Cultivating innovative techniques for sustainable water use
An EU-funded project promoted the exchange, display and transfer of innovative fertigation technologies which combine fertilisation with irrigation. This approach will help farmers to use limited water resources more sustainably while reducing harmful nutrient losses to the environment.
© Floki #88779044, source:stock.adobe.com 2020
Fertigation describes the injection of fertilisers and other water-soluble products into crop-irrigation systems. Advantages for farmers and other horticulturists include saving water, money and labour, more accurate fertiliser application, and reduced nutrient losses.
However, in European countries, the cultivation of fertigated crops is still constrained by water scarcity, while intensive cultivation poses risks to water quality. Although innovative technologies are available to improve fertigation, there is a lack of awareness concerning these practical solutions and they are still not widely implemented at farm level.
The EU-funded FERTINNOWA project set out to remedy the situations by creating a knowledge base on innovative technologies and practices for fertigation. Through the project, we wanted to map the problems faced and the answers available, and then to exchange information and solutions, says project coordinator Els Berckmoes of the Research Centre for Vegetable Production (PSKW) in Belgium.
Key project results included a benchmark survey of farmers and publication of the Fertigation Bible, while the FERTINNOWA thematic network has enabled the transfer of numerous innovative technologies and best practices.
The project team interviewed over 370 farmers, in 9 EU Member States and South Africa, representative of various horticultural sectors in different climate zones. Besides giving an overview of the problems faced and the solutions being implemented, it also gauged farmers knowledge about innovative or alternative solutions and the barriers preventing their implementation.
One main focus was on creating a database of innovative technologies and practices for fertigation in horticultural crops. From this, the FERTINNOWA team developed factsheets for improving fertigation within, for example, fruit, vegetable and ornamental production systems. All the information gathered by the project was compiled into an ambitious report referred to as the Fertigation Bible.
The Fertigation Bible has become a compendium of 130 technologies that are described from a technical, practical, legal and socio-economic point of view, explains Berckmoes. Since the release of this compendium in April 2018, it has been downloaded 1 900 times. During our work, we exchanged 28 technologies from one partner or region to another, 11 of which were identified as very innovative, she continues.
The technologies promoted by the project include remote sensing of crop variability for effective soil and water management, a model for the prediction of irrigation combined with the use of moisture-content detection probes, and a decision-support system for automatic irrigation management.
All 28 technologies were demonstrated under typical field conditions to show farmers their potential. We saw that even non-innovative or less-innovative solutions could have a considerable benefit in some regions and we succeeded in raising the interest of local farmers in these technologies, Berckmoes says.
Flow of information
FERTINNOWA has also had beneficial social and economic impacts on farms and across regions, according to Berckmoes. The agricultural sector is one of the largest consumers of water and one of the biggest polluters in terms of nitrate emissions. The project addressed these challenges by promoting technologies that support a more efficient and economical use of water and reduce environmental impacts, thereby helping to achieve the main objectives of both the EU Water Framework Directive and the Nitrates Directive.
A key factor in the projects success was the close collaboration between different partners. Using an integrated multi-actor approach, the FERTINNOWA knowledge-exchange platform involved researchers, growers, policymakers, industry, and environmental and consumer groups.
Furthermore, the team developed an effective model for transferring technologies to farmers, which can be replicated worldwide. For example, the Fertigation Bible is being translated into Mandarin to serve the Chinese agricultural sector. For many partners involved in the project, the FERTINNOWA initiative was a bridge to new opportunities and sometimes the first steps in further European projects, concludes Berckmoes. The project outcomes are now widely used to help farmers and local and national authorities to solve their fertigation problems, whilst authorities dealing with fertilisation policy, water scarcity, droughts and climate adaptation are also benefitting from the outcomes.