Innovation on farms, to improve food supply, addressed by conference

Innovation Profile Aims include competing in a global market, efficient production and preserving resources

From left: Prof Gerry Boyle, director, Teagasc; Tom Kelly, director knowledge transfer, Teagasc; Inge Van Oost, EU Commission, DG agriculture and rural development; and Dr Hugh Brady, president UCD

From left: Prof Gerry Boyle, director, Teagasc; Tom Kelly, director knowledge transfer, Teagasc; Inge Van Oost, EU Commission, DG agriculture and rural development; and Dr Hugh Brady, president UCD

Thu, Aug 1, 2013, 11:06

The need for increased on-farm innovation in order to meet the food supply and security challenges which lie ahead for Europe and, indeed, the world was addressed at a three-day Knowledge Transfer Conference organised by Teagasc in UCD earlier this month.

The conference’s aim was to facilitate discussions among policy-makers, advisory-services managers and other stakeholders on the effectiveness of farm-advisory services in giving innovation support to farmers (through measures proposed in latest Common Agricultural Policy round for 2013 to 2020).

This renewed focus on farm-advisory services and the need for innovation in agriculture is driven by increased global demand for food that is produced efficiently and sustainably.

The EU recognises that supporting agriculture through market measures and direct payments contributes to the viability of production systems and the sustainability of the industry.

It is also recognised that European agriculture is losing competitiveness and that there is a widening gap in the adoption of new research knowledge, systems innovation and the implementation of improvements.

The latest round of CAP reform has seen economic support shifting from a production-based approach to one primarily aimed at supporting the public good.

This will require improved efficiency in production which in turn will bring the role of agricultural research and advisory services centre stage.

Improving support
This has resulted in an EU proposal to improve innovation support systems for farmers and improve the adoption of new and relevant technologies on farms through the expansion of the role of the Farm Advisory System (FAS) and the establishment of a European Innovation Partnership (EIP) for “agriculture productivity and sustainability”.

The aim of the conference was to create an opportunity for what has been described as some “slow thinking” on how farm advisory services and agricultural consultants can contribute to innovation.

Among the keynote speakers was Inge Van Oost of the European Commission who told the conference that the EU is very aware of the important role advisory services will play in solving future challenges that farmers will have to adapt to.

“Staying competitive in a changing agricultural world is not easy and business-as-usual will not be enough.

“There is an increasing global demand for food and not only for food, but also for feed, fuel, fibre, bio-based products etc.

“There is also a huge need to preserve our finite resources and to manage them more efficiently.

“Marrying these needs and demands and staying competitive on a global market is our common mission. That is why we need innovative approaches that we build together, and this is what the EIP wants to deliver.”

According to Dr Tom Kelly, head of knowledge transfer with Teagasc, farm advisory services and the proposed EIP hold the prospects of significant benefits for Irish agriculture.

“Having an effective advisory service to farmers is essential for the flow of new innovative ideas out from the applied research being undertaken onto commercial farms”, he says.

“Advisory is a contact sport, with people engaging with people regularly, to exchange knowledge and information and to influence and convince farmers to adopt and implement new technologies in their business.”

The farm advisory service in Ireland is well developed, having been in existence in one form or another for over 100 years, Kelly adds.

“Advisers are key enablers of change and innovation, as they build bridges between research and farmers and between businesses.

“Having an organised innovation support system in a diverse industry like agriculture is critically important and it needs to be actively managed and developed for new innovative techniques to emerge and be applied on farms.”

He cites the example of farmer discussion groups as an excellent model for knowledge transfer, where advice and information creates peer-to-peer learning.

“This model of extension service is much more developed in Ireland than in other European countries and hence the reason why the European Commission was anxious to hold this joint conference with Teagasc in UCD.

“Independent research has shown that farmers who are members of discussion groups are more likely to adopt new innovative technologies and achieve significantly higher margins in their business enterprises than those not in discussion groups.”

He believes the creation of the EIP holds out very significant opportunities for Ireland in future.

“EIP has been written into the rural development section of the CAP, as part of the ongoing CAP reform process,” he points out.

“It is part of the so-called ‘pillar two’. It’s still being developed but it has the potential to harness and share information on best practices across countries and across farm enterprises.

“There is an opportunity to expand the use of best-practice in knowledge transfer onto farms.

“In Ireland and within the organisations involved in innovation, support for farmers must work to achieve much more and leverage the support of industry stakeholders and consumers.

“There is a huge opportunity to improve agricultural productivity and sustainability through the new European Innovation Partnership.”