Fermentation has been used for millennia for the preservation of food and as a means to improve its organoleptic properties. Just as our ancestors domesticated plants and animals to provide a more stable food supply, the bacteria used in food fermentations can be considered to be domesticated. By selecting and propagating those organisms with desirable properties and excluding those with undesirable properties, mankind has fostered an evolution which ultimately led to a safer and more reliable food supply. However, the world is rapidly changing and evolution may be too slow to keep pace with the increased need for nutritious, safe, diverse and appealing food for an ever growing human population, especially in the context of climate change challenges.
One key component of evolution is genetic variation as the basis of selection. Variation can either be found in nature by screening, or introduced by scientists/breeders using a variety of established techniques . Use of either of these approaches is currently being hampered by manmade constraints. Two specific issues are the restrictions on the use of modern biotechnology for strain improvement and the restrictions framed by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) further detailed in the Nagoya Protocol . These constraints were the subject of a 2-day expert workshop held in Amsterdam, May 10 and 11, 2017; the conclusions and recommendations from the workshop are presented herein.
As described on the CBD website : “the objectives of the CBD are the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from commercial and other utilization of genetic resources. The agreement covers all ecosystems, species, and genetic resources”. The Nagoya Protocol  stipulates that the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources shall be shared in a fair and equitable way. The intentions of the CBD and the Nagoya Protocol are considered valid and are fully supported by the workshop participants. However, as will be described below, there are a number of uncertainties about the interpretation of this protocol. The challenge is to ensure benefit sharing without removing the incentive for industrial use of the genetic resources; otherwise, there will be no benefit to share. In addition, academic research has always been dependent on the free sharing of research materials and restrictions on this would not be beneficial.
A number of techniques are available to induce changes in the genetic material of an organism. Some techniques such as mutation breeding have been used for decades and have remained uncontroversial while others, specifically those based on the use of recombinant DNA technology, have resulted in an intense debate . Stringent regulations on the use of recombinant DNA technology in food and feed production have been developed in some parts of the world. A consequence of this is that companies that develop starter cultures for food fermentations are reluctant to introduce genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to the market . Advanced technologies such as genome editing have not yet been fully integrated into the existing regulatory framework and their regulatory status in relation to the spectrum of techniques available to improve a trait of interest remains to be clarified. Regulatory uncertainty does not promote innovation.
Many of the bacteria used in food fermentation belong to the group known as lactic acid bacteria (LAB). These are used in the production of a large variety of fermented foods including cheese, yoghurt, sauerkraut, pickles, sausages, as well as in the production of animal feed (silage). Industrial production of these products has been based on the use of commercially produced starter cultures for more than a century.
The Lactic Acid Bacteria Industrial Platform (LABIP) is the industry platform for European Union-sponsored research programs on LAB . LABIP is a European Economical Association, founded in 1994. The members of LABIP are companies that produce or use LAB and have production or research facilities within the EU. One of the aims of LABIP is to coordinate communication about topics of industrial relevance between academia, industry and EU authorities. LABIP was organizer and sponsor of the expert workshop “future access and improvement of industrial LAB cultures”.