Agriculture is a key sector in the European Union (EU) and makes an important contribution to the economy. The total value of agricultural production in the EU in 2018 stood at 434,300 million euros. Crops contributed about half of the total value of this production, and within these, the biggest contributors were fresh vegetables and vegetable plants (13.2%), cereals (10.7%) and fruit (6.3%). The number of full-time equivalent jobs in agriculture in the EU was 9,108,100 in 2016. Poland (18.11%), Romania (17.43%), Italy (9.61%), Spain (8.80%) and France (7.78%) were the five countries with the largest numbers of full-time equivalent jobs.

The vegetable sector is growing and represents an important growth opportunity for food manufacturers. In particular, it is forecast that the market for “meat” extracts based on vegetable proteins will have a global value of 6,600 million euros by 2025, with an estimated annual growth rate of 7.7%. This expansion of the options based on plants has been driven by a very strong trend among consumers who wish to reduce their consumption of meat and dairy products, as well as a higher number of vegetarians and vegans, which are in turn driven by ethical, environmental and health concerns. However, this increase in consumption poses a challenge to the corresponding value chains to ensure that they furnish the nutritional value expected and the respect for sustainability they promote.

Food supply chains, which traditionally have been comprised of autonomous, independent actors, are becoming interconnected global systems of complex relationships, which affects the ways foodstuffs are produced, processed and presented to the market. These trends pose challenges to organisations participating in agricultural food supply chains.

The food systems of Europe face major, systemic challenges which include their unsatisfactory results in terms of health, nutrition and the environment, as well as the socioeconomic results of the existing food systems. At the same time, the agrifood sector itself confronts challenges driven by climate change, rapid technological innovation and the new demands for access to information.

Therefore, it is essential to grapple with these challenges in an integrated manner, to do which a system approach is indispensable. The introduction of technological and non-technological innovations, bearing in mind the experience and considerations of stakeholders in agrifood value chains when redesigning those chains, will produce globally competitive value chains which are sustainable for everybody.

To deal with these challenges, the project CO-FRESH, which is part of the Horizon 2020 programme, takes as its objective designing and testing innovative systemic approaches for agrifood value chains and applying them at European level. To do this, and working collaboratively, the project will employ tools which allow these innovative solutions to be promoted based on new, more sustainable food preservation technologies, new ICT-based solutions, new organisational and management models… These approaches will enhance economic, social and environmental performance, as well as the efficiency of these value chains, by smart integration of technological, social, organisational, management and institutional innovations.

The project works with leading-edge players in food technologies, digitalisation and organisation of food chains, and combines forces with food sector companies and a diversity of associations which represent the key actors along the whole supply chain to further the development of a strong and sustainable food system, which is a point of special importance in these moments of pandemic.

The project has partners representing seven supply chains for fruit, vegetables and other plant products with different configurations, and two of which are located in Spain. The pilot experiences to enable the benefits of the innovative solutions developed and applied in the project to be assessed will be tried out in these.

To carry out CO-FRESH, a consortium has been created made up of 26 European actors from ten different countries in the agrifood value chain, led by the National Food Technology and Security Centre (CNTA). Among the 26 partners, apart from the CNTA, there are six Spanish institutions and companies: Innogestiona Ambiental, Florette Ibérica, UNICA Group, Agrifood Economic and Development Research Centre-UPC-IRTA (CREDA), University of Almería and the Association of Fruit and Vegetable Producer Organisations of Almería (COEXPHAL).

Innogestiona Ambiental is the entity responsible for evaluating and supervising the impact of the project, as well as assisting the CNTA in managing the Intellectual Property Rights arising out of it.

Apart from the Spanish entities, the other project partners are: University of Hohenheim (Germany), Tecnoalimenti SCPA (Italy), University of Ghent (Belgium), University of Wageningen (Netherlands), University of Bologna (Italy), Life Sciences University of Warsaw (Poland), Actalia Association