Food and technology headlined the EPTA-conference in Athens. The world food demand is increasing – how can technology help? And how can we address increasing pollution, food-related diseases and unhealthy lifestyles?

13 member institutions were represented by Members of Parliaments and experts.

Under the presidency of the Permanent Committee on Research and Technology of the Hellenic Parliament, the EPTA conference on November 6th 2007 provided a fruitful exchange of insights from technology assessment in food.

Human interplay with nature

Food is a matter of life and death, but also a lot more.

Dependent as we are on agriculture and fisheries, food is at the centre of human interplay with nature. Food also plays a crucial role in how we see ourselves and in shaping social networks. Technology plays a role in all these aspects.

Biotechnology promises new ways of supplying food, for instance through genetically modified organisms. Transportation offers groceries from all corners of the world. Food is processed and nutrients are added to provide certain benefits. But this also raises dilemmas, said mr. Panagiotis Adraktas, MP and president of the Permanent Committee, who chaired the conference.

Genetically modified plants and foods

Project managers, Mr. Jon Magnar Haugen and Dr. Rolf Meyer, presented the context and design for the ongoing joint EPTA project on Genetically Modified Plants and Foods. The project takes a view to future developments of GM and assesses whether current regulations are fit for new applications such as plants modified for industrial or pharmaceutical purposes.

The introduction was followed by interventions from the Austrian Member of the European Parliament, Ing. Dr. Paul Rübig (MEP) and Ms. Ulla Burchardt, MP of the German Parliament. Both noted the pressure on EU regulation of GM plants and foods, especially in the face of WTO challenges, and also, new crops and applications.

– There is a lack of realistic scenarios for co-existence of plant-made industrials with food and feed production, said Ms. Burchardt. Compared to the short-term perspectives of parliamentary discussons, she welcomed a look into the future provided by the joint EPTA project.

How to manage the resources?

Chr. Maravelias from the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research presented current challenges in the management of marine resources. Overexploitation and marine pollution are currently the major threats to sustainable fishing, he said.

Mr. Claude Birraux, MP, presented insights from France on how to address food safety. He noted that food authorities have attained a high level of safety. However there is more uncertainty regarding new threats such as obesity resulting from risk behaviour. Proper vigilance of such hazards may need new orientation and focus. A representative of the Greek Food Safety Authority further expressed that politicians must give authorities the proper tools to attain their objectives.

A false feeling of healthiness

Sergio Bellucci from TA-SWISS and Robby Berloznik from viWTA, Flanders, presented insights into functional foods and food fortification – different techniques that promise added health benefits from food. - Health policy should keep stressing the importance of a balanced food diet and healthy lifestyle, although for some specific targets group, functional food - if the health benefit is scientifically proven - could be a possible option, said Berloznik.

Projects conducted on these issues signal that the role of fortified foods in improving diets is limited. Such techniques may also give a false feeling of healthiness – and improper use may do more harm. Such developments therefore require that regulations and responsibilities are strengthened.

The distance between farm and fork

Generally, there is a trend towards increasing distances between farm and fork.

This makes it increasingly difficult for consumers to check if products meet their standards and concerns. Improved traceability and labelling promise a response to this, providing opportunities for better, and more honest, information about products.

However, as Mr. Tore Tennøe from Norway noted, this raises dilemmas. How much information can consumers handle? Can this be an excuse for authorities and businesses not to take proper responsibility - for hygiene, animal ethics, pollution etc.?

Mr. Frans Brom of the Dutch Rathenau Institute presented insights from a Dutch project on obesity. The project concludes that combating obesity needs a broader perspective than individual choices. Healthy routines need external support, and strengthening food cultures may be crucial.

Evidence for this can be found in the lower prevalence of cardiovascular diseases in the Mediterranean region, said Mr. D. Panagiotakos of Greece. Mr. Ant. Panagiotopoulos closed the conference in Athens with perspectives on the important interplay between culture, food, and health.