Focus Groups on Organic Farming and Protein Crops reportCategory: News
23 May 2014
The EIP Focus Group on Organic Farming visited ORC and
Sheepdrove Farm in September 2013
The agricultural European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI) works to foster competitive and sustainable farming and forestry that 'achieves more and better from less'. It contributes to ensuring a steady supply of food, feed and biomaterials, developing its work in harmony with the essential natural resources on which farming depends. The reports of the Focus Group on Organic Farming and of the Focus Group on Protein Crops have just been released.
Inspiration to diminish yield gaps in organic farming
After a year's work, the EIP-AGRI Focus Group on Organic Farming has issued a report on how to close the yield gap in organic farming. The report includes proposals for topics that Operational Groups could work on, practical solutions which have already been implemented in some areas of Europe and recommendations for future research topics.
Identifying the main causes of the problem
The report describes the main causes of the yield gap. Poor soil fertility management; inadequate nutrients supply, insufficient weed management, pest and disease pressure and variety choice are the main specific causes identified. Several horizontal themes are also highlighted: the need for a systems approach; the need to enhance knowledge sharing across the sector; the development of resilient systems; and the need for a broad cultural shift.
Proposing practical solutions
From the causes identified, the Focus Group was able to present proposals for action which could represent topics for Operational Groups. The report describes these practical solutions including:
- farming systems co-design;
- information and decision support systems;
- how to increase soil microbial activity and biodiversity by farming techniques;
- fine-tuning of composting techniques;
- fine-tuning of new machines;
- structuring of joint purchase and use of machinery;
- selection of locally appropriate robust varieties;
- development of innovative tillage techniques;
- fostering the use of companion planting and cover crops;
- introduction of new crops and variety trials.
The report also gives a list of practical solutions which have already been implemented and could be scaled up or transposed elsewhere in Europe and concrete suggestions for the setting-up of Operational Groups in terms of methodology and practical elements.. It also gives recommendations for future research topics and methodologies as well as proposals for training and education programmes.
The issue of the Yield Gap
Organic farming has reached an important share of European agriculture; European citizens are increasing their demand for organic products, making Europe a major player in the organic sector. What is more, almost a quarter of the World’s organic agricultural land is situated in the EU. Therefore it is important for the future of EU farming to consider how to make improvements in this sector. Various studies (see the report for details) have shown the fluctuations in the yields in organic farming. On average, organic gives 75-80% of conventional yields but it varies a lot more depending on regions,systems, management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions. Also the yield that organic farmers in similar conditions can obtain varies quite largely and this means that there is room for improvement and the potential to bring the majority of organic farms to the production level of their colleagues.
Optimising arable yields in Organic Farming was the central point for the discussions of EIP-AGRI Focus Group on Organic farming. An important element for the Focus Group experts within this context was the understanding of the concept of “yields”, and they made the decision to include the aspects of quantity, quality and eco-system services in its use as the definition of a farm’s performance.
Drawing conclusions, but not coming to an end
The EIP-AGRI Focus Group on Organic Farming will not be meeting again, they all agree that the discussions on this particular subject have come to an end. However, this does not mean the discussions ends here. The experts have expressed that they wish to continue to share ideas and discuss the subject and they will be able to do so through a dedicated forum on the new EIP-AGRI website. They will also help to spread the results of the Focus Group throughout their networks and communication outlets, and they have expressed interest in getting involved in operational groups (or in helping set them up) working on the proposals recommended in the final report.
EIP focus group on protein crops
Growing protein crops in the EU is generally not competitive and to improve on this more needs to be changed than the yields of the crops concerned.
The Focus Group on Protein Crops came together in 2013 to tackle the question ‘How can the competitiveness of protein crops producers in the EU be improved?’ Half a year later and after two meetings with the experts, they came up with some ideas. Service Point Task Manager, Remco Schreuder explains: “The market for protein crops can be divided in different segments. There is a small but increasing use of protein crops that are processed on farm and fed to animals on the farm or in the region concerned. These farms produce for local or organic markets. At a bigger (but still regional) scale different attempts to produce protein crops for regionally processed products are being made. At EU level the EU grown protein is not competitive as yields are too low compared to maize and wheat and therefore farmers have limited interest. Moreover, the infrastructure to process and market EU grown protein is not developed.”
The results of the Focus Group showed that a lot of progress can be made at local scale (on farm feeding), however, progress can certainly be made in the yield for a wide range of crops and in the way protein crops are used in rotation to optimise the whole farm production. To improve the competitiveness of EU grown protein crops at bigger scales first of all (average) yields need to be improved. The focus group concluded that peas, field beans and soya offer the best potential and can all three improve substantially on yields and technical requirements (anti-nutritional factors) provided the breeding sector makes an effort. However, the infrastructure to process these crops is not developed for the larger scale protein production for processed feed. Cooperation and integration between the compound feed industry and the plant production-related stakeholders is needed to make a difference. In fact, it seems that the Focus Group brought together experts from the feed industry and plant breeders for the first time. This proved very useful in clarifying what plant breeders should aim for when developing new varieties.” The Focus Group illustrated that combining the knowledge and experiences of the industry, farming practice and farming advisors can lead to new perspectives.
To conclude, there are good prospects to increase yields through breeding research but this alone will not result in the development of EU grown protein crops. Investments would have to be made in the feed sector.