The times when all farmers needed was a fertile plot of land are long gone. Today, they need input from many sources to do their job. Agricultural knowledge and information systems (AKIS) provide farmers with knowledge on agricultural innovations; an EU-funded project took stock to better understand these systems.
An AKIS is – first and foremost – nothing more than a concept. It conveys the idea that to provide knowledge and support change and innovation in agriculture, various actors including farmers, farm workers, agricultural educators, researchers, non-academic experts, public and independent private advisors, supply chain actors and others connect, communicate and cooperate. Together, they amass new information and create input for the agricultural community, which is necessary for farmers to meet new challenges such as international competition, food safety, health and environmental issues.
Yet many of the variables of these systems are unknown in terms of funding, organisation, advisory methods or performance for different types of farmers and the rural population more widely. The PRO AKIS project set out to change that by creating an overview of agricultural advisory services in 27 EU Member States – Croatia joined the EU after the beginning of the project and was not included in the analyses.
Providing a coherent overview
“There is no general monitoring and evaluation of advisory services,” explains Andrea Knierim, who coordinated the PRO AKIS project on behalf of the University of Hohenheim in Germany. “The Commission has been funding research into these structures for quite a few years now and has also required the establishment of advisory services throughout Europe. However, we do not have consistent data.”
In addition, institutional settings in the various Member States are very diverse: in Germany, for instance, advisory services are organised at state, not federal level. In Poland, on the other hand, the PRO AKIS team found an overview easy to obtain.
Then there are public and private service providers, all organised in different ways and not necessarily keeping track of their work. Hence it was a challenge to find a consistent, common approach that gave the PRO AKIS researchers the right foundation on which to build their analyses and provide comprehensive data for every Member State that is more or less comparable.
But they succeeded. Now that a qualitative baseline has been established for 27 countries – and once the same has been done for Croatia – the data can systematically be updated from time to time.
Thanks to regional workshops and seminars in different parts of Europe as well as the project’s close collaboration with the AKIS working group of the EU’s Standing Committee on Agricultural Research (SCAR), PRO AKIS was able to contribute to a network interlinking science, the European Commission’s Directorates-General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD) and Agriculture (DG AGRI), and national AKIS representatives.
Recommendations for the future of AKIS
Together, these actors should enter into a dialogue at EU level about how to monitor and evaluate advisory services in a consistent way across Europe, PRO AKIS recommends. Moreover, policy should promote the use of the AKIS concept on national and regional level and encourage research practice which values knowledge exchange with end users, especially farmers, and the orientation towards their needs, PRO AKIS finds in its recommendations. AKIS actors should have training and education opportunities, and certification schemes should be developed to create transparency regarding the quality of advisory services.
“In all of this, it is important not to limit one’s idea of the users. Farmers are not a homogeneous group,” Knierim emphasises. “Small-scale farmers, for instance, are not disappearing, they are still there and also have their own interests. We also observe a diversification of farm labour. There are not only family farms, but also those that are organised as enterprises with managers and workers and so on. In advisory services, we have to take this diversity into account. And this is something that funders can encourage.”