People tend to see research and innovation as a way to meet the ends of a more industrialised and technologically advanced world that loses connection with nature. In fact, the scopes, means and ends of innovation are much broader. Science and innovation are extremely useful to understand how nature and ecosystems work, how plants, animals and trees interact and how one can design farming systems that turn these interactions into sustainable practices that can deliver long-term food security while caring for the environment and climate.
Over four hundred people involved in agricultural innovation, from 25 countries in Europe, are joining today for the Agri-Innovation summit 2019 (25-26 June in Lisieux, Normandie, France) dedicated to the contribution of the European Innovation Partnership for agriculture productivity and sustainability (EIP-AGRI) to the transition to agroecology. Over 100 projects showcased will show how innovation, understood in the EIP-AGRI context as “putting a new idea into practice, with success” can contribute to the development of ecological farming practices.
What is agroecology?
This question is still an object of heated debate among experts. The United Nations’ organisation for agriculture and food (FAO) describes agroecology as "applying ecological concepts and principles to optimise interactions between plants, animals and humans and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system". In its work programme for its research and innovation programme Horizon 2020, the European Commission uses more simply "the study of ecological processes applied to agricultural production systems". In a nutshell, agroecology means understanding ecosystems better and using this increased knowledge to design more sustainable farming practices and systems.
How is the EU investing in agroecology?
The European Commission has invested close to €240 million in integrated ecological approaches, organic and mixed farming over the period 2014-2020 under Horizon 2020. This represents 41 transnational projects that will explore issues as varied as crop diversification and rotation, nitrogen-fixing crops, organic farming practices, including breeding, alternatives to chemical use etc. Projects also look into the socio-economics of ecological approaches, value chain approaches and governance arrangements as farmers involved in agroecology need to make a living. Beyond projects directed at ecological approaches, research and innovation activities addressing soils, plant and animal health or resource management challenges in general can also contribute to more ecological practices. Simultaneously, hundreds of more local or regional innovation projects called “operational groups” funded through the Common agricultural policy involve farmers, scientists, advisers and other actors in the search for practical solutions to real problems encountered on the ground. Many of the ones presented at the Agri-Innovation summit 2019 use ecological approaches.
How can agroecology be applied on farm?
At farm level, ecological approaches can be used to improve the health and resilience of plants and animals and their growing environment in a way that favours nutrient cycling and reduces the need for external inputs. The first round of sessions at the Agri Innovation Summit 2019 will explore contributions to soils, plant and animal nutrition and health. One of the field visits includes the Carbon N Caux project, which is exploring and examining various sustainable agricultural practices to achieve a positive carbon footprint through carbon sequestration and understanding the interactions between the carbon and nitrogen in the soil.
How can agroecology be applied at landscape level?
Agroecology reaches greater impact when applied at landscape level, by groups of farms or actors in a given region that commit to implement practices that benefit their shared environment. Wild species do not stop at the farm border and interactions between farming and their ecosystems do not either, especially when we think about climate impact. For example, the Collective dryer “Plaine Pays d’Auge” is a partnership between cattle farmers and cereal growers. The overall aim of the project is to reduce dependency on external supplies by fostering a local collective approach between farmers. It relies on a triple management of resources with the introduction of alfalfa in the crop rotation as a source of protein, the use of manure as an organic amendment for soils and using the shredded wood of hedgerows as extra power for a solar dryer.
Engaging value chains and policy makers in the development of ecological approaches
Diversifying production on farm, cropping several species together, changing farming practices and selling products differently - new ways all come with challenges in the upstream and downstream parts of value chains. Farmers will be able to sustain ecological approaches only if their business models properly reward them for the product and the value created. This requires different types of innovation, including social innovation and new ways of organisation.
The Agri-Innovation summit is jointly organised by the French Ministry of agriculture and food, the association Régions de France, the Region of Normandy, the EIP-AGRI network and the European Commission. It will bring together representatives from EIP-AGRI projects throughout Europe as well as local actors and experts.
25 June 2019