Consolidating the food industry

Wenche Aale Hægermark

6. July 2009

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The Norwegian food industry faces a number of challenging issues. Now, the business is getting together to establish a joint Norwegian research and development strategy.

This joint effort is being coordinated through the National Technological Platform Food for Life, and the aims are to influence the choice of strategic research focus both in Norway and in the EU and to disseminate information on relevant European research projects.

"It’s important that the industry’s point of view is presented as a joint strategy," says R&D manager Johanne Brendehaug of dairy giant Tine. "Before, we each tended to our own business, but through Food for Life we shall join forces."

Increased international competition
Globalisation has led to increased international competition.

"We need to get better at implementing the results from R&D," says Brendehaug. "We need to create robust innovations that are unique, and promote their advantages. But an R&D commitment to sustainable development in the entire value chain will be even more important to us in the time ahead. We focus on sustainability at every level, from primary production to distribution, including animal health."

According to the business trends report "Food and Industry 2009", the import of food and drinks increased by 204 per cent from 1995 to 2008. Excluding processed fish and other fish products, import last year amounted to NOK 23 billion. The increase in import the past years has also led to a decrease in the national market share, from 90 per cent in 1995 to 84 per cent in 2008. Exports, meanwhile, increased by 59 per cent in the same period, corresponding to NOK 4.8 billion (excluding processed fish and fish products). The export share has been stable at around four per cent both in 1995 and 2008.

In Norway, conditions such as high salaries and large distances between the raw materials producers reduce competitive strength. The Norwegian food industry is therefore dependent on both satisfactory framework conditions and on innovations that increase productivity and create more competitive products.

Influencing EU focus
Brendehaug, a member of the steering group of the national Food for Life project, points out that dairy giant Tine would also like to see more research collaboration in Europe. Norway is not the only country experiencing increased competition from the global market; the other EEA and EU members are in the same situation. The national Food for Life platform is part of the well established European Food for Life platform, which coordinates conclusions from the national platforms and ensures that suggested focus areas are brought to the European Commission.

The R&D focus areas that are suggested in Food for Life create a basis for the projects that are established through the EU seventh framework programme (FP7). This research programme has a EUR 1.9 billion budget for themes within food, agriculture, fishing and biotechnology.

"In a European context, Food for Life has had a significant impact on which themes have been included in the seventh framework programme. This shows that participating in the platform is of great value and will be a good investment, also for Norwegian companies," says Øystein Rønning, special advisor in innovation at the Norwegian Research Council.

An increased participation rate in European research projects is a high priority for several actors in the Norwegian food industry.

"We would like to have a good overview of ongoing relevant research in the EU, and to be able to find new European research contacts," says product development manager Edel-Anita Westhagen of Stabburet. Johanne Brendehaug agrees, and also believes that an increasing amount of research funding will be channelled through the EU.

Great influence and broad agreement
The Norwegian Research Council has great and defined expectations to constructive input from the national Food for Life platform.

"We envisage that this forum can clarify which areas of knowledge that will be of particular importance to the Norwegian food industry in the long term," says Unni Røst, coordinator of the Food Programme at the Norwegian Research Council. "These are the areas where the Research Council should contribute to building up long-term competence in the research environments."

According to the participants, being able to contribute to a joint research agenda, and thus influence future national and international research focus, is an important reason for their participation in the Food for Life forum.

The Norwegian Food for Life platform has agreed on four main focus areas which they wish research to focus on in the time ahead. The areas are:
1. Food and health
2. Sustainable food production
3. Consumer safety
4. Food safety

"These focus areas correspond well to the results of the foresight analysis carried out by the Food Programme," says Røst.

Long term perspective
Building up long term competence is a central issue for Food for Life. The platform looks ahead toward the year 2020 and further. Companies, research institutions and public bodies all expect international competition to increase, making research cooperation and open innovation increasingly important.

"We expect Food for Life to become a well established technological platform, and an important long-term forum for the food industry in Norway. This is an excellent opportunity for the Norwegian food industry to fortify international and national cooperation. For Stabburet, we hope that this can give us insight into relevant research activities and technological developments that in turn can give us a good picture of where the European food industry is headed. We also expect the information flow from the platform and discussions in the arena to lead to Stabburet’s participation in selected EU projects, and not the least to ideas and inspiration for our own research and innovation projects," says Edel-Anita Westhagen.

Increased dissemination needed
The participants mention access to new knowledge on relevant EU projects as one of the great advantages when participating in Food for Life. Many see Food for Life as an important meeting place where actors can find relevant partners for cooperation projects. Participants also receive help with applications for EU projects, and can influence which research areas will be in most focus in the time ahead.

In Norway, it’s still early days for Food for Life, and according to the participants the project is off to a good start with information to relevant actors and a high degree of involvement. There are, however, several problem issues. According to Tine’s R&D Manager Johanne Brendehaug and Unni Røst of the Research Council, these are in particular connected with the fact that companies from the marine sector so far are not taking part in the platform, and that the selection therefore is not yet representative.

"Fora such as this platform are always met with scepticism from some businesses who fail to see the real value for them. In a busy working day there’s much to focus on, and companies may have trouble giving priority to this work because they are more interested in concrete development projects rather than taking part in a network where the results will arrive further ahead in time," says Brendehaug.

The Food for Life secretariat, represented by Carina Hundhammer, say that they are actively trying to involve more companies in the work and the possibilities offered by the platform.

"In particular we focus on increasing participation from the marine sector, and are currently discussing participation with several seafood producers," concludes Hundhammer.

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