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| Exploring the value of sustainable agriculture

Conventional agricultural practices still dominates European farming. However, worries persist about its long-term impact on the environment. Unsustainable use of natural resources, problems caused by soil erosion, water pollutions and use of pesticides are among the issues that are of particular concern. Now an EU-funded project is drawing together knowledge into ‘alternative’ agriculture in a bid to help policy-makers understand and promote more sustainable farming systems. KASSA – knowledge assessment and sharing on sustainable farming – has drawn together approaches and experiences from across the world. The project’s concluding conference took place in Brussels between February 20th-21st 2006.

Conservation agriculture: furrow-irrigated raised-bed system in India. © R.Gupta
Conservation agriculture: furrow-irrigated raised-bed system in India.
© R.Gupta
The issue of sustainability is now firmly at the top of the global agenda. Agriculture is one of the key areas of human activity that has a significant impact on the planet. Therefore, the business of growing crops and rearing livestock must become more sustainable. Ways have to be found to provide food for a growing population in a way that conserves and even improves the local environment. Wasting or polluting water, degrading soils and over-exploiting grasslands are simply no longer acceptable practices.

Certainly, alternative agricultural practices, technologies and systems are beginning to move from the margins into the mainstream. For example, the past few years have seen Europe’s consumers buy more organic produce, attracted by an ethos that offers food grown in a sustainable fashion. But organic farming is only one of a number of alternative agricultural practices and technologies that have been introduced in different parts of the world. With more people, farmers and businesses showing an interest in sustainable agriculture, now is the time to assess what is available and what could work in Europe, and indeed other parts of the world.

Global search

The KASSA project provides some answers as it aims to build up a comprehensive knowledge base on sustainable agricultural practices, approaches and systems. The project began work by producing an inventory of existing experiences and research results in four regions – Europe, the Mediterranean, Asia and Latin America. The assessment of KASSA findings allows learning from past and ongoing research activities, and identifies gaps in research to target new scientific actions. Stakeholders will be able to use the KASSA database to identify areas for future collaboration. The project aimed to produce a fertile climate where scientists can address capacity building for sustainable agriculture research, both in Europe and the developing world.

The KASSA consortium comprises 31 teams from 28 institutions that hail from 18 countries. Representatives include government and public bodies from the fields of education, research and development, a network of European SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), and several not-for-profit agricultural organisations. Coordination is provided by CIRAD – the Centre for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development. Four platforms were set up (Eastern Europe, Western Europe and Mediterranean, South Asia and Latin America) to analyse common practices as well as specificities.

Politically, the project’s multinational approach should help to strengthen the relationship between Europe and the Southern, or developing world. Both areas face the shared challenge of developing a sustainable future for agriculture and the environment, which impacts on a range of issues including food security and safety, alleviating poverty, and economic and social progress.

Alternative agriculture embraces a huge range of systems and techniques, many adapted to the local environment. The array of different concepts illustrates the enormous task that the KASSA consortium has set itself. They examined research on conservation agriculture including no-tillage and reduced-tillage farming; crop-residue management techniques; and cover crops and crop rotations as integrated pest, weed and disease management strategies.

Growing awareness

Example of soil erosion in Germany © M. Frieglinghaus
Conventional agriculture: an example of soil erosion in Germany.
© M. Frieglinghaus
KASSA analysed these practices and technologies and presented the information in a way that allows farmers to assess their value and practicality. The findings also help policy-makers to develop and implement policies relating to agriculture and the environment that reflect the need for sustainable development. The project’s activities also raise awareness in NGOs, farming organisations and the private sector about the potential of alterative farming methods.

According to Dr Rabah Lahmar, KASSA project coordinator, some of the findings might well encourage more farmers to take up alternative methods of production. “Work across the four platforms showed that many of these sustainable methods will help farmers save on production costs by reducing reliance on machinery, fuel and labour,” explained Dr Lahmar. “In some situations, it might even be possible for farmers to produce more than one crop a year. While in others, farmers may have more time for other activities – for example, second jobs that could raise their incomes.”

These results may fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which sees alternative methods of production as more costly and time-consuming than tradition agriculture. “This economic aspect could drive the growth of conservation agriculture across the globe,” said Dr Lahmar.

Despite these positive results, KASSA’s work also shows that the agricultural community must think carefully about which systems and technologies are best for their conditions and for the sustainability of their activity. For example, KASSA’s analysis reveals that farmers in the cold latitudes of northern Europe are unlikely to be able to get the best out of no-tillage systems that work so well in subtropical areas. Also, the reliance that these systems and technologies have on pesticides to control weeds, pests and diseases may increase if suitable cover crops and crop rotations are not used.

Dissemination for participation

KASSA’s lessons prove timely, bearing in mind the recently published Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report, which revealed that 15 out of 24 ecosystem services that provide raw materials and support life on Earth are being degraded or used unsustainably.

The project is committed to disseminating results as widely as possible, both within the EU and beyond. The consortium will produce a CD-ROM of results and post findings in various relevant publications. The KASSA website has been designed to be easily accessible to different audiences including farmers, researchers, civil society representatives and policy-makers. The site will run for some time after the project ends in February 2006.

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  • Dr Rabah Lahmar
    The Centre for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development
    CIRAD, TA 74/09
    Avenue Agropolis
    34398 Montpellier CEDEX 5
    Tel: +33 4 67 61 56 43
    Fax: +33 4 67 61 71 60