November 2015

Practice-led innovation supported by science and market-driven actors in the laying hen and other livestock sectors

HORIZON 2020 ISIB-02-2014 project, Grant no. 652638


November 2015: Agriculture strategy to be revamped;  Programmes will focus on sustainable food production

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The European Commission is undertaking a major review of agricultural research, with a shift in emphasis expected away from the development of high-yield crops to a wider remit of environmental and social problems relevant to farmers.

At a conference on strategy for European agriculture and innovation to be held in Brussels from 26 to 28 January 2016, agricultural commissioner Phil Hogan and research commissioner Carlos Moedas are expected to present a plan for agricultural research, based largely on the findings of a working group that reported last month.

The “stakes have changed” for innovation and research in farming and food production, Hogan told the final meeting of the working group in Milan on 15 October. He said its emphasis should move from a focus on “greater yields and improving productivity” to addressing “implications in countless other areas” such as “societal, economic and environmental factors”.

The research commissioner, meanwhile, is sharply increasing the agricultural component of Horizon 2020, opening the way for projects on topics such as environmental degradation and water use on farms. In 2016-17, the EU will nearly double its Horizon 2020 budget allocation for agriculture research to €560 million.

Francisco Avillez, a special adviser to Hogan, says that one of the central issues is the weak linkage between the work of agricultural researchers and the needs of farmers. Emeritus professor at the Institute of Agronomy at the University of Lisbon, Avillez says that in order to address this, the research strategy should target the issues of conservation in agriculture to create a sustainable model of food production.

Today’s approaches to research are not sufficiently close to farmers’ needs, Avillez says, adding that “connecting precision technologies and conservation technologies” is essential to bridge the gap. He says he thinks that research could generate more knowledge about the different aspects of farming such as how to utilise the land, preserve soil structure and conserve water.

He adds that the essential move for agricultural research policy will be a transition to a sustainable model of farming to produce more using less. “We will need a lot of research to know how to do that,” Avillez says. “If researchers could identify with farmers’ organisations what they need to improve their productivity and efficiency of resources, the work that research institutions do could be much more useful.”

The working group, chaired by Franz Fischler, a former agriculture commissioner and president of European Forum Alpbach, a Vienna-based think tank, published its findings on 15 October. It said in its discussion paper that better agricultural land management in Europe would require research into topics such as the impact of climate change, and novel approaches to water use and soil conservation.

The report also called for the continuation of research into high-yield crops, and for social science research into public acceptance of contentious technologies, such as genetically modified organisms. Public opposition to GMOs has made it difficult to sponsor or conduct European research on new crop varieties, although critics of the technology say that alternatives could be developed in Europe that would also increase crop yields.

But a shift of agricultural research into new, multidisciplinary areas could be tricky to manage and expensive to implement, says Tim Daniell, head of sustainable production systems at the James Hutton Institute, an agricultural research institute in Scotland. “The problem is the size of the projects you would need to fund given there is a lack of underpinning fundamental knowledge in these areas to achieve the aim,” Daniell says.

“Where these gaps exist it’s difficult to see how Horizon 2020 calls can provide the funding required to deliver the research needed to achieve a good solution,” he said.

This is expected to be addressed when Hogan and Moedas set out their new strategy in January. ”The evolution of Horizon 2020 calls will be interesting,“ Daniell says.

This article also appeared in Research Europe