On Day 3 of GCARD, a group of international and French journalists braved grey skies and blustery winds to discover some of the cutting-edge research which is going on in the greater Montpellier region, as part of the Agropolis International scientific cluster.
Montpellier is home to some 20,000 research scientists who together form the biggest global aggregate of expertise in the fields of agriculture, food, biodiversity, environment and rural livelihoods, with a specific accent on development in the Mediterranean and tropical regions.
RESTINCLIERES AGRO-FORESTRY FARM
First stop was the agro-forestry experimental farm of Restinclieres, 6 km north of Montpellier where the brooding landscape of the Cévennes unfolds, with rolling hills, dense Mediterranean vegetation, limestone and granite rockery.
Christian Dupraz, head of research at INRA and a pioneer in the field of agro-forestry mixed cropping system, explained results of this experimental farm which has been in operation for 15 years, and which boasts more than 40 species of trees interspliced with different types of crops.
“This place is one of the hot spots for agro-forestry at the moment in Europe, it’s because of this farm that we changed the regulations of the European Community for the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) for agro-forestry,” he said.
At present, about 300 hectares of agro-forestry systems are planted every year, and the government hopes to plant half a million hectares in the next 25 years.
Pointing proudly to a field of walnut trees planted with winter crops (peas), Dupraz outlined the impressive productivity gains achieved. “When you do research, you try to improve the productivity of crops and when you get to 5% it’s really big. But here, this system, is 40-50% more productive than a similar field where trees and crops are separated. For both of them.”
While at present there are no government incentives available to farmers at the national leve, Dupraz said that in April there would be new legislation paving the way for regions to allocate grants to encourage agro-forestry.
Explaining the reasons for the spectacular productivity gains, Dupraz invited journalists to tread through the mud to take a look at the root systems of one of the walnut trees. “The very big influence of crops on the system is that the winter crops – wheat or peas – use water at the beginning of winter and force the tree to go down. So the trees have no water stress in summer because they have very deep roots. This is one explanation for the fast growth of trees in such a system. There are other explanations, like nitrogen from the crops is captured by the trees to grow faster.”
Another benefit reaped by mixed systems concerns sunlight. In winter, the tree has no leaves, so the sun is not used by the forest, but by the crop. In summer, after the crop is harvested, the tree has leaves and uses sunlight. Biodiversity, too, is considerably enhanced by mixed cropping. Dupraz said that the fields had seen the return of bats, which control a number of insects which can be damaging to crops. These bats need an echo-radar to fly, which is provided by the trees.
ECOTRON – EUROPEAN RESEARCH PLATFORM TO STUDY ECOSYSTEMS AND BIODIVERSITY RESPONSE TO CLIMATE CHANGE
Next stop was Ecotron, one of the world’s most advanced research platforms for the study of how climate change affects ecosystems and biodiversity. Jacques Roy, head of the Joint Research Unit CEFE (Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology), explained that the principal goal of the Ecotron is to confine ecosystems in chambers to simulate future climate scenarios and to measure accurately the main flows of gases generated by the ecosystem.
Ecotron-based experimental programs – the other operating Ecotron is located in Reno, U.S. – are interfaced tightly with computational modeling, biological molecular analysis, and large-scale monitoring of natural systems.
The platform is open to the international scientific community, future projects will be selected by an international committee. The first experiment involves confining soil samples from Theix in the Massif Central in central France and studying their response to 2050 climate scenarios and different combinations of stressors.
PLANT DEVELOPMENT AND GENETIC IMPROVEMENT UNIT, LAVALETTE CAMPUS
This lab facility focuses on the study of agro-biodiversity of Mediterranean and tropical crops to identify superior combinations of alleles of genes of agronomic interest for delivery in plant breeding schemes. This unit is one of the pioneers in the construction of the first molecular maps in tropical crops such as banana, cocoa, sugarcane, oil palm, coconut and rubber.
INNOVATION IN THE AGRIFOOD SECTOR
This facility specializes in applied research for food and nutrition in the developing world, and the group was given an in-depth presentation of a pilot project which CIRAD has successfully brought to fruition involving an innovative and low-cost mango dryer for Burkina Faso.
Next on the agenda is development of a mango dryer which is fuelled by biomass – mango stones and cotton fibre – which is due for testing in the second half of 2010.
Wrapping up the visit, Max Reynes, Research Director of the unit, evoked a recurrent theme at GCARD: the tension between science for publication and science for the end-user. “If you publish a paper on mangoes in a journal devoted to mangoes, the impact is very low. If you publish this paper in a genome journal, then your impact factor is high. If you want the research community to be aware of the work, you must publish in the genome journal. But nobody in the mango sector will know about your work.”
Here’s a link to a video report of the site visits by French web TV channel PRES TV.