No research in an ivory tower

René Custers is Regulatory Affairs Manager at the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB). For the Co-Extra work package 8, he co-ordinates the organisation of stakeholder dialogues in seven EU countries. In this interview, he explains why the stakeholder dialogue is important for a research programme, and how Co-Extra approaches the issue.

René Custers co-ordinates the organisation of the Co-Extra stakeholder dialogues.
René Custers co-ordinates the organisation of the Co-Extra stakeholder dialogues.
Mr. Custers, you are co-ordinator of the Co-Extra stakeholder dialogues. What does that mean?

I try to co-ordinate a common approach in setting up a dialogue on co-existence and traceability in supply chains between Co-Extra researchers and stakeholders, as well as among stakeholders themselves. But this really is work being done together with a number of partners within the working package 8 of the Co-Extra project.

Co-Extra is a research programme on co-existence of and traceability in supply chains. How does organising stakeholder dialogues fit in?

Well, Co-Extra is trying to develop tools for those affected by the issues of co-existence and traceability. This research should not take place in an ivory tower. It is important that researchers know and feel how stakeholders think about co-existence, and know what the practical issues are. That is why the stakeholder dialogues are set up in several countries. It is a two-way type of communication and interaction. It is also intended to keep the research focused on stakeholder needs.

How will these stakeholder dialogues look in detail?

There is in fact a threefold manner in which we try to interact with stakeholders. On a first level, which is very general, we have set up a "stakeholder advisory board", on which there are representatives of a number of relevant European federations from biotech companies to consumers associations - such as for instance EuropaBio, IFOAM-EU, COPA-COGECA and BEUC.

In a second part, we are organising regional stakeholder workshops in seven EU countries. In these workshops, discussions on co-existence will take place on a regional level. These workshops are organised on the basis of a common setup, with the goal being to integrate the results into one common report.

In a third approach, we are setting up a Europe-wide questionnaire on co-existence. To do this, we are currently assembling a database with the names and addresses of stakeholders. To increase the number of responses, we will have the questionnaire translated into different languages.

Of course, there is also stakeholder interaction within specific working packages. For instance, this is the case with the working packages 2, 3 and 7.

Who may participate in the stakeholder dialogues?

Anyone affected by the issues of co-existence within the food and feed chains can participate in the questionnaire, whether as an individual or as part of a company or federation. For us it is rather difficult to reach all possible stakeholders, so we are looking at ways of how to increase the penetration of the questionnaire down to individual stakeholders, such as farmers.

The regional stakeholder workshops are working with limited lists of stakeholders, and mostly work on invitation. This is so that they can have a workable situation, since you ideally want to have stakeholders interacting in small sessions. However, if there are stakeholders or stakeholder organisations who would be interested in taking part in a regional workshop, I would like to call upon them to get into contact with the local organisers. There is information on the editorial offices on this Co-Extra website, and regional workshops are taking place in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Slovenia, France and Greece.

Why does Co-Extra organise separate stakeholder dialogues for each country?

There may be regional differences: for instance, in attitudes towards GMOs, or in the manner in which the co-existence issue is being handled by governments. To be able to look at both commonalities and differences, you need to organise things on a regional level. We have chosen not to arrange workshops in all participating countries – this would be too expensive compared to our limited budget – but to get them organised in some representative countries.

What do you expect from the stakeholder dialogues?

The two-way communication and interaction is in itself a very valuable thing, in addition to the content of the issue being discussed. It is important that stakeholders know about the issues and discuss them more.

On top of that we will be able to get some feedback information from the stakeholders and learn about their attitudes. I hope we get some feedback different to what we might be able to predict.

Will the results affect Co-Extra research?

I hope so, and I also think so as the Co-Extra co-ordinator and all working packages leaders are waiting for the results of this survey. The simple fact that we are interacting with a stakeholder advisory board makes the participants in the Co-Extra project already more aware of the issues that are important for stakeholders.

When will the stakeholder dialogues take place?

The regional stakeholder workshops are gearing up at this moment. The first one will take place in France on January 10, 2007. Slovenia is planning for March or April 2007, the UK is preparing for February or March 2007, and Spain for March or May 2007.

  • René Custers
    Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB)
    Rijvisschestraat 120, B-9052 Zwijnaarde, Belgium
    Phone: +32 9 244 6611
    Fax: +32 9 244 6610