplinary information on the potential methods for diversification of protein production. 

PhD+

The proposed project aims to establish a training and support program that assists prospective PhD students in the life sciences in broadening their Research & Innovation by including multidisciplinary systems thinking, foresight planning, Open Science and impact assessment of their scientific research in relation to sustainable food systems .

Curriculum ‘Sustainability Governance’

The project aims to develop a  curriculum that offers multidisciplinary education and training on governance aspects relevant to sustainability, such as:  understanding the underlying science, developing data driven strategies, implementing the strategies in in a way that is evidence based, consistent with international obligations and transparent.

Assessment of the Farm to Fork Strategy goals.

The project aims to conduct a multidisciplinary assessment of the feasibility of the F2F goals and of the environmental, economic and social impacts of the implementation of those goals.

2. Topics

The list below is a summary of topics that consortium members and other organisations suggested to be addressed in multidisciplinary research and education projects.

The topics have been grouped as: 1) Cross cutting topics 2) Production, 3) Processing and Distribution, 4) Consumption and 5) Post consumption.

The list below is intended to give a flavour of the type of suggested topics and to serve as a source of inspiration for the projects to be developed under the program. The list below does not pretend to be comprehensive or fixed. Suggestions for additions, updates and/or fine tuning of the tables are warmly welcome.

  1. Cross cutting topics  
    1. General, e.g.:  Long term trends in food production and population dynamics; Comparative impact of various systems; Energy and natural resources use; Economic and trade aspects; Socio-economic aspects;
    2. Governance
    3. Research and Innovation
  2. Production  
    1. Strengthening current farming practices, e.g. Agro-ecology; Integrated Pest Management; Digitalisation in agriculture; Precision farming; Agro-forestry; Robotics in agriculture and food production; Phototonics in agriculture and food production; Utilising Plant-microbe partnerships; Improving Soil quality; Restoration agriculture; Carbon Farming; Sustainable Intensification
    2. Improving seed/ planting material, e.g.: Seed security and diversity; Long term trends in crop improvements;  Improving agronomic characteristics of plants; Improving food quality characteristics of plants; Improving processing characteristics in plants; New breeding techniques
    3. Agriculture on marginal soils, e.g :  Breeding crops for saline soils; Beneficial plant-microbe interactions;
    4. Urban and peri-urban agriculture, e.g.: City Region Food Systems; Indoor-Vertical farming
    5. Floating farms     
    6. Production through Fermentation processes              , e.g.: Fermentation to contribute to climate neutral economy;  Fermentation to address EU protein deficiency; Cellular agriculture
    7. Animal breeding
    8. Improving fisheries and aquaculture, e.g.: Comparative carbon footprint farmed fish and seafood; Safeguarding aquatic genetic resources; Sustainable fishery through new technological approaches; Strengthening sustainable aqua-culture; Digitalisation in agriculture and fisheries
  3. Processing and distribution
    1. Improving food-handling and processing, e.g.: Improving food curing; Improving food preparation techniques; Sustainable seafood handling and processing
    2. Shortening supply chains and improving distribution logistics
    3. Alternative distribution systems; weekly markets; web services; Local retailers; Reverse logistics; Farmgate sales
  4. Consumption
    1. Long term trends in food consumption
    2. Food chain safety
    3. Improving current consumption patterns
    4. Reducing over-consumption of protein and calories
    5. Alternatives for current meat consumption - insects, weeds, and commercial fishing bycatch
    6. Cultured meat
  5. Post consumption
    1. Reducing food waste
    2. Improving waste treatment
    3. Reverse logistics

The VUB program conducts outreach in multiple ways, such as:

  1. Organizing Debate events
  2. Participating in other fora
  3. Participating in events organised by others  

1. Debate events

Past events

  • 18 January 2021: UNICA – VUB Webinar “Applying Open Science in Research Projects

    Description: The European Commission website refers to Open Science as “a transition in how research is performed and how knowledge is shared”.  The debate event provided further background on Open Science, and the related concepts of Open Data and Open Scholarship, and discussed to what extent these concepts can make science more efficient, reliable, and responsive to societal challenges. A webinar outline in discussion with universities and academia organisations such as UNICA, as well as relevant departments of the European Commission. (Link).

Events under consideration

  • The impacts of food processing and fermentation on SDGs.
    Description:
    Food processing has been considered both as an important factor in contributing to sustainable food systems (e.g. by extending the ‘shelf life’ of products), and as a cause of health impacts.  The proposed debate event will discuss the potential health, environmental, economic and food security impacts of various forms of food processing and fermentation.
     
  • The impact of food and biomass systems on the development of pandemics.
    Description: Practices such as ‘wet markets’, deforestation, irrigation dams, and intensive animal husbandry can result in an increase of such so called zoonotic diseases. As the Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity stated at the occasion of World Health Day: “The lessons learned from COVID 19 and other epidemics tell us that we need  to fundamentally transform our collective relationship with the natural world to prevent, insofar as possible, future pandemic outbreaks”.  The proposed debate event will discuss this multifaceted challenge.
     
  • EU Protein diversification         
    Description: The EU has had a protein deficiency for decades, for which it needs to import large amounts of proteins (e.g. soy) from outside the EU. Over the years there have been attempts to find alternative protein sources (e.g. growing lupines, process technology using micro-organisms). The proposed debate will discuss the various proposed alternative from various perspectives, such as self-sufficiency, agronomic, environmental and political impacts.
     
  • Effect of changes in agricultural practices on nutritional profiles.
    Description: Changes in agricultural practices and alterations to our crops from the early 20th century onwards have also profoundly changed the nutritional profiles of our food (as analyses of herbarium and archaeological specimens in one of the FOST projects indicates) – this longer term trend should be included in the debate.
     
  • Intellectual property in food and farm law – Transparency v. innovation.
    Description: IPRs range from the seed planted to the food consumed. “Patents on life” is a highly controversial topic as well as plant breeders’ rights, the handling of trade secrets and geographical indications. Data protection in food law has a whole different meaning than otherwise perceived. Unresolved is the question as to who owns and is able to exploit “big data” gathered on farmland and increasingly digitalised agricultural operations. Related to food and farm, IPRs become subject to passionate, but often ill-informed debate. Europe is challenged to find a suitable approach balancing inventors’ interests and citizens expectations.
     
  • Farmland in the TFEU – National wealth or market commodity?
    Description:
    The real estate corollary to IPRs in the agro-food chain is ownership of farmland, investment in land and restrictions imposed by the regulator. Arable land and healthy soil is a much sought after commodity and increasingly subject to concentration and speculation. The ECJ/CJEU was on several occasions requested to reconcile the Treaty with national law. UNIDROIT is looking into the law of the farmland.
     
  • Food private law
    Description: Unfair trading practices and contractual relationship in the food chain have recently become subject to EU legislation but food private law ranges much further and includes private standards, certification and audits establishing de facto global rules. So far, legal doctrine has not sufficiently looked into the complex legal structures thereby created and how it impacts back on food public law.
     
  • Sustainable food  2023
    Description: Features for the legislative framework for sustainable food systems the European Commission wants to present 2023
     
  • Peer review: What is it and what is it not?
     
  • Data driven and Evidence based policy making and implementation.  
    Description: Evidence based policy making: what does it mean in practice. The ‘weight of evidence’ approach.
     
  • Food safety
    Description: To ensure quality, food is subject to continuous monitoring in order to verify the quality of the food, to identify and control outbreak or ensure the freedom of choice of the consumer. Transversal/multidisciplinary approaches crossing all sectors (one health) is necessary for an efficient approaches as well the use of new tools like high throughput sequencing and bioinformatics .
     
  • Food related Chronic diseases 
    Description: Chronic diseases (cancer, diabetes, obesity,  allergy, asthma…) are increasingly prevalent in developing nations. Searching the factors influencing  these diseases in link with alimentation, pathogen infection or environmental exposure , genetics and epigenetic as well biomarkers of exposures is crucial. Transversal/multidisciplinary approaches crossing all sectors (one health) is necessary for an efficient approaches as well the use of new tools like high throughput sequencing and bioinformatics is necessary for an efficient approaches.

2. Participation in other fora. 

Representatives of the VUB program participate in various fora related to sustainable food and biomass systems:

 

3. Participating in events organised by others