Rethinking agricultural research

European agriculture emits too much greenhouse gas, consumes too much fossil fuel and uses up natural resources faster than they can be renewed. Intensive production methods based on petrochemicals and mechanisation have reached their limits. It is time to reform the system. After many years of being relegated to the wings, European agricultural research is once again centre-stage.

Water, a precious and rare commodity, is used abundantly for certain types of crops such as corn. © INRA
Water, a precious and rare commodity, is used abundantly for certain types of crops such as corn.

“It is now unlikely that global warming will be only 2°C by 2050”, we read at the beginning of the final report of the Standing Committee on Agricultural Research (SCAR), an organisation established by the Commission European to set priorities for agricultural research. And while there is no consensus on how Europe’s climate will change, overall trends are pointing to major changes in agriculture. “In Europe, we are expecting mean temperatures to rise fastest in the north of the continent. Temperatures and rainfall will be more variable”, explains agronomist and economist Michel Griffon, deputy director of France’s Agence nationale de la recherché (ANR). “Certain regions, particularly in the south, will suffer water shortages, while in the north, particularly in Scandinavia and the Baltic states, it will be possible to increase crop yields.”

Adapting production methods to the new climate conditions is the key issue of agricultural research in Europe. But not the only one. Global warming will also be accompanied by energy shortages. Intensive agriculture, the model on which European agriculture is built, is based on large-scale mechanisation and chemical inputs manufactured from fossil fuels. “This dependence affects not just the production of food, but also its processing, preservation, packaging and transporting”, says Gianluca Brunori, an agronomist at the University of Pisa (IT) who chaired the expert group which produced the SCAR’s latest outlook report.

To top it all, agriculture depletes ecosystems. The use of chemical inputs is leading to many problems of water pollution and soil depletion. In southern Europe, where crops depend heavily on irrigation, groundwater is being pumped out faster than it is being renewed. Everywhere, specialisation is reducing biodiversity.

A new research system.

Global warming, the energy crisis and depleting natural resources. How do we handle these multifaceted challenges? “In order to simultaneously combat and adapt to climate change, we must move from an oil-based agriculture to one based on the resources of the ecosystem”, says Gianluca Brunori. Referred to as agro-ecology, eco-agriculture, ecologically intensive agriculture or conservation agriculture, this approach consists of taking advantage of the natural properties of the environment. Integrated biological control, for example, combats insect pests by encouraging the emergence of natural predators. Soil conservation technologies rely on natural biological processes to increase soil fertility.

Developing such methods calls for extensive research to understand the multiple interactions that govern ecosystems. In recent decades, however, Member States have significantly reduced agricultural research budgets. The upshot is that while Europe has excellent research capabilities, these are usually in the hands of industry. “European public research has abandoned whole areas of knowledge, especially in soil ecology and in insect- parasite-plants interaction”, says Michel Griffon. “What led to this situation was the idea that agriculture is no longer an area of major innovation for the future. Biotech would solve all agriculture’s problems.”

For Gianluca Brunori, European public research in agricultural science must be completely rethought to meet the challenges of tomorrow. “Disinterested scientific advice is in short supply in Europe. It is imperative that Member States reinvest in agriculture in order to develop future strategies. Currently, the R&D system focuses on the short term, without calling into question the model of intensive agriculture that is causing most of the problems. To overcome this situation, policy on research, education and technical advice to farmers needs to differentiate more clearly between public and private interests. We must also harness the expertise of farmers in research because they know better than anyone else the specificities of the situation on the ground.”

Encouraging local involvement

The selection of projects for EU funding appears to have taken account of the need to invest in understanding agro-ecosystems. “Our overall strategy is to explore as many different technologies as possible. In this way each branch of science can contribute to establishing a new agricultural system”, says Hans-Jörg Lutzeyer, scientific administrator in the Agriculture, Forests, Fisheries, Aquaculture unit of the Directorate-General for Research of the Commission. “The largest share of the the Seventh Framework Programme’s agricultural research budget focuses on developing new production systems that are less energy-intensive and better integrated into the ecosystem. The rest goes on food quality and biotechnology (1).” “Michel Griffon is in favour of the new EU guidelines on agricultural research, but believes that improvements still need to be made. “Everything is moving very fast. What seemed adequate two years back is now seen as lacking ambition.”

Besides scientific research, Europe has yet to act politically. For Michel Griffon, “the big European environmental directives, like those on biodiversity, water and soil need to be rethought to give Member States and regions greater freedom to define the best systems for their farms and their environment, in consultation with their farmers”.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the driving force behind the generalisation of intensive agriculture in Europe, also needs in order to be reformed to meet the new challenges. Originally, CAP subsidies were calculated based on production. This fostered the emergence of the large farms that we know today, widespread farm mechanisation and the use of chemical inputs. Since then the CAP has evolved. There are now two pillars: the first dedicated to supporting markets and agricultural prices, the second relating to rural development.

“While the first pillar is managed at European level, the second gives greater autonomy to Member States, which can support and co-finance those agricultural sectors they consider socially or environmentally important”, says Hans-Jörg Lutzeyer. This second pillar can, in particular, enable farmers to obtain subsidies related to the environmental services they can render. These services have no value on the food market, and need therefore to be subsidised if one wants to implant an ecologically viable form of production.

The major part of the CAP budget is still concentrated on the first pillar, but reform is planned for 2013. Hopefully, European leaders will opt for a better balance between economic competitiveness and environmental sustainability. “A transfer of funds from the first to the second pillar would be very timely”, says Gianluca Brunori, “as it would allow us to provide subsidies to encourage particular agricultural practices and services. But for this we must have sound knowledge systems and locally available training capabilities.

Julie Van Rossom

  1. Sustainable agriculture EUR 71.5 million – Food quality EUR 59.95 million – Biotechnology EUR 59.95 million