EUROPE: EU to step up agricultural research

EU agriculture ministers and officials will return to Brussels from their August summer break to push ahead with developing a plan from the European Commission to create what amounts to a supranational agricultural research organisation.

Ministers have given unqualified backing to a call from the EU executive for such a body. While no specifics have yet been agreed, a meeting of the EU Council of Ministers has accepted that the challenges facing farmers and food companies called for joint programming initiatives, common strategic research agendas and the pooling of resources.

The ministers identified the challenges as those of food supply security, renewable energy schemes, the fight against negative climate change and the maintaining of biodiversity.

Their agreement is timely; the fifth call for proposed research projects on food, agriculture and fisheries, and biotechnology through the EU's seventh framework research programme has now been published.

The draft work-programme contains 56 project topics to be financed under various headings such as agriculture (20 topics), agri-food (13 topics), biotechnology (10 topics) and others focusing on livestock influenza and ocean food. All proposals will be evaluated by January.

The commission has been guided in its approach to research funding in this sector by the various initiatives taken over the past four years by the EU's standing committee on agricultural research, (consisting of representatives of the member states), and by the results of its regular EU AGRI MAPPING report.

It distils overviews of agri-food research systems in the individual countries. Brussels papers have stressed that recent reforms to agriculture in the EU have brought agriculture into a much better balance with environmental and markets.

But "external global drivers have also changed EU food and farming," says one Brussels paper. These include the rising world population, malnutrition and a rise in livestock consumption linked to the growing wealth of third countries.

There is now a prospect of further globalisation, tighter energy supplies, climate change, unsustainable consumption of natural resources, and the recent rise in food prices, it notes.

"In order to cope with these challenges, it is widely acknowledged that there is a need for a strong agricultural research area within Europe," it says.

"This should provide the knowledge that is necessary for a thorough understanding of rural development, of the drivers and impediments for sustainability, and provide the new technologies and innovation needed for the development of the agricultural sector."