Mark Holderness, Executive Secretary of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, tells Inga Vesper about efforts to bring scientists and farmers closer together.
Europe’s farmers have a difficult relationship with those beyond their community. The consumers of their products, the 500 million Europeans who need a daily splash of milk in their coffee, tend to perceive farmers as swimming in subsidies, while EU politicians prefer to keep a safe distance from the demonstrations staged regularly by agricultural unions in Brussels.
Farmers themselves remain fragmented, with their own small businesses tied to a particular place. Farming practices are deeply rooted in tradition, and the language of cross-border collaboration and pan-European investments does not usually apply to farmers’ lives.
But more involvement of science is needed to bring farmers together on issues that affect them, says Mark Holderness, executive secretary of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research. It is also needed to tackle the huge problems around food production and climate change.
“One thing we have lost track of is the link between agricultural science and its clients,” says Holderness. “Research judges itself against quality standards that are external to the farmer, such as scientific papers. But for science to deliver something useful to farmers, we need to give farmers a direct say in what is researched.”
Based in Rome, GFAR was founded in 1996 to promote conversations between farmers, politicians and research funders. Its aim is to make agricultural and food research driven “by the needs and demands of societies”.
Over its 20-year history, the forum has made progress in giving farmers a voice in research projects, Holderness says. For example, its Foundation for South-North Mediterranean Dialogue worked with farmers, local universities, chambers of commerce and even chefs to analyse which innovations would be most useful to agricultural regions around the Mediterranean Sea.
‘We have lost track of the link between agricultural science and its clients.’
It has also turned its attention to improving farming metrics used in policy decisions, in line with the approach of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Governments like to boast about yields and tonnages for farming outputs, but gather little data on other areas, Holderness says—even though pressures such as climate change, poverty and increasing food waste demand better monitoring of agricultural impact.
“We are stuck in this paradigm that says ‘Let’s measure productivity’, but that is a perverse driver,” he says. “We need to measure much broader criteria, such as nutrition, waste and emissions. At present we are not aware of the full associated costs of farming.”
The forum’s efforts appear to be gaining traction. In July, the European Commission published a strategy on agricultural R&D that focused on bringing farmers and scientists closer together, by using online technologies.
And in October, a Slovakian EU presidency conference on the bioeconomy concluded that farmers must be involved in innovation and technological roll-outs from the start.
But the impact of any political strategies will be limited without big changes in funding capacity, Holderness says. The paradox is that the EU member states most reliant on agriculture are also the lowest spenders on research and among the least influential on EU priorities. Only 5 per cent of Horizon 2020 money goes to agricultural research and innovation, despite the fact that in member states such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria agriculture provides employment for nearly 40 per cent of the workforce.
Holderness says this demands an urgent rethink of priorities. “To make research spending fair, we need to look at the demand within countries and the political imperative for countries to be self-sustaining,” he says. “Rather than starting from a technology, we should look at future demand in Europe and work back to what research and innovations we need to get to that future. That would reframe the entire debate.”
Alternatively, European farmers could follow the lead of other regions, Holderness suggests, and set up joint investment funds. The Australian government has initiated a project on grain research under which the government matches the amount that farmers pay into a common research pot with additional public funds. “It’s industry investing in its own research and having a direct say in what is done,” Holderness says. “And it keeps the scientists on track to deliver something useful for the farmers.”
Holderness says he is optimistic that the forum’s work to bring farmers’ local viewpoints into agricultural science will ultimately help the field to compete for funding with trendier subjects such as digital technologies or space. “Agriculture ministers would like more science investment, but they do not have the evidence,” he says. “As it stands, science is prone to seeing agriculture as a last-resort industry, not as the most important industry on Earth.”
Photo credit: Norbert G. Via Flickr