A partnership on agroecology living labs and research infrastructures

The European Commission has proposed a new initiative provisionally entitled “Accelerating farming systems transition: agroecology living labs and research infrastructures” as one of the candidate European partnerships in food, bioeconomy, natural resources, agriculture and environment under Horizon Europe.

European Partnerships are a new approach under Horizon Europe. They aim to deliver on global challenges and industrial modernisation through concerted research and innovation efforts, alongside EU and associated countries, the private sector, foundations and other stakeholders.

What is the purpose of the partnership?

The partnership aims to structure and support a network of living labs and research infrastructures that will accelerate the transition towards agroecology throughout Europe. It will provide spaces for long-term, site-specific, multi-stakeholder and real-life experimentation, and direction for research activities on agroecology at the European and national levels.

It will deliver ready-to adopt practices that support farmers in understanding and implementing agroecological practices at the scale needed for positive economic, environmental and social impacts.

By 2030, the EU R&I ecosystem around agroecology will be better connected, knowledge of agroecological processes will boost uptake of agroecology by farmers and the environmental, economic and social performances of farming will be improved.

Why a partnership on agroecology?

In a nutshell, agroecology, defined by the FAO through ten elements, means understanding ecosystems better and using this knowledge to design more sustainable farming practices and systems. Agroecology can be the basis of farming systems which are more resilient and more closely connected to society, and which would deliver sufficient, safe, nutritious and affordable food, while respecting planetary boundaries and rewarding farmers better.

The Commission has proposed this partnership because agroecology can make a powerful contribution to addressing the climate, biodiversity, environmental, economic and social challenges the world is facing. As such, it is mentioned as one of the sustainable practices to promote and scale-up in the European Green Deal and in the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies, which highlight the  potential of agroecology to reduce the use of pesticides, fertilisers and antimicrobials. The setting-up of living labs in agroecology is also part of the strategic deployment agenda of the EU bioeconomy strategy.

Why focus on living labs?

The choice of living laboratories – or “living labs” – is prompted by the imperative of accelerating the innovation and adoption of more sustainable practices by engaging farmers and other stakeholders in jointly developing the solutions to problems they face in their locality or region, taking into account the specificities of farming systems and their environment.

The European network of living labs (ENoLL) defines them as “user-centred, open innovation ecosystems based on systematic user co-creation approach, integrating research and innovation processes in real life communities and settings”. In simpler terms, living labs are initiatives in which experimentation is conducted on real farms, in specific territorial and community contexts, with farmers and other actors involved from the beginning as equal partners in proposing ideas, testing them, improving them and promoting them further.

What would be the role of research infrastructures?

Research infrastructures are facilities that provide resources and services for research communities to conduct research and foster innovation.

Developing agroecology requires a deeper understanding of agroecosystems and of their interactions with nature in the long-term. Research infrastructures dedicated to ecosystems can support the research activities that will be developed in the partnership through the provision of scientific data, computing or communication systems or dedicated research sites.

Why do living labs, research infrastructures and agroecology fit together?

In both living labs and agroecological approaches, the link to the territory and community in which they are developed (place-based) is very important. The need to involve groups of farmers and actors working in the same territory or region, to have an impact at landscape level, and the importance given to social and behavioural aspects alongside technical ones, are also characteristic of both approaches.

However, ecosystems evolve slowly and the impact of farming practices on them can only be measured in the long-term. Experimentation therefore needs to be paired with research efforts to increase understanding of the long-term evolution of ecosystems and of the effects of agroecological practices.

How is the partnership being developed?

The Commission proposed the partnership idea in June 2019, in parallel to the organisation of the Agri-Innovation summit 2019 dedicated to agroecology. First consultations conducted in the autumn of 2019 confirmed Member States’ interest in this proposal, which was included in the orientations towards the first strategic plan for Horizon Europe.

The Commission has further developed the initial partnership idea and shared an input paper for the partnership preparation process with the potential partners and stakeholders in May 2020.

The Commission kick-started the conversation on building the partnership through a series of webinars conducted between 6 May and 25 June 2020. The conclusions of these webinars and the Commission inputs into the process are the basis to start preparing the ground for the future partnership.

Who is involved in the development of the partnership?

The Commission has invited a large community of stakeholders to take part in the initial phase of the discussion (webinars). This includes representatives from EU countries’ research, agriculture and environment, education ministries and agencies, farmers and farm advisor organisations, industry, retail and consumer representatives, research and innovation collaboration networks, academia and civil society organisations.

This phase will lead to identifying the partners who will take the lead in developing the partnership in close coordination and consultation with the Commission.

In addition, projects selected for funding under the Horizon 2020 call FNR-01-2020 shall contribute to the partnership’s development from end 2020, early 2021.

When will the partnership start?

The Commission proposes to fund the partnership under Horizon Europe work programme 2023. It would then start in 2023-24.

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