Conferentie - Research for Transition - What kind of agriculture do we need to make European farming and food systems more sustainable?

Summary notes from the conference Research for Transition

What kind of research do we need to make European food systems and agriculture more sustainable?

Watch the conference again or read the full report


Introduction by Martin Häusling, Greens/EFA (video start 00:03)

We keep having debates in the agriculture committee on how we can have a more performing agriculture, and if organic agriculture can offer an alternative. I believe it can. It is clear that there is an imbalance in resource allocation. There's a problem with the availability of organic seeds and livestock. Industrialisation with heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers is problematic. The condition of our soil needs absolute more attention....

It is clear that it is a system's question. And we have to ask ourselves: What direction do we have to go in Europe? Intensify the current models, like a lot of representatives of the commercial sector would like? Or stimulate transition towards a new agriculture?

We thought that we could find an answer to the question why the organic sector still is a niche market in Europe if we would 'follow the money'. The European Greens/EFA group asked the UCL and ORC to carry out a study. So today we will listen to and discuss the results of this report.


Best practices from the research field.


Fulya Batur - Arche Noahpowerpoint (video start 00:07)

Arche Noah is an Austrian grass root organisation with 14000 members, focussing on participatory plantbreeding projects, both at local and regional level.

A first example is the ‘Variety Development Project’, that wants to create new varieties of old and rare crops still in the archive of AN, at first financed by own resources and later on by LEADER, which is not a research fund but needs embedding in the social architecture of the region. Classic research funds are not always attainable for us.

A second example is ‘Bauerenparadeiser’, a variety improvement project, using seeds from the network. Goal is to improve the resistance of tomatoes. We cooperate with universities and research institutes. With this time a much bigger share of funding by Leader.

A third example is not necessary research but a business cooperation with an organic plant breed company to exchange material and to create a seed market.

The overarching goal is to preserve biodiversity of plant breeding material for organic and low input farmers.

Since short we are involved in a Horizon2020 - programme ‘Diversifood’ and in European Innovation Partnerships (EIP), which is a nonlinear interactive research form, searching for immediate solutions for practical problems. We co-design and co-decide together with 21 other partners.

Challenges in research are for Arche Noah twofold: we need more room for diversity, (what kind of agricultural system do we support, what are the objectives, the biological resources or the approaches?) and more easy access to projects; the involvement of small stakeholders is very difficult to manage. Research should come from bottom-up and not top-down approach. Who will apply for the new Horizon2020 projects? Will it be the big players (again)? E.g. the scope of projects does not always allow creative individuals to apply. Another problem is the lack of interface between the EIP and the Horizon2020.


Edith Lammerts Van BuerenLouis Bolk Institute - Wageningen University – powerpoint (video start 00:22:40)

Louis Bolk Institute was created to support organic farmers, at the same time as ORC in UK and FiBL in Switserland, was founded.

Conventional farmers wanted to learn from organic agriculture to improve their soils. In the beginning we lived from donations, now 15% is financed by national and regional authorities, 50% financed by industry, banks, environmental organisations.

We have a system approach, we want to make systems work. Our research action method can be implemented immediately and it is participatory by nature.

The sustainable chain management links with healthy cattle farming, like healthy food through healthy milk.

We have different projects, like a software package that we created to help farmers to improve their soils, after digging a soil pit.

There’s the Skylark project, initiated by Heineken Brewery. They were looking for a more sustainable soil management system for their beer, they wanted to improve their traditional management. Each farmer draws up a ten year plan that is been monitored. They decide which sustainable elements they want to implement from a toolkit, that was developed by LBI.

There’s the problem of alternative protein sources. Organic farmers need gmo free feed, they live by the short chain. Lupine is one of these crops, as cattle fodder but also as a meat substitute (veggie burger). To re-introduce lupine, was not easy, we lost a lot of expertise, so we tried to fill that gap with LBI. We found better strains, better for human consumption, better for yield.

Bio Impuls, blight resistant potatoe, but not a gmo, is another project. Wageningen received 1 mio per year (for 10 years) we obtained 250000 euro’s per year for a ten year period.

In general we look for business projects based on a participatory approach.

Final example is the conceptional framework on biodiversity. Nature reservates will never flourish if surrounding farming is not organic.

We often use this slide of Risk management (conventional) and the Resilient model (risk reduction). If farmers switch to organic farming they often think of substituting resources. But it is more complicated than that.

We now collaborate with WWF and Rabo Bank for milk cattle farmers and arable farmers how to implement organic farming. Farmers are concerned about the lower yield on a short term, so they need a more future oriented vision. We notice that this system approach helps in their transition. But we need definitely more diversity in research as well.


Marianne Cerf – INRA – Mirecourtpowerpoint (video start 00:42)


INRA SAD is a multidisciplinary department with social sciences, ecological sciences, agronomy,… The Mirecourt project is an experimental organic farm which is to be self-reliant and self-sustainable. It owns 238 ha, that are allocated to 2 different farming systems: a dairy one based on 78 ha of natural pastures, 40 milk cows (Montbeliard and Holstein), another one of  60 milk cows in mixed farming. It is located in the east of France, the Vosges. Exchanges are organized between these two systems (manure, straw, cereals, for example).

A main target is to avoid the use of external products. The costs have been lowered, fell back to half, compared to when we were a conventional farm, even though it was already low in terms of external inputs. Over the past 5 years, we manage to keep a 50% ratio between the gross operating surplus and the Gross Production.

The project is clearly based on the features of our land and related to what can be achieved locally. We try to understand how in such farming systems, it is possible to keep over time the ability to be self-sufficient. This is the main driver for the decision taken in the course of action. For example, one year we had shortage of hay due to severe dryness, and instead of buying food for the animals as most of the farmers will do, we choose to sell animals. But we then had to decide which one to keep among each breed we had on the farm, as we wanted to keep the balance between the two breeds. This resulted in the selection of cows (wether Montbeliard or Holstein) which kept their milk production under severe hay shortage. This kind of choices are traced, and can be discussed with farmers who visit and discuss the results and choices made. Thay appreciate that the experiment is performed at farm level. The hudge amount of data collected (regarding the indicators used to observe and decide, regarding also the follow- up of agronomical, zootechnical, biodiversity, environmental and economic criteria) is useful to discuss the performance and the resilience of the system with various stakeholders and also contribute to feed research projects like education and scientific networks. We try to enforce these networks to develop further exchanges of knowledge and know-how among the various stakeholders involved in agroecological transitions. 


Presentation of the report – Susanne Padel and Philippe Baret.


The Greens/EFA decided to find out why organic farming is still a niche, with the adagio ‘Follow the money’, the UCL and ORC were asked to carry out a study on European research funds.


Philippe Baret UCL - powerpoint (video start 00.57)

In conduction this study, there were many questions, and we came across this paradox: organic farming has a role to play in the food system, but it is not given the appropriate funding.

We did a comparative study based on international literature, bringing in view aspects of biodiversity, environmental impact and economics in both organic and conventional farming. It was clear that we lack multi-disciplinary studies. We alsno need to go deeper in the debate on the chosen indicators, like ha or per unit.

Very often the advantage of organic farming decreases when we take kilo’s, but when we analysed in detail, it looked the same.

We tried to have a neutral approach, and as you can see on the slide, there are fields where organic is performing better (green), the same (orange) or worse (red) than conventional farming.

Better: environment, quality of food, antibiotic use, labour

Equal: Climate change and animal health

Less favourable: yield and profits.

We need to make a nuance economically

  1. yield 18-20% difference (less than we think)

  2. organic is more profitable – to 13%

  3. 7% is necessary to scale up organic farming to the level of conventional.

Paradox: impact of organic farming is better, a better return on investment, we identify gaps on knowledge. Funding organic farming would be a very good investment. But the reality is different, it is declining.

It was very difficult to follow the money.

FP7 has dramatically increased but not for organic farming (less than 0,1%).

In 4 countries (BE, FR, DE and NL) funding for organic farming does not rise over 5% of total funding.


Susanne Padel Organic Research Centre - powerpoint (video start 01:07)

There is quite some other funding (direct paying, pillar 2 and 1, CAP, organic regulation, innovation platform, consumer awareness projects, action plans,…) A number of countries use these kind of funds.

Denmark deserves a special credit, for a.o. centralising information, they invest since 1996 in organic farming research. Germany too deserves credits with the foundation of BöL, organising priority consultations with industry to know which kind of research is necessary.These two countries are not in the report. Austria will ring fence 15% of the budget for organic research. Well done! The Swiss government keeps on supporting FiBL. Also worth mentioning is the EU project CORE Organic, where knowledge is shared, e.g. on soil fertility.

But… organic agriculture research still faces some challenges. In one slide of the SCAR report, I cross out the input suppliers, as they are not important players in organic farming. It challenges the traditional model of how research is conducted financed and dissiminated. Though we see the benefits, we do’nt see the funding that recognises these benefits.

Organic research funding is by nature innovative, as they challenge you to find other solutions: if you can’t use herbicides, you need creativity. It makes farmers think again. Like increasing the yields through multi-cropping and crop rotation, as was described in one of the meta-studies.

With a bit more of money, we can do so much better.

The organic sector has a strong tradition of farmers and researchers working together, that fits wel with the EIP-AGRI view.

So the conclusion is that dedicated funding streams for organic farming research help build capacity for working with agroecological principals in a systems framework, taking various factors into account. It helps to build careers of researchers that will have a job tomorrow. Young scientics do not dare to engage, because projects are too short term.

More funding will benefit not only the organic sector but help agriculture meeting the sustainability challenge.


Questions to the panel.

Martin Häusling – what are the private means that go into research? I heard 18% less yield, needs to be differentiated. Many studies show that yields are much higher in the South. What is a sustainable systems? What is organic farming and what is not?

Research Centre of Tournai – did you take into account, when comparing yields, that organic farmers process their products much more and sell them in a short circuit, I think it has influence on profit.

IT-specialist – how can we transform a conventional farm into an organic, what is the success percentage. What is your experience with mixed farmes? How do you make it without pesticides?


Philippe: About the yields. We did not evaluate the yields. The analyses are made by other partners. It is based on 44 cases. The difficulty is to come to a mix of organic farming and short chain. You can look at it by the employment rate.

Susanne: Private funding is a problem. There or not many industries that want to invest in this kind of research. It is a challenge.

Clearly, the intensity of the conventional farming system influences the yield. You could achieve more with organic systems if you work more with them. There were no clear guidance in how to tackle this.

Organic is clearly defined. But I like that we researchers can step outside the definition. We should be allowed to explore different solutions.

Conversion to organic agriculture is a difficult process, farmers could benefit from sort support, extension, knowledge, getting the know how and money of course. Conversion is a process in the head, not only in the field. Allowing the two togehter for some time can be part of the learning process.

Edith: agronomic measures, e.g. flower strips, to induce the chemical input, but we need other material with better resistance; so we need adjustments in the registration of varieties. Frustrating for breeders that resistance is not rewarded in the registration.



Scheme of balance between organic. Did you count the cost of conventional farming? Do we have enough data to do this?

What about industrialised organic? Do you use other criteria.

We need long term investment, Dutch govt is in 10 years, in what streams do you think it is best suitable? Is it the EIP, do you have faith in this initiative?


Without government funding it is too hard, so we need both, public and private. The return of organic farming is so high, I think the investment of public money is justified.

Upstream! The industrial biobagriculture. It is important to understand what data say, it is not enough to gather them. When you look at the cost of OA, there’s a low impint but the work load is enormous. We do not have a lot of data though.

We did not count the cost of conventional farming. We want the green spots in the scheme to be more, so the balance is in favour of organic farming. There’s also the question of risks. The risk management is differnt in organic and conventional. We try to manage them and we have to adapt to them.

Agriculture in the South, we know almost nothing about OA in the South. We often think that it is equal, but there are farms, with various crops, integrate vegetables and animals, it is difficult to compare, so we compare balance sheets. We cannot compare on the basis of yields alone.


Eric Mathijs – KULeuven – Author of the SCAR-report - powerpoint (video start 01:41:30)


SCAR report was launched two weeks ago.

There are multiple actors and competitors. Research is a business. 68 consortia applied for one project call.  Please use #commonfoodpolicy.

The previous SCAR-report from 2011 focused mainly on the efficiency-sufficiency paradigm. Sustainability is about the two. If efficiency is zero, sustainability is zero. One of the biggest challenges we face, whatever system needs to have sufficiency built in. Is it built into organic farming research, e.g. from the demand side. So does conversion to organic farming mean that people will eat less meat? I don’t know. Is efficiency built in research in organic farming? Does it take into account the processes underlying agroecology? What Tittonel used to refer to as precision ecology. The interaction between plants, micro-organics and animals. We should convince the VIB to do some of that research.

If we look at the current forsight exercise  - we were critisised by ngo’s, but if you read the full report - you will see that we address quite some issues. We put forward five principles that should govern the bio-economy. These principles are

  1. Food first
  2. Sustainable yields
  3. Cascading use of resources
  4. Circularity
  5. Diversity

These are principles that govern ecosystems. And we do need them to be implemented if we want the biobased economy to be sustainable.

If you put permaculture principles next to them, you will find an overlap. So you could say there’s a universal set of principles in all living systems, like agriculture.

In the SCAR4-report we set 8 recommendations for research. Number one is new paradigms for primary production based on ecological intensification. I think the Commission has quite some interesting calls there. So maybe the share of organic is increasing. Question remains what the effect will be on the ground.

There are 7 other recommendations, like the digital revolution: how will precise agriculture evolve, the use of drone?. What will it mean when we stop using oil, in the new energy landscape. A lot of organic farmers still use fossil fuels, because of less use of pesticides there’s more need for mechanisation.

Finally I want to reflect on the question if the knowledge and innovation system fit for purpose to apply these principles.

We have 6 bullet points, and it is clear that it should be

  • Challenge driven – one of the big struggles is the ever tension between pragmatics and ideology. Is agroecology a techno-fix in the current socio-economic system or is it a prototype of a new societal system? If it is the second, then the comparison between organic and conventional doesn’t make sense in the economic field. You compare two completely different things. E.g. the internalisation of external costs is one of them. Take a look at the damage cost of the environmental impact (ammonium and NOx), they were not in the report (it was only climate change and GHG). Although these are the most responsible if you use monetary evaluation. GHG are not so important in terms of monetary evaluation. Another example is the pesticide use, where the monetary valuation of the environmental damage is not lower than the use of some methods in organic farming. So more research is needed to make that balance better. You can of course put into question the use of this monetary valuation as the best way to express the external cost.
  • transdisciplinary
  • socially distributed (citizens, farmers,.. should do research)
  • reflexive
  • new rewarding and assessments systems
  • competencies and capacities. If farmers need to convert to organic, also researchers need to convert. Even bottom up research is not easy.


Opening the debate

Marianne Cerf – introduction- powerpoint (video start 01:58)


Even in research on and for organic farming, systemic and global approaches were clearly missing. For example, if you take an issue such as breeding, most of the research projects did not integrate relations between genetics and agronomy or law, while it seems that all these disciplines might have to work together to create cultivars more adapted to organic farming practices. As well, two more lacking fields of research can be pointed out: research on socio-economic questions, research on supply chains and processing. Note also that most of the time researchers compare organic plot and conventional plot and draw conclusions while they often recognize that the economic model is different, and the comparison might be non-relevant. What about the clear cut criteria to really define what organic farming is? This work is underestimated.

Let me list some more specific themes which certainly need more investigation 

While the diversity of organic farming production systems is already well documented, there is still a need to better understand how this diversity will evolve in the long term.

Regarding innovation in organic farming, one under-investigated field it the identification of systemic innovations as developed by grass-root actors and the way such innovations can find their way to the practice in other places. Another issue is the ability to design innovative systems based on organic principles not only at plot or farm level but also at landscape level, and to do it in close relation with the stakeholders who will steer the processes at local level. As well some more is required to develop cultivars and breeding fit to organic farming. While a lot has been done for some species, others are less studied while they are of great importance in organic farming. As well, the issues related to the regulatory brakes and the socio-technical obstacles are not really addressed by researchers. 

Issues of food processing and of health related to organic farming are still to be worked out. For example the issues raised by the specific requirements that most of organic farming consumers have, regarding their food and its processing impact and the development of specific supply chains and food processes. Few research is carried out to identify the new productive and economic strategies which will better fit to the consumers’ requirements. As well the clearcut effect of organic food on health is yet to be researched at mechanism level also progresses have been achieved thanks to epidemiological studies and consumers’ panels. 

Regarding the socio-economic development of organic farming researchers are still needed at international level: scenarios build on strong databases (lacking) to assess the contribution of Organic Farming to Food sovereignty are still missing. As well, the social and economic development of organic farming at regional level is a blank field: what is the role of citizens, consumers, local authorities to support a shift to organic farming (at production and consumption level)?

Last issue regards the training, the transfer of knowledge, the lack of capacity to support systemic approaches and changes. We have to better analyse the competence and skill problem in the knowledge and innovation system.




* As a former PhD student I was interested in the systemic approach and thinking out of the box, but at university they blocked this as I was supposed to publish in specialised scientific magazines, needed for the funding of my research…

* We should make the whole food chain coherent (efficient and sufficient) and the focus is still too much on agriculture, and not e.g. on consumer patterns, where food diets in Europe can be very unhealthy. To make agriculture more sustainable and improving food processing. It will remain an important part of our daily reality. With less saturated fat, salt and sugar, but still tasty.

* Greenpeace wants to know more about the effective fundings for organic and the conversion to organic and the question if is there enough research devoted to machinery use in organic farming?



Many farmers produce their own machines!

More research is needed to support the conversion to organic farming. It is true that there’s a lot of reluctance amongst farmers to invest and the whole investment policy is underexposed. Every investment is done for 15-20 years, and converting to organic ask switching costs that are not yet captured in research projects.

A common food policy is also about this: helping any actor in the food supply chain that makes the transition.


An interesting organisation is the Internation Farming System Association, for systemic research. It’s a small community but interesting.

In the food chain you should regard from the consumer to the farmer as well, and not only from the farmer to the consumer.

Adapted machines is actual a problem. You have the DIY-farmers, in France we have the Aterliers Paysants, where people try to build together and learn from each other.


Research Agenda of TP Organics 

Bram Moeskops TP Organic - powerpoint (video start 02:15)


Our European Technology Platform (TP) was founded in 2008 (recognised by the Commission in 2013) to get a clearer view on the needs of the sector and to harmonise the needs of the industry. Other sectors (biotech, energy,…) had lobby platforms so we created our own. We are the only platform with a systemic approach, covering the whole food chain and involving civil society. We collaborate with different research institutes, international and national networks.

Empowerment of rural areas, the eco-functional intensification and food for health and wellbeing are three main themes of our Future Research Agenda.

The whole agenda contains 21 chapters, I selected three of them:

  1. empowerment of rural areas – supporting the development of a diverse organic sector

    1. better promotion of the sector

    2. better certification

    3. increased market transparancy

  2. ecofunctional intensification – appropriate and robust livestock systems

    1. reduce antibiotic use

    2. innovate grazing systems

    3. a better mother-calf relation

  3. food for health and wellbeing – organic food and processing concepts and technologies

More investment in organic agriculture will lead to a stronger growth but also more resilient and sustainable agriculture in general.

At least 10% of the Horizon2020 budget should be available for organic farming research.
We need a strong Organic Action Plan.


Final Panel


Iman Boot – DG Agri, department of Research and Innovation (video start 02:28)

What does the EU want when it comes to agriculture. We do not want everybody in an organic farm. We want diversity, as it is the best condition to be resilient.

Yes, we have doubled the research budget and we are giving more attention to the organic agriculture.

How do we deal with the needs for research. In May we had an important event on this topic. It is intergrated in the context that we are looking at the longer term where we want to go with the research agenda. We see 5 topics including Resource efficiency and

Ecological approaches at farm and landscape level. But we want to look beyond Horizon2020.

The EU research programme of 2016-2017 (H2020) was presented last week and it pays a lot of attention to organic topics. But when is it organic? There are varies topics also interesting for organic farming eg. Testing and breeding for sustainability and resilience in crops, socio-economics in ecological approaches,… so the organic sector can benefit of these topics.

Of course it is good that a lot of money is available for research, but what about the access to those funds? Ms. Batur earlier today stressed the difficulty for smaller stakeholders to tender and this is indeed a point of concern for the Commission, as we lowered the amount of projects but increased the budgets, this is causing a number of problems.

Concerning the EIP, it is funded by the Rural Development and we try to make sure that the results are exchanged. There’s over 3000 projects now in Europe, including projects that study the yields of farms, but they could also focus on very practical issues like the design of machines.
We certainly want to strengthen the link between Horizon2020 and the EIP, by including the requirement in both projects for a multi-stakeholder approach and to use the available data of the network.

There is indeed a lot of knowledge available,but is not always accessible for farmers.


Vianney Le PichonGRAB and ITAB (video start 02:39)

Which are the choices that we have for sustainable agriculture? I think organic farming has the best future, but there’s too little investment in it. If you look at other sectors e.g. the automotive industry, they invest much more in prototypes than is invested in organic farming.

Secondly, we need a more ecological mindset concerning yields. Feeding the world is not an agricultural issue alone, there are more politics included. If we can manage to reduce the risks, we will become more productive. But this deals with the performances of organic farmers. We don’t want multiple but sustainable performances. It is very important to invest in this prototype. A few years ago there were a lot of greens and socialists elected in the regional councils and they decided to invest more in agriculture, away from chemicals, so that was a clear signal.

Thirdly, in France we have a lot of agricultural research, there are many stakeholders implied, we have a large bases of researchers. We try to gather all those who want to create a strategic framework, build a network and exchange information to TP Organics, and we are looking for all the information in the networks as well. FRONC is the name of this platform.


Edith Lammerts van Bueren (video start 02:47)

The Horizon2020 calls contain indeed a lot of Organic Agricultre, but you will depend on universities and they have no clue what multi-stakeholders approach means. So research needs to be re-designed.

Interesting is to see in EIP that a lot of money is spent on national and regional projects, but it is very difficult to obtain the money.

Not only farmers have to transition, researchers as well.

"Complex adaptive systems" is applied in Wageningen University and this pathway should encourage interaction.

The systems approach is more than the sum of elements, it is about the interactions, which indicators do you need to measure the interaction.

We also need new business models if we want to enforce resilience of our practices. The notice entrepreneurship is essential.

How can we come with new investment models, attract retailers, involve banks (like Triodos),...

Next, the legal framework should be adapted in favour of organic breeding.

Finally we focus on companies, governments, research funds, but the sector as such is active, the Organic Sector 3.0. If we want to be the leader, we need to evolve. We need to guide farmers to best practices in a cultural of continuous innovation. We should be more inclusive.

Cooperation with ngo's is good, but strategic partnerships with others might help to innovate.


Final Remarks


If the Commission tells the organic sector to use only organic seeds by 2021, without saying how to achieve this, we surely need more funds. The Parliament managed to rectify this in the proposals of the organic regulation.


What about the policy coherence of EU policies in agriculture? Investment support for small farmers, manure policy is not oriented at organic farming, nature policy wants to reduce ammonia emissions tolerating intensive pig farms next to reserved nature and punishing organic farmers.

Someone missed the Food and drinks industry.

What about monetising hidden effects of production, costs for CC, public health, environment,...


Susanne: comparing studies are interesting for politicians, but not necessarily for farmers. We need more primary research. We'll need other policies to change the paradigm.

Philippe: systems approach, the need to build up this approach. One of the problems is that we want to adapt the framework, whilst working within the current framework. That is the biggest challenge for society.

Thank you all!

GroenDe enige partij die sociaal én milieuvriendelijk is.


De Groenen/EVAGroenen en Europese Vrije Alliantie in het Europees Parlement.


Samen ijveren voor een beter Europa en klimaat?