It is believed by experts and also somehow confirmed by statistics that the European agriculture is losing a battle with international competition in the field of food production. Although the situation is by no means identical everywhere in Europe, an objective observer cannot help concluding that the European agro-food sector has been stagnating; even the Common agricultural policy itself is based on the assumption that agriculture “needs to get” income supports because it is uncompetitive. In some Member States and sectors, substantial direct payments under the Pillar I of CAP even exceed the level of generated income on the market. Thus, it no longer means only a compensation for the lack of competitiveness, but also gives a wrong signal to producers and has negative development consequences. Many producers today do not look for new opportunities in better technological or market solutions, more efficient use of resources or more reasonable combination of products, but rather adapt their decisions to the solutions stemming from the policy incentives.
Do we still need public research and knowledge transfer in agriculture?
According to economic theory and practice, the formation and transfer of knowledge form a basis of economic development. Have research and innovation in agriculture indeed been losing importance and their role in development? Perhaps it is also because of agricultural subsidies that the direct demand for knowledge and indirectly also for public applied research is today lower than in the past. Researchers indeed provide less and less direct applied solutions for farmers, as this type of research is less appreciated and valued than basic research. Today, the applied research and transfer of knowledge is increasingly coming mainly from the industry of agricultural inputs, which, however, can only reach the best. Besides, it often follows its own commercial interests and thus fails to adapt the solutions to concrete situations in a concrete geographical environment. The truth is also the more agriculture is undeveloped, the less successful is private research and commercial transfer of knowledge in achieving their economic and public goals.
In European agriculture is often a perception that in agriculture everything has already been known and discovered. This is not and cannot be true. No economic activity can behave this way if it wants to be successful. If nothing else in a large part of Europe, there is still a huge gap in technological development and organisation of agriculture. Also public extension services in agriculture, which have been quite well presented in many countries, call for a serious consideration, as they record less and less contact and support for the best farms and also less success on the remaining farms with somehow development capacity. In a vast majority of European countries and regions, a well developed public sphere of formation and transfer of knowledge will be required for quite some time.
New “smart” idea: “networking for growth”
The problem of non-competitiveness stemming from non-innovation is a serious one. Apparently, also the European Commission became aware of that. It decided to propose “agricultural productivity and sustainability” as one of the three subjects of the European Innovation Partnership (EIP), new strategic orientations of the European Union. It proposed to use new tools to support “interactive networking” of various stakeholders in the chain of formation and transfer of knowledge from research to farming. According to this concept, researchers, advisers, entrepreneurs and other actors would work together in solving individual development issues. They would have a clearly set goal which they would try to meet by a mutual effort to find new solutions and/or transfer the existing knowledge. This would be a new method of connecting research with practice at the European and national levels. Last but not least, by this approach the Commission would apparently try to indirectly contribute to the modernisation of agricultural policy.
The funds will be provided at the European and national levels. At the European level, various projects of transfer of knowledge, support to thematic networks, establishment of pilot and demonstration projects would receive support under the research policy (strategy “Horizon 2020”). Some of these projects have already been present today, also now they are expected to operate at the widest possible European level.
The greatest novelty of the new concept lies in the new accents of the rural development policy. In the future rural development programmes for individual regions, the Operational Groups will obtain start-up funding. These funds will be earmarked for cooperation of individual stakeholders, their common information activities, organisation of workshops, gathering and transfer of knowledge on best practices, etc. Particularly important will be the pilot and demonstration projects by which new or existing solutions will be tested in the new environments. It will cover all types of innovation, technological or non-technological, organisational or social. Operational Groups will not be linked to a particular area but will be organised on the basis of a common concrete problem.
Lets talk about the concept
The concept is rather abstract, modern, but still rather vague. More than 200 representatives of various groups of potential stakeholders of the future EIP system for agriculture therefore attended with great expectations the conference organised by the Commission in Brussels on 19 November. The organisers intended to popularise the EIP concept and obtain the opinion of various European groups on the priorities and methods of operation of the partnership, all with the goal of enhancing the concept. I attended the conference as a representative of the European Association of Agricultural Economists.
In the first part of the conference various already functioning ideas of cooperation between research and practice were presented. An Austrian organic farmer presented his company which uses various development projects to reach consumers in a more innovative manner.
An agricultural adviser from Poland presented a network which brings together demonstration farms in Poland which present various technologies and practices related to environmentally-friendly and more efficient use of soil. A project »Dairyman« brings together the dairy farmers, students, advisers and researchers who examine and learn about how to manage more efficiently dairy farms on 130 pilot projects in 10 regions of northern and western Europe. A representative of a Flemish innovation support centre presented how a pig producer put to practice an innovation related to a new method of treating liquid manure in a way to reduce ammonia emissions. A potato producer from the Netherlands presented how they used various projects to test in practice the innovations in the area of precision agriculture. A researcher from Italy reported on the results of a large research project in the area of integrated pest management, where a wide range of researchers from the EU countries develop and transfer to practice the technologies of smaller pesticide input and better risk management in this area.
The second part was a attempt to involve all the participants in a large workshop dedicated to setting priorities and activities of EIP. The results of this workshop primarily confirmed the necessity as well as the goals of the new methods in the area of agriculture and in this manner helped legitimise the Commission’s approach. By and large, it was not difficult to agree that improved connecting and networking of individual links in the chain of knowledge would contribute to a better income position in agriculture and in rural areas as well as to sustainable management of natural resources. The workshop also showed that there are still a lot of ambiguities concerning the implementation of this concept in practice, in particular as regards the definition of assistance for the formation and functioning of operational groups in the rural development programmes.
Some are confused
The representatives of ministries for agriculture of Member States expressed their doubts about their proper understanding of how they should plan and form these measures; they admitted their fear that because of potential incorrectness established later, the regions and countries would have to return funds to Brussels. Certain uneasiness was felt on the side of environmental organisations, as a clear emphasis on the need for new production technologies and greater productivity was not in line with their general environmental paradigm and orientation to organic farming.
It was interesting to find out that mostly the representatives of some economically and therefore agriculturally more developed Member States prevailed in this Babylon discussion. Will this new concept again be suited to the needs and social values of the northern part of Europe? The east and the south still feature rather undeveloped agriculture, unused potentials and inadequate formation and transfer of knowledge. Will the institutional solutions as to the definition of research issues and methods of supports to the transfer of knowledge thus really get to where they are the most needed?
Please, not new innovation for redistribution
Regardless of these questions, it is necessary to welcome this new shift in the approach of the European agricultural policy. We recommend it to be less abstract and involve less “sweet talk”. EIP will need to be translated as soon as possible to the administrative language of rural development programmes and research policy priorities. The approach needs not only to enable easier realisation of the mostly good ideas of connecting science and practice, but it has to result in actual changes of the key development indicators. It should also be proved that this knowledge will actually get to the farmers and agriculture.
Therefore, a new system of monitoring and assessment of these measures will need to be established. More suggestions need to be given to the drafters of measures on how to prepare these supports. Why not in the form of conceptual outlines of various possibilities of defining supports for operational groups?
On the other hand, the researchers and advisers who will be the key stakeholders in operational groups should not see this new support only as a new possible source of finance, but more as a commitment to achieve together with farmers the real results in practice. EIP must not become only a new, more sophisticated form of redistribution of public funds, but a real support to the development and growth of the European agriculture. And it should not be a problem if it stresses the importance of larger and more efficient production. But the formation of a new innovation policy is not only a task of the Commission. The success of the partnership can only be assured by the shift of mind and a change in approach of all the involved stakeholders and by the awareness that knowledge is an essence of development and survival.
This post was written by Emil Erjavec.