Innovative farming could help solve global food crisis

EU must help develop innovative farming techniques to safeguard farming sector's future, writes Anthea McIntyre.

By Anthea McIntyre

25 Feb 2016

Agriculture faces two huge and conflicting pressures: feeding a growing global population and preserving the environment. I believe harnessing technology is the only way to square this circle and deliver both productivity and sustainability.

That is why I have written a new report in the European Parliament, entitled 'Technological solutions for sustainable agriculture in the EU'. It highlights how 'precision farming' can reduce the use of pesticides, water and fertilisers while improving soil fertility and boosting yields.

Food demand is expected to increase by 70 per cent by 2050. Shrinking land availability, environmental loss and degradation, shortages of water, increased energy demand and the emergence of new pests and diseases are placing considerable pressure on our natural environment. The result is that farmers are finding it increasingly challenging to produce food in a sustainable way.


Farmers recognise and appreciate this reality. In fact, many see technology - genetic, mechanical and increasingly digital - as the only realistic way of meeting the present challenges.

The EU should be in the vanguard - a world leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability. My report is about ensuring that Europe has a vibrant agricultural sector, developing a wide range of innovations and technologies across all farming types.

We should be driven by ethics as well as economics. With around 805 million people in the world suffering from chronic malnourishment and almost all of them living in developing countries, Europe has a moral obligation to optimise agricultural output and to increase production and to do so in the most sustainable way.

Global concern over food and environmental security has brought a new focus to public sector research in recent years. However, European agriculture continues to trail behind many of its international competitors. Only sustained and prioritised investment in the research base will reverse this trend.

The starting point has to be targeted investment in applied and translational research. Not enough research is commercialised, so farmers are unable to take advantage of the opportunities that new technology and innovation provides. Similarly, where agricultural technologies are being developed, not all of these technologies are meeting farmers' needs.

This is because the technology is not yet optimised or adapted to local farming conditions, or because it is capital intensive and lies out of reach of the small farmer.

While farmers and scientists play different roles in the innovation process, improved outcomes can only be achieved with both parties working more closely together. Farmers are the end-users of this new science and developers should draw upon this practical experience.

Similarly, where farmers encounter a real-world challenge, they should be able to directly access scientists and make use of basic research to help find solutions.

The EU and its member states, academia and industry including breeders, the agro-chemicals sector, farmers and food manufacturers must work together to improve the translation of research into practice, from lab to farm to fork. This will allow Europe to unlock a new phase in agricultural innovation.

Recent investments and new funding priorities at national and EU level offer encouraging signs. The Horizon 2020 framework programme is the EU's largest ever EU research and innovation programme, with some €80bn of funding available over seven years.

New investment is also taking place in the member states. In the UK for example, the government is investing in a new 'agri-tech' strategy, which aims to make the UK a world leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability.

This strategy is now underway and includes a £70m investment in an agri-tech catalyst to help accelerate the commercialisation of agricultural research, and a further £90m to establish Centres for Agricultural Innovation to support advances in sustainable agriculture.

The key to making this happen will be in securing the appropriate skills and attracting the right talent and expertise into the industry.

The research skills needed to support the sector are rapidly changing and there is now a real risk of higher skills shortages in agronomy and plant pathology as many of the experienced professionals in these niche areas near retirement.

Throughout much of Europe, centres for education, training and innovation have declined and need to be revitalised, particularly in the emerging field of agricultural engineering. In short, the EU and its member states must strive to make the Europe's agriculture sector more attractive to new entrants, either in farming, research or technology development.

Furthermore, the member states need to work more closely with industry to change the negative perceptions of the sector as a low-skill and low-tech. This way, agriculture can attract the skills required.

Creating a regulatory environment which is more innovation-friendly and ensuring that EU regulations do not act as barriers to innovation is also very important. Without a supportive regulatory regime, European industry will relocate to more dynamic markets.

All too often, EU legislation places restrictions on products and technologies without adequate evidence of risk. EU legislation must be evidence-based in order to encourage innovation.

Most farmers and landowners are small businesses and minimising the administrative burden on these SMEs is vital. Margins in the agricultural sector are small and extra costs threaten the survival of some small farming operations.

Finally, the long term challenges of sustainable agriculture should be met with a joined-up approach from the Commission and member states. This will ensure support for technological innovation, a regulatory framework that is risk based, underpinned by scientific evidence, continuity of basic and applied research and the development of agri-related skills.


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