Agriculture and the agri-food sector are integral parts of the economy and society in Europe. They are subject to multiple external pressures, such as rising demand for food, feed, fuel and fibres, globalisation, environmental changes and public health considerations. They are also constrained by physical limits such as the availability of land and water. Demand for animal food products and competition for natural resources are expected to increase. This implies that agriculture and agri-food sector will need to become more efficient and sustainable.
Proposals should address one or more of the following issues (A) to (C) for 2016 and (D) to (E) for 2017 and should clearly indicate to which one they refer.
A.  Organic farming and food production
Scope: In recent years the organic market in the EU, driven by steadily increasing demand, has developed significantly (EUR 19.7 billion with a 9% growth rate in 2011). While demand for organic products tends to exceed production, during the last decade, the number of organic producers and the surface area under organic production have grown rapidly. Every year, 500,000 hectares of agricultural land in the EU are converted to organic farming. In the period 2000-2012, the total organic area increased by 6.7% a year on average, reaching an estimated 9.6 million hectares, or 5.4% of the EU’s total utilised agricultural area. Organic aquaculture is also growing fast following the introduction of EU rules in 2009. The overall aim is to improve jobs and growth in the organic sector by improving organic farming and food chains and, consolidating funding for transnational research and innovation activities. This ERA-NET Cofund is a follow-up to CORE Organic I (FP6) and CORE Organic 2 (FP7). At a policy development level, this is in line with the Commission Communication on the action plan for organic production in the European Union, the existing regulations in the organic sector and the Commission proposal for a new regulation on organic production (COM(2014)180) as it will increase the innovative capacity of the sector if certain exemptions are phased out.
Expected Impact: More sustainable agricultural production systems, food processing and food value chains through the further development of organic products and fulfilment of the rising demand for organic products, support for the Common Agricultural Policy and organic farming regulations and other relevant policy areas, e.g. health, trade and jobs. More specifically, projects developed under the proposed Cofund action will: i) improve the production potential under organic regulations; ii) improve the sustainability of agricultural production; iii) improve animal welfare and resource efficiency; and iv) link up to innovation needs of European Innovation Partnership operational groups.
B.  Sustainable food production and consumption
Scope: Achieving a sustainable food supply that incorporates new food processing technologies and that is supported by consumer acceptance, is an innovation priority for the food industry and civil society organisations. A SUSFOOD (“SUStainable FOOD production and consumption”) ERA-NET Cofund will seek to increase collaboration and coordination on national research into the sustainability of food production and consumption, with the main focus on the food supply chain beyond the farm gate. The 7thFramework Programme (FP7) experience has shown that there is still potential to organize and implement calls for proposals on this issue with excellent chances of a good rate of return on the money invested. The Commission's national consultations, held in 16 European countries, show there is a common desire to continue efforts to keep food sustainability high on the research and innovation agenda. There is also a willingness to provide the necessary funding. Proposals should take into consideration (and can build on previous) EU-funded activities in this field.
Expected Impact: Innovation in food processing technologies; redesign of input, waste and side flow strategies to increase resource efficiency and provide added value in food products and processing, manufacture etc.; interdisciplinary research approach to innovation in food products and use of new raw materials for food products; harmonisation of the methods and metrics for the integrated assessment of the sustainability of food products and food patterns; link between stakeholders and food systems; greater understanding of consumer behaviour and food choices; integration of information systems for personalized, sustainable choices.
C.  A knowledge platform for the intestinal microbiome
Scope: For many years it has been known that the composition and function of the intestinal microbiome affect the conversion and availability of some dietary components. There is a growing body of evidence on complex host-diet-microbiota interactions, highlighting the need to consider these interconnections as a triad that will define the success of dietary interventions and European policies. Importantly, there is mounting evidence to suggest that the intestinal microbiome affects both gut and systemic health. Specifically, diet-related variations in the gut microbiota have been linked to a variety of non-communicable chronic diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and auto-immune, brain and cardiovascular diseases.
Gut microbiota analysis and modulation is a new and rapidly developing research area. However, the causal relationship between diet, gut microbiota and human health is still poorly understood. These studies may provide new strategies for health promotion and disease prevention, development of healthy ingredients and foods bearing health claims as well as probiotics and prebiotics based on functional analysis of genomic and metagenomic data. There is a need for joint research activities relating to the intestinal microbiome, particularly to share and integrate existing data, investigate the 'cause and effect' relationship between changes in microbiota composition and disease (including the role of human genetics), to identify the main dietary components that lead to functional changes in gut microbial composition, as well as to standardise methods and study designs to analyse and understand the human diet-gut microbiota interaction.
Expected Impact: This ERA-NET Cofund should generate new knowledge to support health maintenance, prevention strategies and/or new treatments. It should shed light on the human diet-gut microbiota interaction in relation to health and disease. It should also create a knowledge base for intervention studies aimed at promoting health and/or preventing the onset/development of non-communicable chronic disease through diet-dependent modulation of the intestinal microbiota.
D.  Sustainable crop production
Scope: To pool resources and know-how to develop and test solutions for sustainable crop production, including areas such as breeding, nutrient recycling and soil-plant-atmosphere interactions, plant health and protection, management practices and the added value of agricultural products.
Expected Impact: Activities will contribute to developing cropping systems with improved performance in terms of reduced environmental impacts, resource-use efficiency and product quality. This will help the farming sector adapt to changes expected to result e.g. from emerging resource scarcity, environmental variation, demography, consumer preferences, and global trade.
E.  Innovative forest-based bioeconomy
Scope: Forests cover more than 40 % of the EU's landmass and are instrumental in a number of key policy areas. The forest-based sector provides income for 16 million owners, supports 3-4 million jobs in rural areas, represents some 8% of the EU's total manufacturing value; removes the equivalent of approximately 9 % of greenhouse gases emitted by other parts of the economy; and provides for a wide range of other social, economic and ecological services. The proposed Cofund action will promote increased innovation and competitiveness of the forest-based sector in Europe and support its transformation from a resource-intensive to a knowledge-intensive, productive, resource-efficient and resilient sector. Sustainability and modernisation of forestry systems and downstream value chains including innovative business concepts and production technologies will be needed to develop the forestry sector and the European bioeconomy, of which forestry accounts for a large share. Basic and applied research, close-to-market research and innovation actions are all envisaged. The scope spans all forest-based value chains, from forest vitality and sustainability of forestry production systems to efficiency in supplying forest-based goods (wood and non-wood) and services.
Expected Impact: Enhanced resilience of forest ecosystems and forestry production systems to natural disturbances (including pests and diseases), connected to watershed and landscape management; sustainable provision of forest biomass for the European bioeconomy, ecosystem services and non-wood forest products; development of new sustainable and resource-efficient value chains and consolidation of the existing ones; development of new knowledge and processes to support major transitions and innovations in the forest-based sector, supporting business development in rural areas and industrial development, in crucial sectors such as forest-based industries (traditional and emerging branches), construction, transport and energy; increased resource efficiency (e.g. water, energy) and climate change mitigation (carbon sequestration in forest and wood-based products); and contribution to the implementation of key EU policy areas such as rural development, biodiversity, climate change, industrial policy, circular economy and bioeconomy.