What are the major challenges facing European agriculture? And how can research help farmers and the wider rural community meet these challenges? These questions were at the heart of a
conference on the future of agricultural research held in Brussels on 26 and 27 June.
The starting point of the event was the outcome of a foresight process carried out by the EU’s Standing Committee on Agricultural Research (SCAR). A Foresight Expert Group, set up in June 2006,
developed scenarios based on the factors most likely to disrupt European agriculture over the next 20 years.
In the climate shock scenario, an acceleration of environmental impacts related to climate change seriously disrupts European agriculture. The second scenario foresees an energy crisis, where
Europe’s lack of investments in bioenergies leaves it facing severe energy shortages when the oil price skyrockets.
A food crisis scenario envisages a world where global agriculture is faced with the challenge of providing sufficient, safe food for the growing world population. Finally, a ‘cooperation with
nature’ scenario offers a more optimistic vision of the future, in which society and technology work together to ensure sustainable development at all levels.
The authors of the foresight report note that by ‘disruption’ they mean fast change, resulting in both positive and negative changes. ‘Therefore the main challenge facing agro-food actors is
the speed of adaptation and proactive responses to secure a European lead in this area,’ they write.
Other speakers at the workshop backed up the foresight group’s findings, with most agreeing that climate change in particular would pose major problems for Europe’s farmers in the coming
‘There are already changes in rainfall intensity,’ noted J?n Olesen of the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences, who worked on the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC). Droughts, changes in seasonal cycles and increased vulnerability to other environmental pressures are just a selection of the many challenges agriculture will have to address as
a result of climate change, he said.
To help agriculture meet these challenges, research is needed into the secondary effects of climate change, such as diseases and extreme events, as well as into management methods and
technologies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector.
On energy, Steffen Daebeler of the German Agency of Renewable Resources said that research into biofuels should focus on the development of plants with a higher energy yield per hectare, and on
improved technologies for biofuel production such as second generation fuels and residue use. He also encouraged work into certification schemes.
Calliope Panoutsou of the European Biofuels Technology Platform agreed, and pointed out there would be no single solution to the biofuels issue, and that policy makers should allow technologies
to compete to develop biofuels. Studies should also focus on using as much of the crop as possible to boost efficiency.
However, one clear message coming from the conference was that it is not enough to carry out research; the knowledge generated must be turned into products and applications and reach farmers
and other stakeholders in a form that they are able to use in their decision making and activities.
‘We need the same thing as other businesses – access to research results,’ said Giacomo Ballari, President of the European Council of Young Farmers. ‘We need a common platform where researchers
and farmers can meet.’
‘We need a research environment which stimulates innovation and mechanisms for the rapid transfer of knowledge into applications,’ added Jim Scudamore of the European Technology Platform for
Global Animal Health.
The conference proceedings will be added to the other outcomes of the foresight process, which will feed into a report by the European Commission on the coordination of agricultural research in
Europe. The report will be presented to the European Parliament and Council in 2008.