If INRA in France understands the importance of agroecology, why not Defra?

This from Farming Online

French research agency pledges support for agroecology

Friday 05 April 2013

French state agricultural research agency INRA has pledged its support for a school of environmentally and socially responsible agriculture.

Last month INRA announced that it is, “committed to carrying out studies that are not only in step with but indeed anticipate the changing face of agriculture, with a view to achieving sustainable food and nutritional security for the 21st century.” The institute’s statements coincided with the unveiling of a new report on agroecological research; INRA already ranked agroecology in its top two research priorities in its 2010-2020 orientation document.

Agroecology is broadly the application of ecological principles to food production and the management of ‘agroecosystems.’ The approach takes a holistic view of food systems, but advocates context or site-specific approaches to studying these agroecosystems. It views long term sustainability and social justice as of (at least) equal importance to productivity.

The school, which has found influential supporters, including within UN organisations, uses sustainable techniques, and cutting-edge understanding from soil science to social science to create durable, resilient food systems.

At the annual Agricultural Salon held in Paris, INRA outlined its future plans for agroecology research and gave an update of projects already underway.

INRA researchers said the institute’s five research priorities include improving understanding of the biological interactions between plants, animals and microorganisms within agrosystems, and designing the agricultural systems of tomorrow. It called for the scope of what is considered agricultural R&D to be broadened. INRA believes research must be expanded to investigate the ecological relationships between cultivated and non-cultivated areas, with a view to supporting essential environment functions such as water purification, underground carbon sequestration, pollination, soil fertility and pest control.

The French agency will look at:

– The role of fungal decomposers in regulating the nutrient bank and organic content of soil;
– Best resistance of mixed forests and varietal combinations of grains to certain pests;
– Importance of mosaic landscapes for water quality and plant life;
– Innovations in agroecology, driving forces and obstacles.

Olivier de Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food and a devotee of agroecology has said, “Conventional farming relies on expensive inputs, fuels climate change and is not resilient to climatic shocks. It simply is not the best choice anymore today. A large segment of the scientific community now acknowledges the positive impacts of agroecology on food production, poverty alleviation and climate change mitigation.”

As well as in France, the agroecological approach is gaining ground in the United States and Germany. In January this year, a number of experts and sustainable farming organisations came together to launch the UK Agroecology Alliance at the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

Despite its growing support and “impressive potential”, de Schutter has cautioned that, “agroecology is still insufficiently backed by ambitious public policies.” He maintains, “Agroecology is a knowledge-intensive approach. It requires public policies supporting agricultural research and participative extension services. States and donors have a key role to play here. Private companies will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don’t open markets for chemical products or improved seeds.”

One thought on “If INRA in France understands the importance of agroecology, why not Defra?

  1. I am not convinced that Defra is the main or only culprit here. Defra is bankrupt and has pretty much retreated from funding agricultural research directly. The main power in the UK lies with the research councils. They only fund research in universities and the public institutes, not in private research organisations which are the ones who engage with farmers. Secondly, ecology is funded by one research council (NERC) whereas another (BBSRC) which funds ‘ life science’ research funds mainly molecular biology which is miles away from what happens in a field. They arent joined up.

    So the sentence ” It requires public policies supporting agricultural research and participative extension services.” is not going to happen because of the organisation of research in the uk. Any one involved with ‘extension’ is excluded from most agricultural research funding.

    Study of the history of science shows that size and power matter, and the research councils rather than being concerned with doing what is right, are political organisations whose main role is to fight for their own power bases and funding.

    I suspect the weakness is that here are few politicians now with any scientific training, who can challenge and stand up to the smart and business orientated people running the research councils. I am sure the argument goes something like this: the uk needs to be more innovative to grow economically… We can only be more innovative by doing blue skies research, where the power to sequence genes increases exponentially every year…. The power of systems biology (whatever that is) will transform the world… So give all the research funding to us and we will deliver ‘innovation’. Who could argue against it ?

    It is perhaps timely to reflect that while Mrs Thatcher did a lot to break up agricultural research in the UK, the one thing she could do, because she had a scientific training, was stand up to eminent professors arguing for more funding for their own pet areas.

    I worked at INRA in the 1990’s and it’s a great organisation.We no longer have an organisation like it in the uk. I can only think that the French farming leadership are the ones lobbying government for the right research funding and type of research. Has the NFU ever had a vision for what our agricultural research should do, and how it should be organised ?

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