Opportunities provided by the European Innovation Partnership "Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability" and its Operational Groups
The establishment of European Innovation Partnerships (EIPs) in different sectors represents a new approach under the Europe 2020 Strategy to advance EU research and innovation. EIPs are challenge-driven, focusing on societal benefits and rapid modernisation. EIPs should provide favourable conditions for research and innovation partners to co-operate and achieve better and faster results compared to existing approaches.
The agricultural European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI), which was launched by a communication in February 2012 , aims to foster a competitive and sustainable agriculture and forestry sector that "achieves more from less". It will contribute to ensuring a steady supply of food, feed and biomaterials, both existing and new ones, sustainable management of the essential natural resources on which farming depends, and working in harmony with the environment. For achieving this aim, the EIP-Agri needs to build bridges between research and practice (farmers, businesses, advisory services, NGOs, etc).
The innovation model under the EIP-AGRI goes beyond speeding up the transfer from laboratory to practice (referred to as the "linear innovation model"). The EIP-AGRI adheres to the "interactive innovation model" which focuses on forming partnerships - using bottom-up approaches and linking farmers, advisors, researchers, businesses, and other actors in Operational Groups. This will generate new insights and ideas and mould existing tacit knowledge into focused solutions that are quicker put into practice. Such an approach will stimulate innovation from all sides and will help to target the research agenda. Innovation under the EIP-AGRI may be technological, non-technological, organisational or social, and based on new or traditional practices.
Operational Groups will bring together farmers, researchers, advisors, businesses, NGOs and other actors to implement innovative projects pursuing the objectives of the EIP-AGRI.
Operational Groups can be supported by various funding sources. Rural Development Policy and the Union Research and Innovation Framework "Horizon 2020" will provide particular opportunities for setting up Operational Groups in the period 2014-2020 and incentivise actors who engage in actions on developing, testing and applying innovative approaches. The two policies complement each other by putting emphasis on different objectives and main target groups. In addition, Rural Development Programmes are normally applied within a specific programme region, whilst research policy must go beyond this scale by co-funding innovative actions at the cross-regional, cross-border, or EU-level.
EIP Actions funded under Rural Development
The aims of the EIP-AGRI and the functions of Operational Groups are described in Art 61 – 63 of the proposal for a Rural Development Regulation for the programming period 2014-2020 . Article 62 of the draft regulation refers to "interested actors such as farmers, researchers, advisors and businesses involved in the agriculture and food sector" as members of Operational Groups. The EIP Communication mentions in addition NGOs as possible members.
Operational Groups are built around concrete innovation projects, on the initiative of interested actors. The composition of an Operational Group may vary from project to project in function of the project pursued. Operational groups shall draw up a description of the project, the expected innovative results, the approach towards implementing the project, and the decision making process guiding the work of the Operational Group. Furthermore, Operational Groups have to commit themselves to disseminate the results of their work via the EIP network.
Operational Groups may pursue "the development of new products, practices, processes and technologies in the agriculture, food and forestry sectors" (Art 36 (2) (a)) and "pilot projects" (Art.36 (2) (b)). Further possible areas of action include joint work processes, short supply chains, joint climate change actions, collective environmental projects etc. The projects of Operational Group may involve the testing and adaptation of technologies and processes to specific geographical and environmental contexts.
Member States could use eligibility conditions and selection criteria in order to prioritise support to certain types of projects or areas of action, or to certain compositions of operational groups. Alternatively, Member State could rely on bottom-up initiative in defining content and objectives of the projects pursued by Operational Groups. Of course, projects must fall in any case into the scope of the EIP-AGRI as stipulated in Article 61: they must promote a resource efficient, productive, low emission, climate friendly and resilient agricultural sector in harmony with essential natural resources on which farming depends.
Actions under Article 36 benefit from an increased EAFRD co-financing rate. Support can cover both the setting up and running of Operational Groups and the funding of their operations. Article 36 provides also for the setting up of innovation brokering in order to help with the establishment of operational groups, including finding the partners and refining the conceptualisation of innovation projects.
The funding of the setting up and running of Operational Groups may be combined with support under other rural development measures such as knowledge transfer and information actions (Art. 15), advisory services (Art. 16), investment in physical assets (Art.18), farm and business development (Art. 20), forestry investments (Art. 27), producer groups (Art. 28). Investments done in the framework of EIP Operational Groups may profit from a higher support rate. Operational Groups may also use funding instruments outside rural development policy, especially those of the EU's research policy.
The Farm Advisory System
The Farm Advisory System (FAS) was set up as a component of the 2003 CAP reform. Member States were obliged to have an advisory system in place which helps farmers to comply with cross-compliance requirements via the provision of technical advice. The establishment and use of the FAS is supported by the Rural Development Policy (see above). In the current period 2007-2013, the advisory activity covers at least the Statutory Management Requirements (SMR) and the standards for Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) but may cover also other issues if Member States want to do so. Advisors can play a major role in facilitating innovation, by forming part of operational groups or by serving as an interface between research and practice.
Innovation Support Services
One of the lessons learned in connection with the former Rural Development programmes is that sometimes it is not enough to offer stand-alone funding for groups cooperating on innovation projects. Innovation support services and brokering which work using models that are adapted to local conditions could play a crucial role in bringing the right people into the projects, connecting farmers with researchers and helping to identify funding.
Individual actors often have difficulties in finding partners and starting Operational Group projects. Therefore, raising awareness and facilitating the participation in innovation actions are important activities for the development of innovation projects under the EIP-AGRI. This is where innovation support services could have an important role in collecting information and leading initiatives that bring stakeholders together so that they can each present their needs. Some innovation support services use thematic groups or networks to do this and these may then focus on specific challenges for a particular sector to deal with. Others invite knowledgeable stakeholders or potential interested parties to develop work on topics that may have innovation potential.
Innovation Support Services have a key role in discovering grassroots ideas and helping to develop concrete projects. They play the role of "matchmaker", helping partners to find each other and facilitating the start-up of Operational Groups with specific aims. They act as a go-between and connect innovation actors (farmers, researchers, NGOs, etc.) around an idea that may become an innovation. Brokers help to find and refine innovative ideas, find the adequate partners and funding, and identify the potential roles of each of the partners. Their main task is to prepare a project proposal which is endorsed by all actors and help them put forward a successful funding application.
EIP Actions funded by Research and Innovation Policy ('Horizon 2020')
Horizon 2020 is the EU framework for funding research and innovation in Europe. A budget of € 4.5 billion has been proposed to support the societal challenge: "Food security, sustainable agriculture, marine and maritime research and the bioeconomy".
The proposed Horizon 2020 regulation foresees the implementation of the Societal Challenge "Food security, sustainable agriculture marine and maritime research and the bio-economy". Beyond the funding of applied research to provide the necessary knowledge base for innovative approaches, Horizon 2020 provides for practice-oriented formats such as "multi-actor approach" and "thematic networks" which will "ensure interactions between researcher, businesses, farmers/producers, advisors and end-users". This approach fully matches the concept of Operational Groups.
The undertakings of Horizon 2020 in support of "Operational Groups" will be translated into specific instruments and practical approaches via the annual work programmes and calls for proposals. Current thinking involves projects integrating a continuum from basic to applied research and demonstration, multi-actor approaches, cross-border initiatives such as thematic networks, as well as supporting innovation brokers and innovation centres as intermediates to connect farmers and other actors with research.
Coordinating agricultural research across the European Research Area, the Standing Committee for Agricultural Research, which consists of representatives from Member States including from Candidate and Associated Countries, is engaged in assisting the EIP through contributing to the development of innovative Horizon 2020 instruments and providing advice via a dedicated working group on Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation Systems (AKIS).
Other funding opportunities
Collaborative and innovative projects related to the farm sector can find their primary (almost 'natural') way for support under Rural Development and Horizon 2020 Policies, where Operational Groups and multi-actor projects can be funded.
However, other policies, such as the EU Regional Policy through the European Regional Development Fund and the Cohesion Fund as well as Education Policy, may offer additional opportunities. A large share of the ERDF budget concentrates on measures to support innovation and R&D, the competitiveness of SMEs and the shift towards a low carbon economy, while one of the strategic objectives of EU education and training policies is to enhance innovation, including entrepreneurship, at all levels of education and training.
Beside Union policies, national/regional policies and activities shall be closely aligned so as to complement efforts, reinforce positive outcomes, and provide additional opportunities.
Last but not least, as the basic concept of the EIP-AGRI is to promote broad interactions and cooperation among stakeholders to close the innovation gap between (applied) research and practice, private companies can participate to the EIP-AGRI and be fully-fledged members of Operational Groups. They can provide co-funding and know-how while benefitting in real time from the outcomes of the cooperation.
As a key instrument of the EIP, a Brussels-based network facility will work as an intermediary enhancing communication between science and practice and fostering cooperation. This "EIP Service Point" will encourage the establishment of Operational Groups and support their work through focus groups, seminars and workshops, the establishment of data bases (on relevant research results and good practice examples), support for partnering, and help desk functions.
A particularly important action format of the EIP Network is the so-called Focus Group which is established to share knowledge and practical experience from concrete innovative projects. Focus Groups will in particular build upon the outcome of Operational Groups.
The EIP network will facilitate the effective flow of information in order to ensure that successful projects of Operational Groups do not remain singular events but contribute to advancing and mainstreaming of innovative approach beyond the local and regional level.