Better food and health through the life sciences and biotechnology
Through its various Framework Programmes (FPs), the European Union invests millions of euros in research into the life sciences and biotechnology with the aim of improving the food Europeans eat and their general state of health.
The life sciences and biotechnology are opening up gateways to new knowledge, turning what was once unthinkable into an imminent probability. Frontier research has brought us to the verge of pioneering gene therapies and ‘regenerative medicines’ for some of the most persistent health challenges facing humanity. It promises healthier and better quality foods, innovative and sustainable bio-materials and bio-fuels, and much more.
Charting new medical waters
It took scientists using the latest state-of-the-art technology just a decade to sequence the more than 3 billion nucleotide ‘letters’ – our bodies’ most basic building blocks – which make up the human DNA macromolecule. Since that revolutionary achievement at the end of 2000, scientists have turned their attention to other genomes and to using this genetic ‘blueprint’ to devise new medical advances.
This ‘post-genomic’ approach has already overturned some accepted ideas and provided unexpected insights into the fundamental mechanisms of life. Scientists now know that identifying genes is only the tip of the iceberg. The real key lies in the incredible way that the hundreds of thousands of proteins in our bodies are manufactured, giving birth to the new spin-off science of ‘proteomics’.
FP6 (2002-2006) earmarked some €2.25 billion under its first thematic priority for research activities in the areas of the life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health. They addressed two key aspects: advanced genomics and its applications for health and application-oriented approaches to combating major diseases.
The forthcoming FP7 (2007-2013) will focus on ‘translational research’ (transforming basic or frontier R&D into actual clinical applications), the development and validation of new therapies, methods for health promotion and prevention, diagnostic tools and technologies, as well as sustainable and efficient healthcare systems.
A fork in the road for food research
Despite increasingly rigorous high-tech quality control standards, recent years have seen an unsettling rise in food alerts. ‘Mad Cow’ disease (BSE), dioxin and salmonella are among the scares that have shaken consumer confidence across the EU in the food they buy and consume and present modern society with a paradox.
Progress in science and technology has meant that the food we consume is put under unprecedented scrutiny to ensure that it is healthy and safe. Yet all this advancement could not prevent these contaminations from getting into our food.
The EU is working hard to protect public well-being and restore trust in the food industry by promoting research in this important field. Under its fifth thematic priority, the EU allocated some €685 million to fund research efforts into enhancing food quality and safety. This theme covered areas such as organic farming, genetically modified organisms, as well as food-related and environmental risks.
FP7’s ‘Food, agriculture and biotechnology’ theme intends to back research into a plethora of fields, including safer, healthier and higher quality food; the sustainable use and production of renewable bio-resources, combating the increasing risk of epizootic and zoonotic diseases and food-related disorders; threats to the sustainability and security of agricultural and fisheries production resulting, in particular, from climate change; and much more.