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European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science
"A Healthy Diet for a Healthy Life"
Opening Address to the Conference on the Joint Programming Initiative
Brussels, 28 March 2014
Ladies and gentlemen,
I'm delighted to have the honour of opening this international conference on the Joint Programming Initiative "A Healthy Diet for a Healthy Life".
I can think of few issues that affect every man, woman and child in Europe more than what we eat and how it affects our health.
It's a topic that's never out of the media, with endless variations on whether carbs, fat, sugar or protein are good or bad, or reports on the latest 'wonderfood' that will stop cancer in its tracks or help us live longer.
Science and innovation have helped us to conquer many infectious diseases and make huge progress in treating life threatening cancers and heart disease.
We are now relying on them to help us tackle the new public health challenge that is diet and lifestyle-related diseases such as overweight and obesity – sometimes described at the greatest public health challenge or our times.
And the public is hungry - if I may use this expression – for information and guidance that is backed up by solid research.
It's a challenge that all Member States are facing to different degrees, so it makes perfect sense – both scientifically and economically - to pool our knowledge together.
That's why this Joint Programming Initiative is so important.
Today we will celebrate a milestone in its progress. But before we do that, I would like to talk a little about the opportunities to create synergies between this initiative and Horizon 2020, the EU's new programme for research and innovation.
When Healthy Diet for a Healthy Life was launched, the Council of the European Union noted that in the last three decades the levels of overweight and obesity in the EU have risen dramatically, particularly among children, and that the trend of poor diet and low physical activity is getting even worse.
Breakthroughs in our understanding of the best ways to prevent chronic diseases are already beginning to pay dividends, helping to save the lives of thousands of citizens.
Many chronic conditions such as cancer, neurological and mental disorders, cardiovascular diseases, obesity and type 2 diabetes can be prevented or modified through better lifestyles and healthier diets.
These are the very good reasons for the EU's investment of 840 million euro under the 7th Framework Programme in research on diabetes, obesity and physical activity.
These projects are delivering insights such as how diabetes and obesity can be prevented, how they progress, how early diagnosis can improve quality of life, and how to select the best treatments.
But despite the improvements, much more needs to be done, particularly because of the trans-generational effects of obesity and diabetes.
So we're building on the good work already carried out under FP7.
Horizon 2020, Europe's 80 billion euro research and innovation programme, is designed to tackle seven of society's biggest challenges.
The two that are most relevant to A Healthy Diet for A Healthy Life are Food Safety and the Bioeconomy, and Health, Demographic Change and Wellbeing.
For the next seven years, these Challenges will fund the very best research on nutrition, health, diet-related disease and ageing and translate the knowledge gained into innovative and effective products, treatments, services and strategies to benefit all patients, and to prevent many people from developing disease in the first place.
It will require an unprecedented level of cooperation along the healthcare innovation chain, starting with researchers that characterise diseases, to those who exploit this knowledge by developing new biomarkers, diagnostics and medicines and to regulators who evaluate and approve them.
Public sector innovation, another issue targeted by Horizon 2020, will save money for hard-pressed health services.
And of course, let's not forget that developing these new treatments and technologies could provide huge opportunities for competitive European businesses, large and small. By integrating research on food, nutrition, health and social sciences, this JPI will also help the European food and drink industry, a major force in our economy, to remain competitive and deliver new and improved products that meet society's needs.
Unfortunately, different attempts to encourage healthier eating have not yet led to major changes in patterns of food purchase and consumption.
That's where a multidisciplinary approach comes in, with health and nutrition research and innovation that includes the social sciences. We all know, for example, that understanding people's behaviours and their relationship to food and exercise is vital in helping them to make healthier choices.
We need to support research on the evolution of health inequalities, on their interplay with other economic and social inequalities and on the effectiveness of policies in this area.
I'm convinced that Horizon 2020 can make excellent progress on research and innovation for healthy diets and healthy lives.
But European-level funding can't be the only approach. The bulk of public funding for research and innovation remains in the hands of the Member States.
We will get better value for that money, and better science, if Member States align their policies and pool national resources through the Joint Programming approach to complement the Horizon 2020 funding.
As I emphasised at the Irish Presidency conference on Joint Programming in Dublin last year, agreeing the Strategic Research Agenda is a major achievement for a JPI.
You reached that milestone in 2012, but it was only the first step.
There's no point in all this effort if the good intentions of the Research Agenda aren't turned into concrete action.
So implementation is critical, and this will be achieved first and foremost by aligning and coordinating national research programmes and activities.
You have already launched two joint calls and I know that you'll very shortly launch a third one on Biomarkers for Nutrition and Health.
Some people might think that new calls require the commitment of additional funding by Member States. However most of the results can be achieved first and foremost by aligning national priorities with those of the JPI and by coordinating existing national research programmes and activities.
Alignment does not mean that all programmes should do the same. Let me take an example. An ERA-NET action on Food Safety under the Seventh Framework Programme illustrated how it is possible to identify areas where all Member States may have too many projects - 20% of all funded projects targeted Campylobacter - as well as gaps; for example, on emerging pathogens.
A joint call on Campylobacter saved money for each Member State, which was then freed up to tackle emerging pathogens, which differed from country to country depending on their citizens' dietary habits. This meant that more and better research was funded within the same overall budget.
A Healthy Diet for a Healthy Life has also attracted international partners, welcoming Canada as a full member and New Zealand as an observer country.
Today's launch of the Implementation Plan marks a major step forward in putting the Strategic Research Agenda into action.
I encourage you to continue on your path, creating Joint Calls and synergies with the Horizon 2020 calls.
And I also encourage you to explore other avenues besides joint calls and knowledge networks to implement your Strategic Research Agenda such as linking to other relevant JPIs and ERA-NETs, and by benefiting from common European research infrastructures.
Above all, in this critical phase of implementation, I urge the Member States participating in this JPI to unlock national funding for research and to actively engage in aligning national research programmes and innovation policies.
Alignment of national priorities to those of the JPI, multi-annual programming and financial and other support from the participating Member States - these are the essential baseline elements to deliver on the Initiative's ambitious goals by 2030.
Ladies and gentlemen,
This Joint Programming Initiative is a key component of Europe's research and innovation agenda.
We can perhaps think of the Joint Programming Initiatives as 'Mini European Research Areas'. National alignment and collaboration with related initiatives are crucial to establishing a fully operational European Research Area in the area of nutrition and health. The Implementation Plan is a very important step in this process.
I wish you an excellent conference, full of innovative ideas and interesting discussions. I look forward to hearing the results.