Recognising the complexity of food systems research, three different themes have been selected as priority for our focus area: agroforestry production systems, the potential of wild plants and forest products, and the use of insects for an alternative protein supply.
Agroforestry production systems
The intentional integration of trees into crop and animal farming systems aims to enhance the overall functionality and sustainability of the system. Agroforestry systems are associated with a variety of benefits, including the sequestration of additional carbon, improving overall soil structure and reducing the risk of erosion and flooding, or boosting biodiversity in agricultural landscapes. Furthermore, trees and shrubs integrated into the system can produce wide range of useful and marketable products, subsequently enhancing farmers livelihoods due to additional income generation. Although agroforestry production practices are more common in tropical countries, there is an increased interest to investigate and apply agroforestry in more temperate climates as well and make use of its benefits.
Sustainable use of wild plants and forest products
The interest in collecting and using wild food resources, such as mushrooms, fruits, or berries from our forests is rising. Such products often have valuable nutritional compositions, in particular micronutrients, and can help us reach our daily nutritional requirements. They can also serve as valuable ingredients for functional food, cosmetic, or medicinal products and foster additional income opportunities. Yet, unregulated harvest can also easily lead to overexploitation of the resource base or other unintended consequences such as risk of transmitting diseases. Consequently, research is needed on a broad number of topics, including the assessment of sustainable harvesting levels, possible uses and applications, or potential management strategies.
While in numerous tropical countries insects have been used as a food source for thousands of years, in Europe this is still very much a niche. Yet using insects offers a variety of benefits: compared to other meat sources they are very nutrient-efficient, needing less inputs for their production than traditional livestock. They also can be a valuable source of nutrients, particular protein, as well as unsaturated fat and dietary fibre. First insect species have been approved by the European Commission to be used as novel foods and it is expected that more are to follow. To increase consumer acceptance, insects can also be processed into powders and used as a protein-rich ingredient for other foods. These development offer numerous possibilities for research, including the investigation of novel methods of insect production and processing, or how waste streams can best be integrated to achieve circularity in our food systems.