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Food company secures data and relevance – researchers give new knowledge in return

The farmer-owned food company, Arla Foods, is a strategic partner for Aarhus University. In 2011, Arla and AU signed a collaboration agreement to enhance research with more knowledge sharing and researchers. Arla Foods has food products and data from the thousands of farmers behind the company, and the university has the researchers to come up with new results.

Photo: Arla Foods

How do yoghurt and cheese affect our health; what does the chemistry of a food product mean for a diabetic; and how can we feed Danish cows so that they burp and fart as little as possible? These are some of the questions Arla Foods and Aarhus University are trying to answer together. Since 2011, the two parties have had a strategic partnership, and they have committed themselves to a collaboration to create value for research, the company and the public.

- We’re very proud that Arla Foods want to work with us. Working together is a great advantage, and the agreement means that Arla Foods and the university can secure stronger research, because we’ve committed ourselves to working together for several years. Good research takes time, explains Vice-dean Kurt Nielsen.

The two parties had been working together without an actual strategic partnership agreement for many years, and when the collaboration agreement was presented, it was only natural for Arla Foods to take part, says Peter Lang Borg Wejse, head of research at Arla Foods.

- The university is particularly skilled at understanding food products, what they contain and what they mean for health. We’d conducted research together, had many discussions and developed a sense of trust and understanding for each other, so it was clearly a good idea to enter into a strategic partnership, he explains.

Teamwork strengthens PhD programmes

Aarhus University has strategic collaboration agreements with a few, selected partners in both Denmark and abroad, and an agreement will typically last for a couple of years, after which some are extended. The contents vary from agreement to agreement, but they may include an obligation in relation to research.

Arla Foods and the university take this very seriously, and therefore training new researchers is part of the collaboration agreement between the two parties. They have designed a PhD degree programme together, meaning that Arla Foods now opens its doors to three new PhD students every other year.

- It’s a way to nurture emerging fields, while at the same time giving PhD students space to study. We have data from all of our farmers and we can offer the framework for research in the long term, while the university can help students with the research itself. It’s teamwork that benefits everyone, says Peter Langborg Wejse.

Healthier Danes and greener cows

Health and sustainability resound throughout the entire collaboration. For example, part of the agreement is about Arla Food for Health, which involves research into components in food products and how they affect human health. This is in a public-private partnership between Aarhus University, the University of Copenhagen, Arla Foods A.m.b.a. and Arla Foods Ingredients.

Projects include OmniSaM, in which Professor Derek Byrne is trying to measure the satiety attributes of food, with a view to predicting how much we eat. If this is successful, Arla Foods will be able to develop food that makes us feel more full than other products; in the long term reducing diseases such as obesity and diabetes.

- We want to give health to our consumers, and university researchers can provide us with insight into how our food products affect health. The researchers generate objective knowledge on satiety, and this knowledge is extremely important and useful for us in our product development, explains Peter Langborg Wejse.

Another project at Foulum has focus on sustainability and climate, with research into cattle feed.

- Everyone should contribute to reducing climate impacts. Arla is owned by farmers, so we’re interested in finding out how we can get cows to produce as little methane as possible, and Aarhus University is at the forefront of knowledge in this area, he says.

Collaboration is important for society

Funding from Arla Foods for research projects is an investment in Danish brains, and it gives the company important and useful knowledge, while also ensuring that university researchers can conduct their research and produce new knowledge.

- Mutuality is an important point in the collaboration, because by working together, we become stronger. Each of us has a lot of knowledge, but together we have access to more: Companies know what is relevant to investigate and they have data, while we can help to find the solutions, explains Vice-dean Kurt Nielsen.

Highly educated researchers work at Arla Foods, and the company also has equipment to aid research into the data provided by farmers and food products. For this reason, the collaboration with Aarhus University is easy for both parties, and it is important for the rest of the population, according to Peter Langborg Wejse. 

- Society benefits because companies have a link to Aarhus University, so when knowledge is generated it comes out into the real world. New knowledge doesn’t just end up at the university, but it quickly gets put into practice. This is also important for Danish competitiveness and for the population as a whole, he explains.

Contact Jørgen Brøchner Jespersen for more info about collaboration