WP7: Innovation narratives

Final report: Les Levidow and Theo Papaioannou, Innovation narratives in European agricultural research, November 2010

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Executive Summary:

KBBE as sustainable agriculture and eco-efficiency: divergent accounts
Nowadays many innovations are promoted as means to ‘sustainable agriculture’, a concept which thereby acquires divergent accounts and pathways.  Each involves a narrative of a better future.  From its problem-diagnosis of unsustainable agriculture, each narrative favours specific remedies as desirable or even as necessary, so that society can avoid threats and use opportunities.  In EU policy frameworks more generally, master narratives equate techno-scientific innovation with societal progress, as if the main issue were the optimal choice of technology (Felt et al., 2007).

As a master narrative, the Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy (KBBE) combines two antecedents – the knowledge-based economy from earlier Commission policy, plus the bio-economy from the OECD.  This concept encompasses diverse diagnoses of unsustainable agriculture and potential remedies.  Consequently, key terms of the KBBE concept – knowledge, biological resources and economy – have different meanings, thereby changing the role and meaning of agriculture (see Table 1). From the EC’s sustainable development policy, the ‘eco-efficiency’ concept has gained greater prominence for innovation policy in the Europe 2020 strategy. Eco-efficiency too has different meanings.

In the dominant account of the KBBE, R&D seeks technological innovation for more efficiently using renewable resources, as a basis to expand available resources and so fulfill market demands.  This account takes for granted industrial systems which increasingly consume more resources.  These greater pressures are attributed to market demands, as if industry simply accommodates markets exogenous to the production system, which thereby serves common societal needs.

In a Life Sciences perspective, eco-efficiency is attributed to novel inputs, outputs and processing methods, e.g. more efficient crops.  Research seeks generic knowledge for identifying substances that can be extracted, decomposed and recomposed along value chains; from this baseline, more specific knowledge can be privatised. As an ideal of eco-efficiency, closed-loop recycling successively turns wastes into raw materials for the next stage.  Agriculture becomes a biomass factory; residues become waste biomass for industrial processes.  Novel crops are sought for enhancing soil fertility and thus productivity.

By contrast to the dominant account of eco-efficiency, an agroecological account appropriates, enhances and/or integrates ecological processes.  Organic farming attempts to keep cycles as short and as closed as possible, as a means to use biodiverse resources more efficiently.  These practices enhance resource efficiency by enhancing internal inputs as substitutes for external inputs, while also maximising outputs.  Residues are seen as media for recycling nutrients via ecological processes and so replenishing soil fertility. Such methods have been linked by a novel concept, ‘eco-functional intensification’, i.e. intensifying ecological processes.  More efficient resource usage also provides a basis to shorten agro-food chains: consumers learn to trust producers through a specific product identity, featuring overall qualities such as sustainable production methods and/or aesthetic attractions.

Stakeholder representation: uncommon visions
Since the late 1990s the EU has faced societal conflicts over the direction for future agriculture, especially the high priority given to agbiotech research.  Another problem was a perceived gap between research agendas and industry needs.  As a governance strategy for FP7, the Commission invited industry to establish European Technology Platforms (ETPs).  These were meant to define research agendas that would attract industry investment, especially as means to fulfil the Lisbon agenda goal of 3% GDP being spent on research. ETPs were mandated to involve ‘all relevant stakeholders’ in developing a ‘common vision’ emphasising societal needs and benefits.

For the agro-food-forestry-biotech sectors, now seen as the KBBE, ETPs were initiated mainly by industry lobby organisations, with support from scientist organisations and COPA, representing the relatively more industrialised farmers.  Oriented to capital-intensive research and innovation, ETPs have little common ground with civil society organisations (CSOs).  Having gained Commission funds and official recognition, ETPs effectively define who is (or is not) a relevant stakeholder, according to their prospective contribution to value chains; citizens are relegated to the role of consumers, at most.  For these structural reasons, CSOs have had only marginal involvement, amidst uncommon visions of societal futures.

In such ways, the Commission effectively outsources responsibility for stakeholder involvement to ETPs, which are not held accountable for how they play that role.  In the name of creating a common vision, ETPs represent one vision as a common one.  ETPs selectively represent or construct some stakeholders as partners in the KBBE.  An expert group has advocated greater involvement by CSOs in ETPs (DG Research, 2009), thus downplaying the conflicts over research agendas and putting the burden on CSOs.

Towards alternative agendas, various experts and CSOs advocate different kinds of knowledge production: agro-ecological methods; scientific research more closely linked to farmers’ knowledge; and food relocalisation, based on consumer knowledge of food production methods and product quality. Taking up such agendas, Technology Platform Organics was initiated by organics research institutes and gained support from a wide range of stakeholders, especially through consultation procedures on research priorities. TP Organics has recast mainstream terms, such as technology and bio-economy, to promote farmers’ knowledge of biodiversity as resources for agro-ecological methods and as societal benefits.

Diversified factory farm: ETPs’ agendas
In the dominant KBBE narrative, agriculture gains greater importance by linking several sectors – feed, energy and other industrial products.  According to proponents, technological innovation provides new opportunities for rural employment, but this depends on horizontally integrating the agriculture and energy ‘value chains’, i.e. prospects of gaining greater market value from renewable raw materials.  Here the ‘value chains’ concept plays a promissory role by mobilising economic and political investment around a prospective El Dorado.

Research is seen as necessary for scientific knowledge and standards that can lead to more efficient products that enhance economic competitiveness.  Converging technologies become essential tools for identifying and validating compositional characteristics of renewable raw materials. On this basis, the KBBE narrative promises economic, environmental and social sustainability.

Agriculture becomes a terrain for mining renewable resources to feed the ‘diversified integrated biorefinery’.  This has multiple meanings – an industrial model of renewable raw materials, an infrastructure for processing them into diverse products, and integration of agriculture with the oil industry.  In such a prospective biorefinery, inputs and outputs can be flexibly adjusted according to global market prices.  As investors undergo global capital integration, through new partnerships across sectors and continents, this process is portrayed as ‘European competitiveness’, thus projecting a unitary Europe.

Research priorities in FAFB/KBBE programme
Given the divergent agendas of research for sustainable agriculture, these co-exist within research programmes, as in the FP7 Theme 2 work programme on Food, Agriculture, Fisheries and Biotechnology (FAFB). Its main objective is ‘building a Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy’. The work programmes link the term ‘renewable’ with ‘sustainable’, meaning biological resources being used efficiently as substitutes for chemical ones: ‘Eco-efficient products are less polluting and less resource-intensive in production, and allow a more effective management of biological resources.’ The programme emphasises product innovations, especially via simulations of natural processes.
Approx. half the calls for proposals have been based on proposals from officially recognised ETPs.  The Commission defers to them as if they were neutral experts in both technological and commercial prospects.  These calls prioritise research which could help commercialise resources and new knowledge, especially by bringing together academic and industrial research partners.  The evaluation procedure anticipates commercial prospects, e.g. for ‘market-led innovations’ and in some cases for patents.  Such priorities are called ‘pre-competitive’ research, featuring generic knowledge relevant to commercialising resources.

In the margins, the FAFB programme has other research priorities.  Some promote knowledge for protecting public goods in an agricultural context.  Others promote agro-ecological knowledge through key terms such as enhancing soil management, recycling organic waste, replacing chemical pesticides, etc.  Such priorities have gained a stronger role since the start of FP7, partly by incorporating proposals from TP Organics.  Its novel concept, ‘eco-functional intensification’, has gained great interest from DG Research as well as from the organic section of COPA.  This success results from TP Organics’ working method, analogous to officially recognized ETPs.

Thus the overall FAFB programme encompasses divergent accounts of the KBBE.  It has tensions among priorities  – between exploiting natural resources more effectively, identifying their societal or commercial value, protecting them from various threats (often due to intensive monoculture), and generating public goods.  It favours the former priorities, while including the latter in the margins.
Since the 1980s farmers’ knowledge has been undermined by member states dismantling the institutional basis for disinterested science, public good training and extension services.  This structural problem is recognised by SCAR’s Foresight expert group.  As a remedy, its 2008 report advocates new, broader kinds of Agricultural Knowledge Systems (AKS).  Here societal networks experimentally create or apply new knowledge for sustainable agriculture, as the basis for innovation.  The AKS concept articulates a co-research relation among all relevant knowledge-producers, including farmers.  AKS may also provide a common space for interchanges between divergent paradigms and their research priorities.