The largest manufacturing sector in the European Union

In the European Union (EU), the food sector offers many opportunities and challenges for policymakers. The opportunities come from the leading positions and global brand recognition that many EU regions have in the food sector. In the EU, the food and drink sector was in 2016 the largest manufacturing sector with a turnover of €1,109 billion, the largest employer with 4.57 million people, and the largest creator of value added with €230 billion (European Commission). The EU is the largest exporter of food and drink products in the world. In 2017, extra-EU exports reached €110 billion, with a trade surplus of €35 billion. The food and drink sector represents 17.9% of the EU share of global exports. The three countries with the largest turnover in the food and drink sector are France (€ 179.8 billion in 2016), Germany (€ 171.3 billion in 2016), and Italy (€ 133.1 billion in 2016). 

Despite the harmonisation of the EU food legislation, the opportunities from the EU Single Market, and its global leading position, the EU food sector faces certain challenges in both international and European markets such as the EU food supply chain, sustainability, increased competition from other countries, and low innovation capacities

  • The food industry faces challenges to manage the complexity of the food supply chain. Indeed, the food supply chain represents a total turnover of €3.7 trillion and a value added of €707 billion. It employs 23 million people from very diverse economic operators with specific business models, agriculture, food and drink wholesale, food and drink retail companies and stores.
  • Sustainability is a major concern. There are increased strains on the food and drink industry due to increasing demand for food, demand in energy, and demand for water in agriculture. Climate change can affect food production and thus lead to price volatility.
  • Emerging economies are competing with the EU, namely China. The EU share in global food export has declined over the past decade.
  • The EU food and drink sector has a low R&D private investment intensity. The R&D investment intensity ranges from 0.59% in Finland to 0.01 in Bulgaria and average at 0.23% in the EU for the period 2013-2015 (see Map 1). 

Map 1. R&D private investment in the food and drink sector in the EU.
Source: FOODDRINK Europe from EUROSTAT data 2018

The ways to innovate in the Food Sector

5 Interreg Europe projects are directly involved in the food sector. They are dedicated to find solutions to those complex challenges and to leverage on interregional cooperation opportunities to generate innovations in the food sector. AGRI RENAISSANCE aims to promote interregional cooperation through Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisation (RIS3) to activate the creation of value chains and to increase research and innovation capacities in the agri-food sector. REGIONS4FOOD promotes the integration of management procedures based on information and communication technologies (ICTs), big data, and artificial intelligence technologies to promote innovation-driven growth in the food sector.

FOODCHAINS4EU supports the creation of social and sustainable food chains as European citizens are increasingly concerned with food quality and sustainability in terms of processing, packaging, storage, waste reduction, distribution and retail. From the observation that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are the backbones of the food industry in the EU, NICHE aims to promote the research and innovation capacities in European SMEs. STRING promotes research and innovation activities in food clusters. 

The 5 Interreg Europe projects in the food sector have generated many good practices among which the BioCC OÜ and HEALTHY RIOJA good practices offer interesting paths to  accelerate research and innovation capacities in the food sector through the creation of competence centres and public-private partnerships.  

In the NICHE Interreg Europe project, the BioCC OÜ is a competence centre in the food sector in Eesti, Estonia. The competence centre provides support from basic research to market commercialisation thus covering the full spectrum of product development. BioCC OÜ involves a triple-helix model of collaboration among Estonian companies, universities (University of Tartu), and public organisations in the frame of the Estonian Competence Centre Programme. In the BioCC OÜ, 20 food SMEs are working with academics to generate new product food innovations. The competence centre was successful in developing new food products, such as the cheese HARMONY™ containing probiotic strain L.plantarum TENSIA® to stabilise blood pressure. 

In the AGRI RENAISSANCE Interreg Europe project, HEALTHY RIOJA is a public-private initiative to promote innovation, adoption of industry 4.0, biotechnologies in the food sector in La Rioja department, Spain. According to Arnault Morisson, Thematic Expert in Research and Innovation for the Interreg Europe Policy Learning Platform, ‘product innovations coming from biotechnology and process innovations coming from industry 4.0 are increasingly disrupting the food sector.’ The HEALTHY RIOJA Strategy provides technology watch, support mechanisms for proof-of-concepts and prototyping, knowledge transfer, and collaboration among triple helix stakeholders. The good practice offers a potential path to create public-private partnerships that offer similar services as competence centres. 

Good practices inspire regions to improve their policies… 

Thanks to the NICHE Interreg Europe project, Tartu County Government has launched Tartu County Development Strategy 2040. In designing its RIS3 to include the priority ‘Biotechnologies in food production’, Tartu County Government took over from NICHE’s partner regions the following good practices: 

  • Measures to support companies’ export activities from Finland
  • Measures to promote cooperation between professional associations and clusters from the Greek Agronutritional Cooperation of Crete
  • Measures to accelerate product development projects from the United Kingdom model FoodOvation
  • Seminars to introduce R&D services from the Romanian model on Research Platform for Organic Food

Research and innovation in the food sector is certainly a policy area with great potential across many EU regions. However, it may also be subject to controversial debates. Regulations and standards must ensure European citizens’ health first and the precautionary principle must be applied. Any developments in this sector must be aligned with the concept of responsible research and innovation.

Learn more online about Interreg Europe Projects in the Food Sector, AGRI RENAISSANCE, REGIONS4FOOD, FOODCHAINS4EU, NICHE, STRING.