Europe: Innovation and research in agriculture: priority to sustainable family farming

(Brussels, 6 March 2012) Agro-ecology or agro-fuels? Sustainable family farming or sustainable intensification? Farmers seeds or GM seeds? Pastures or dairy factories? Local plant protein or soy? Soil organic matter or methanization? Rotation or monoculture? Land races or cloning? A reduced food chain or import/export? Social innovation or farmers disappearing? Solidarity or competitiveness? Territorial cohesion or concentration of production ? To stop dumping or to “feed” the world? Public funding for public or private research? “Bio”-economy? The EU must choose.

In February, the European Commission has published a strategy/action plan for the “bio”-economy  and a communication  for a “European Partnership for Innovation (PEI): agricultural productivity and sustainability.” A conference is organized by the Commission on March 7 on innovation and research in agriculture.


If the European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC) welcomes the opened scope of innovation including social innovation and agro-ecology, the recognition of serious environmental problems associated with productivism during the past 50 years, and the announced involvement of civil society in governance and implementation of this partnership, however, ECVC questions:

  • The premise explained in the proposed IEP, namely that the key challenge is to increase agricultural production and productivity in Europe to cope with increasing global food demand.
  • Parallel initiatives of multinational companies such as Bayer, Syngenta, which organize next in Brussels conferences  on “sustainable intensification”, with significant participation of the European Commission.

To use oxymoron has limits: the EU should put an end to the current hypocrisy

The industries for fertilizers, pesticides, machinery, agrofuels, GMO, veterinarian products, … claim they want a sustainable agriculture, but intensive, so that agriculture continues to buy their inputs. Are these financially very interested sirens credible? ECVC asks the EU to clarify its choices. A great effort is necessary for the recognition vis-à-vis innovation and good agriculture practices existing in low input farms which are less dependent from the upstream sector, which have often been disadvantaged by the CAP

To increase productivity? For the benefit of whom?

For 50 years, agriculture has been one of the sectors where the productivity per ha and work unit increased the most, to the detriment of environment and farmers’ number. The remaining farmers profited little from it: the downstream sector (agro-industry, retailing) has grabbed these productivity gains, thanks to agricultural price drops. Today, this “productivist” motor is broken down: for example, the outputs in intensive cereal zones tend to drop on exhausted soils, having lost their organic matter.

The new wave of productivism, tinted of green, which is now proposed, is there to restart the motor to the detriment of sustainable family farming.

To give priority to productivity increase with the aim of producing cheaper to be more competitive on the worldwide market is a mistake. To require more transport, more export/import is no more credible: time is now for “insourcing” and energy sobriety, which provide jobs. That does not exclude international trade of agricultural products, but it should be put at its right place. The priorities for innovation/research should go in this direction.

Europe should not feed the world, but the world should feed itself

Let us remind that world agriculture produces today for nearly 8 billion people, well beyond the needs (but approximately 1/3 is wasted in the North, 1/3 is lost after harvest in the South, whereas 1 billion humans suffer from hunger). The priority is then to solve the problems of food waste, losses after harvest and to implement the right to food, before wanting to produce more in Europe.

For the world feeding itself, it is also necessary to innovate in new rules of international agricultural trade, because the current rules let dumping and land grabbing remain and develop, both ruining the production capacities of many rural communities in the South. If some researchers are working on that issue, they are very few and without sufficient institutional support, whereas the time of deregulation is behind us.[1]

Innovation/research does not have to worsen the problems

Whereas unemployment explodes in Europe and environmental crisis is recognized, the EU should not fund anymore an innovation/research for an even more mechanized agriculture, an even more industrialized animal production.

For example, to develop methanisation processes for factory farms, in name of environment, is not innovation, but green washing, because the organic matter should better return into the soil where feed is coming from.

There is no legitimacy to support with public funds innovation concerning agro-fuels, which proved their quite poor results and compete with food production. As for agro-fuels known as of 2nd generation, which one makes us gleam the benefits to obtain research funds, they are likely to compete, if on middle and large scales, with the return of organic matter into the soil, which is essential to slow down global warming.

The great majority of European farmers and citizens oppose GMOs on fields or in their plate. We do not need GMOs nor mutated plants to solve the problems. Innovation/research must be limited in that case to a fundamental biological research in confined space.

Priority to jobs, environment, and solutions to the systemic crisis

To take up the many challenges[2] European agriculture is facing, the EU should not go wrong by choosing priorities and methodology. The farming sector abounds in innovations in the agronomic, social, energy, environmental fields which it is necessary to support when they answer these challenges.          For example, when urban young jobless people recultivate waste lands around towns to feed the neighbouring districts with quality local vegetables, that is a beautiful agricultural and social innovation it is necessary to support, because it goes in the direction of more jobs, health, social cohesion.

Innovation and research are not only in laboratories; they are also in thousands of innovating farmers and associations, which, for example:

  • rehabilitate local seeds for biodiversity and less farmers’ dependence with respect to seed companies, rehabilitate or save local races close to extinction, which can better adapt to the changes to come than cloned animals.
  • develop agro-ecology, agro-forestry practices,
  • develop organic family farming,
  • develop small scale systems of energy production for local consumption (wind, sun, water, wood)
  • develop short food chain between producers and consumers and local food processing.

Facing the interests of private companies, upstream and downstream, which oppose to – or try to control- these new tendencies, the EU and its Member States must develop a decentralized innovation/research based on know-how, experience and dynamism of these grass root innovators.

Partnerships must be established between them and research, popularization, education.

The partnership contracts of the future rural development policy (CAP reform proposal 2014-2020) can be an opportunity for this, provide they give the priority to the agronomic, social, environmental innovations which answer the challenges mentioned above and not to those which will worsen the problems.

To take in account the results of the IAASTD[3] report

The IAASTD report, result of the international collaboration of 900 researchers in 110 countries, and signed by several tens of States in 2008 proved that sustainable family farming was the best capable to take up the global food and environmental challenges for the decades to come. The EU and Member States don’t popularize this work, which goes in the opposite direction as the agricultural policies of the last decades. This report is indeed essential to define the priorities as regards research innovation to be put in place.

Taking in account the proposals of the Nyeleni Europe[4] forum, August 2011

The first European forum for food sovereignty, whose results are presented now on March 7 in Brussels, gathered many –often young- innovators and initiatives in agriculture, food distribution and environment. Its action plan is calling for a participative research including farmers, fishermen, workers, and civil society to develop agriculture and food systems within the framework of food sovereignty.

European Coordination Via Campesina

Contacts :

Geneviève Savigny +39 3480189221

Andrea Ferrante + 33 625551687

Gérard  Choplin + 32 473257378

[1] see the study of a group of agri-economists  «  For a New European Agriculture and Food policy that meets the challenges of this century  »- 2010

[2] Disappearing of farmers, of agricultural and natural biodiversity, farmer’s suicides, sales at a loss  for the majority of  agricultural products, zones polluted by  over use of  inputs and abandoned zones, loss of organic matter in the too intensive regions, climate change, dependence of oil, structural surpluses of various products or sub-products (liquid manure), delocalization other products in countries with low wages, bacteria resistance to antibiotics used in factory farms, new animal diseases, structural surpluses of power of big retailers, … … …