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The future role for the European Innovation Partnership for agricultural productivity and sustainability

One of the new initiatives to be announced by the Commission when it publishes its legislative proposals for the CAP post 2013 on Wednesday 12 October next will be the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) for agricultural productivity and sustainability. The Commission attaches great importance to this instrument to address lagging productivity growth in agriculture and to contribute to increased innovation.

To date, there is relatively little information on how this new instrument would work and what it will mean. The Commission is still in the process of internal reflection to define the objectives and governance of the EIP. However, some light is thrown on the Commission’s thinking in the evidence of Commissioners Ciolos and Geoghegan-Quinn to a recent UK House of Lords inquiry into Innovation in EU agriculture.

The emphasis in the new tool is very much on overcoming perceived bottlenecks to getting research results adopted on the ground. According to the Commission’s analysis, the main problem is the insufficient information flow and missing links between different actors (farmers, advisers, enterprises, and researchers). As Mr Georg Häusler, Commissioner Ciolos’ chef de cabinet, colourfully put it in his evidence to the committee:

The basic difficulty seems to be that scientists are doing science somewhere in the corner and farmers are asking for something, but the scientists do not know what the farmers want and the farmers to not know what science does. This is why we launched the European Innovation Partnership.

European Innovation Partnerships – a new EU instrument

But first, some background. European Innovation Partnerships as a new approach to innovation were first proposed in the Europe 2020 strategy and further elaborated in the Commissions’ Communication on an Innovation Union in 2010. The idea was to speed up the development and deployment of the technologies needed to meet the various challenges for Europe identified in those documents. The Partnerships themselves focus on improved governance arrangements to help speed up the adoption of research findings and to overcome the fragmentation of research activity in Europe. Through Innovation Partnerships, the EU aims at rebuilding broken links in the chain between research and bringing innovation to the market.

Innovation Partnerships are a novel concept, so the Commission wanted to test the concept through a pilot partnership to help validate the added value of the concept, gauge the interest and commitment of all key stakeholders, provide insights into how best to develop work packages and assure effective governance. The pilot chosen was an EIP on active and healthy ageing. The ageing EIP was launched this summer following a public consultation and formation of a steering group to assist with the preparatory work. The Commission will later present an assessment of the experiences in this pilot, and preparatory work for the agricultural sustainability and productivity EIP is underway.

Objectives and functioning of the agricultural EIP

According to the Commissioners in their evidence to the House of Lords committee:

The main role of the future EIP ‘Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability’ would be to look at the whole innovation cycle from R&D all the way to products or services on the market and enhance the effectiveness and the integration of innovation instruments. In this respect it will rely mainly on existing instruments, rather than creating new ones. It will look at actions provided by the Rural Development Policy and the Research Framework. These may include cooperation, pilot-projects, knowledge transfer, advisory services, and dissemination. It is anticipated that the creation of a functioning network will fill the current gap between farmers, rural enterprises, and advisors, on the one hand, and science on the other to allow the sector to take full advantage of innovation to produce more with less. It will improve co-ordination between actors and facilitate the use of opportunities provided by the different policy fields (Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), EU Research Policy). will bring together all relevant actors at EU, national and regional levels in order to: (i) step up research and development efforts; (ii) coordinate investments in demonstration and pilots; (iii) anticipate and fast-track any necessary regulation and standards; and (iv) mobilise ‘demand’ in particular through better coordinated public procurement to ensure that any breakthroughs are quickly brought to market.

The partnership would mobilise and bring together all actors around a common target—from those conducting basic and applied research, all the way to the final user like farmers and businesses, including every step in between. This would require overcoming barriers resulting from a traditional ‘division of labour’, be it across geographical borders or areas of competence.

The partnership should provide these actors with a forum, in which they can identify, develop and test innovative solutions and ensure the smoothest possible transition from conception to implementation. In addition to these stakeholders, it will involve Programming Authorities, the SCAR, and the Commission.

To this point, the EIP seems something rather rarefied and top-heavy with a lot of meetings potential, but it is hard to see the direct connection with improvements in agricultural sustainability and productivity. Three tools within the EIP may give it more bite.

Funding

The first is the promise, in the Commission’s proposed multi-annual financial framework for 2014-2020, to increase funding in the next EU research programme (to be called HORIZON 2020) from less than €2 billion now to €4.5 billion. Most public agricultural research spending comes from member state budgets, but nonetheless this is a welcome increase.

Operational groups

The second tool is support for operational groups in the EAFRD Pillar 2 rural development budget. Here, the draft of the proposed rural development regulation (which may be revised next Wednesday), reads as follows:

The EIP for agricultural productivity and sustainability shall:

  • promote a resource efficient, productive and low emission agricultural sector, working in harmony with the essential natural resources on which farming depends;
  • help deliver a steady supply of food, feed and biomaterials, both existing and new ones;
  • improve processes to preserve the environment, adapt to climate change and mitigate it;
  • build bridges between cutting-edge research knowledge and technology and farmers, businesses and advisory services.
  • The EIP for agricultural productivity and sustainability shall seek to achieve its aims by:

  • creating added value by better linking research and farming practice and encouraging the wider use of available innovation measures;
  • promoting the faster and wider transposition of innovative solutions into practice; and
  • informing the scientific community about the research needs of farming practice.
  • EIP Operational groups shall form part of the EIP for agricultural productivity and sustainability. They shall be set up by interested actors such as farmers, researchers, advisors and businesses involved in the agriculture and food sector.

    Beyond this, there is little information on how these operational groups will function in practice.

    Farm Advisory Service

    The third, more speculative, tool is some revamping of the farm advisory services. Mr Häusler discussed this in his evidence to the House of Lords committee

    There is another difficulty with advisory systems to farms. We have FAS—farm advisory systems—which work in some countries but not as well in others. This is for various reasons. Sometimes administration has turned it into a system that farmers do not trust or use. What we are trying to do this time is emphasise the role of the farm advisory systems, give them a clear job description of what they are supposed to do, and also open up the system to private business consultants.

    Despite this suggestion of a change in direction, there does not appear to be anything new proposed in the draft regulation. Farmers can continue to be reimbursed for payments for the use of advice (provided the advisors also give guidance on cross-compliance regulations and the practices required for the new green payment), and funding will be made available (on a degressive basis over 5 years) to set up a farm advisory service

    Next steps

    There is nothing wrong with the idea of getting the various actors in the ‘innovation complex’ together to address potential bottlenecks to the diffusion of new ideas and to ensure that innovative ideas are put into practice. But it is hard to feel enthusiastic that the EIP instrument, as just described, is going to have a major impact in reversing the slowing growth of agricultural productivity in the Union. I may well be wrong when further details emerge of the role of operational groups. But I am sceptical of the idea that improving the spread of existing knowledge alone is the key to unlocking productivity growth, in the absence of significant new resources for agricultural research.

    The Commission intends to bring the Standing Committee on Agricultural Research (SCAR), farm organisations, environmental NGOs and Member States into its reflections during the coming months before finalising the EIP implementation plan. The official launch of the agricultural EIP will be followed by the establishment of a High Level Steering Group which will be tasked with identifying, prioritising and selecting the areas that will most benefit from a partnership approach, and deliver productive, sustainable agriculture through innovation. This will be followed by a presentation of the EIP to the Parliament and the Council. So there is still some way to go before this much-heralded instrument becomes a reality and we can really assess its potential.

    Front-page image from EU Commission, A Decade of EU-funded GMO research (2001-2010), Brussels

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