WP6: ERA Priorities

Final report: Claudia Neubauer and Fabien Piasecki, European priorities in agricultural research, November 2010

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Executive Summary

Environmental harm from industrial agriculture is widely recognised, so nowadays most agricultural research projects claim to develop knowledge which contributes to sustainable agriculture. This study aimed to formulate research agendas for sustainable agriculture from the standpoint of civil society. Our study linked two different activities: analysing documents relevant to European research agendas, and discussing this analysis at stakeholder workshops, as a means to clarify proposals for alternative research agendas.

Research agendas can be compared to the visions of NGOs for sustainable agriculture. For decades, numerous NGOs have been concerned about the state of the planet and people. They act traditionally as whistleblowers or ‘watchdogs’.  At the same time, they propose policy changes to fight against climate change and environmental degradation, as well as to protect indigenous peoples, access to care, or the resilience of ecosystems, etc.  Around the world, NGOs have produced documents explaining their visions and objectives on sustainable agriculture.

Some common principles are shared among NGOs throughout these statements. Sustainable agriculture is ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just and inclusive, culturally appropriate and based on a holistic scientific and participatory approach (integration of traditional knowledge), It preserves biodiversity, maintains soil fertility and water quality, recycles and conserves natural resources, diversifies crops, reduces energy and water consumption, It adapts farming practices to local contexts and respects regional agroecosystems, allows more efficient management of the farm and better conditions for farm workers, It promotes food sovereignty of people,

Divergent meanings and agendas

Dominant research agendas have incorporated key concepts from alternative agendas, while using such language for their own account of sustainable agriculture.  To clarify these meanings, we did a semantic analysis of key terms appearing regularly in discourses on sustainable agriculture and research agendas.  Such terms include: innovation, participation, holistic approaches, and soil health.  These terms were analysed for their frequency, their meaning and their context of use.

The semantic analysis compares documents from various actors who manage research agendas or attempt to influence them. We surveyed several documents reflecting actors with distinct interests and approaches. These include: the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), from IFOAM for Technology Platform Organics, the Standing Committee on Agricultural Research (SCAR) foresight study, the European Technology Platform Plants for the Future, DG Research on the Knowledge Based Bio-Economy (KBBE), and annual work programmes of its FP7 research programme (2010, 2011, 2012).

Similar terms are used according to different accounts of sustainable agriculture. ETP Plants for the Future reports link sustainable agriculture with global economic competitiveness and support for European biotechnology research; the terms biotechnology and sustainable are often directly linked with each other. By contrast, other documents put sustainable agriculture in a complex, multi-factorial context linking environment, society, health, economy and culture; these approaches link farms, eco-systems and landscapes through systemic interactions (SCAR, 2007). By emphasising biotech, research agendas have lost other important expertise, argues the IAASTD report. It calls for a reorientation of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (AKST), which ‘would also recognize farming communities, farm households, and farmers as producers and managers of ecosystems’.

Scientific disciplines such as biotechnology, life sciences, agronomy, ecology or agro-ecology are cited in regard to sustainable agriculture in different ways by various actors. In the IFOAM document, ecology and agronomy are central. The term biotechnology is absent in the consideration of possible solutions, while it is predominant in KBBE documents and the ETP strategy, which refer repeatedly to genomics, plant genetic improvement, genetic engineering techniques, molecular breeding, transgenesis and DNA sequence inventories. In the latter documents the term ‘sustainable’ is pervasive, as a generic term to describe nearly everything.

Differences also arise with concepts such as innovation and participation. In the ETP agenda, the innovation process depends centrally on laboratory research, especially biotech. Wider participation is foreseen as a means to gain public understanding and support. Other reports consider wider participation in research – e.g. farmer-based participatory breeding, participatory or action research, integration of peasants’ knowledge – as an essential means to achieve sustainable agriculture. The latter reports also emphasise farmers’ knowledge as central to sustainable agriculture, especially agro-ecological methods, which are ‘highly knowledge-based’. Agricultural benefits are public goods, whose enhancement depends on methods and research using a systemic approach.

As a means towards sustainable development, agroecological methods are widely used in agriculture and have wider potential applications, far beyond organic-certified farms. Yet agroecological methods generally remain marginal in R&D budgets, finding a place mainly in some ‘organic’ research projects. Such projects have been given much less funds than biotech in Framework Programme budgets since the 1990s. Agroecological research is being promoted as a research priority by the IFOAM’s Technology Platform Organics.

Reflections on soil appear in all the documents. According to the SCAR report, there has been a significant increase in soil degradation processes over the last few decades, and these processes are likely to accelerate if nothing is done to protect soil. The authors notel that soil erosion, compaction, salination, contamination and losses contribute to the current problems of sustainability. It proposes breeding practices that include farmers as a response and highlights their active role in soil preservation.  Although Plants for the Future TP refers to commonly shared observations about soil, it envisages solutions which refer to greater productivity of plants by genomics, plant genetic improvement, genetic engineering techniques, molecular breeding, transgenesis and DNA sequence inventories – by contrast to the diverse approaches proposed by IFOAM. For example, Plants for the Future promotes novel crops as a means to improve or conserve soil fertility, i.e. to fix nature, whereas IFOAM is promoting agronomic practices as the main means.

The semantic analysis provides a basis to analyse research priorities of EC funding in the agricultural sector, especially the relative roles of biotechnological and agro-ecological approaches. The FP7 KBBE programme emphasises biotechnological techniques for eco-efficient solutions to sustainable agriculture. At the same time, some proposals for organics research have been incorporated into the programme.  It has undergone a shift to the broader concept of agroecological approaches, though the concept is rarely explicit in documents. To enhance soil health, for example, the FP7 2011 work programme  promotes approaches which overlap with visions from the SCAR report and NGOs; these include inter-disciplinarity between scientific domains (e.g. agronomy, ecology, pedology etc.), integrated low-tech solutions, sustainable management practices, adaptation of research protocols for organic and low input agriculture needs, etc.  The programme has also included a call on agricultural knowledge systems, along lines proposed by the SCAR expert report.

In those ways, the FP7 KBBE programme combines two tendencies: the environmental re-adaptation of agronomic research via agroecology, and the promotion of biotechnological tools as solutions for greater eco-efficiency of agriculture. Those two approaches are partly complementary: with post-genomics, it could be possible to link molecular-level modelling with the eco-physiological and ecological modelling at a higher level.  But they are mainly contradictory: biotechnological discourses promise to solve complex ecological problems by proposing techno-fixes which ignores or even exclude systemic approaches at the level of farms, agro-ecosystems and landscapes.

Participatory research for agro-ecology

The above semantic analysis helps to identify different research priorities and how they promote different societal futures in the name of sustainable agriculture. This analysis served as a briefing document for French workshops entitled, “What research for sustainable agriculture?”. These brought together representatives of agro-ecology research, peasants and NGOs. As a workshop aim, we sought to evaluate how various research agendas relate to the visions of civil society actors. On this basis, the workshops sought to identify prospects for joint proposals for research projects, as well as obstacles that need to be overcome. Some discussion points follow here.

Although there are common interests between agricultural researchers and peasants, cooperation in research has faced many obstacles. Peasants have difficulty to find researchers who can respond to their questions. Either no researchers work on such questions, or else researchers are unwilling to exchange knowledge with peasants. Peasants feel abandoned by research agendas that seems distant from their practices, knowledge and concerns.

Over the past couple decades, greater importance has been given to highly technological, expensive innovation. Little scope remains for other approaches, even if they are knowledge intensive, e.g. agroecology. International participatory research projects often impede cooperation of researchers with non-researchers, partly because English is the dominant language and thus a barrier. Some peasants reported that, after some years of difficult cooperation with researchers, they stopped working with them and favoured knowledge exchange only amongst peasants.

Researchers may want to involve farmers but face many barriers or even create them.  In some cases, the research design has been unnecessarily complex, perhaps in order to seem sufficiently scientific to commercialise or to publish in specialist journals.  But why make it complex when one can make it easy? Research projects could incorporate a notion of simplicity, which allows for alternative solutions. Many researchers feel a need to work in interdisciplinary teams (e.g. with social scientists) but lack relevant experience.  Moreover, they have difficulties in publishing results of such cooperation; in the current publication system, systemic approaches are often less valued.

Often calls for project proposals are effectively calls for results, whereby participants must nearly know in advance the results of the research, and where there is an imperative to publish in specific journals. Participatory research projects have difficulties to accommodate this pressure, since the process is as important as the tangible results and since the results are very open. Agroecological research implies recognising the importance of diverse knowledges, as well as questioning the current dominant mode of knowledge production. To engage in participatory research with peasants, therefore, researchers have profoundly modified their working practices.

These difficulties led to a discussion about the question of how to solve problems. There are two modes of approaching a problem – either trying to solve it, or else trying to suppress it without solving the problem. It is essential to make a diagnosis of a situation or problem, while keeping in mind that this diagnosis is framed by underlying values. Accordingly, different results can emerge from diagnosing the same situation. Any agronomic solution has social and environmental consequences, so these should be reintegrated into economic calculations.

The Fondation Sciences Citoyennes (FSC) brings together civil society groups with peasants and scientists in order to develop alternative research agendas. Mutual learning between those groups is needed, especially for them to overcome cultural barriers and for CSOs to gain trust in research institutions by positive experiences and responses. On this basis they can jointly answer calls for research proposals. Closer links could strengthen efforts to expand research funding for agroecological methods.

Civil society organisations should be involved in formulating calls for proposals and research questions. CSO representatives want clear recommendations for two main aims: how to deal with funding institutions (especially the European Commission), and how to build co-operative research projects. Towards those aims, the FSC plays the role of a knowledge-mediator and boundary-spanner among relevant stakeholders.