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Dacian Cioloș

Member of the European Commission Responsible for Agriculture and Rural Development

Getting ready for agricultural research and innovation

Conference on research and innovation in agriculture.

Brussels, 7 March 2011

We are now getting ready for the farming industry of tomorrow, a sector which, in the twenty-first century, will have to be sustainable and innovative in order to be competitive and integrated into society. This is why I must thank you for coming to this conference on research and innovation in agriculture.

Today I would like to issue a general call for action on the question of agricultural research and innovation - a subject which has for too long been left to the relative obscurity of scientific laboratories and academic publications. I would also like to give you a very clear message as to my determination to support research, innovation and knowledge sharing in the farming sector.

It is an area in which the European Commission has put some very ambitious proposals on the table. We are proposing to double the funding available for this area Europe-wide and to put in place a complete toolbox capable of amplifying the efforts put into agronomic research and innovation. I will come to this aspect later in more detail, as we need to work together on improving this toolbox.

In the economic and budgetary context in which we find ourselves at present, this is a strong message demonstrating our firm intention to reposition research and innovation in farming at the very core of our concerns, to make not only the financial but also the intellectual investment necessary, and to follow the process through to its conclusion, namely real-life application.

The challenges

We are entering a world in which there are many uncertainties which affect agricultural production and the sustainability of the farming profession:

  • economic uncertainty, and the unprecedented volatility of the markets;

  • climate and environment-related uncertainties, with more frequent and more extreme unforeseen events;

  • health-related uncertainties, with climate change and a new range of diseases not previously experienced at these latitudes, affecting all areas of human, animal and plant health.

We are also entering a world in which diversity represents both a necessity and a strength. A necessity, on the one hand, because tomorrow’s solutions need to be tailored to a very broad range of different situations, traditions and challenges. A strength, on the other hand, because by building on our diversity and know-how we will find innovative solutions that can be realistically applied in the field. Solutions can often by found by reconciling differences when striving to work together.

Lastly, we are entering a world in which farming needs to respond to society’s concerns and, in turn, to be understood by society. It is not just state authorities that have to listen, but also the farmers AND the researchers. Nature and the food we have on our plates represent permanent links between humans and nature, between farming and society. If these links are to be bonds of trust rather than representing a lack of confidence, science needs to take all aspects of farming into consideration, rather than focusing exclusively on production. Discussions on food and food production cannot be concluded behind closed doors for they have implications for all of society.

Research subject areas need to be expanded

In the 1960s and '70s, there were important challenges, but they were simpler than they are today: the foremost challenge was to produce enough. For the most part, the problems which had to be tackled by research scientists involved a single variable: the quantitative aspect of food security .

Nowadays the challenges are complex ones which force us to adopt another perspective on farming so as to be able to consider all its various aspects. In addition to the food security variable, which has itself become more complex, there are the variables of 'natural resources' to be conserved and 'territorial development', whereby economic activities conferring jobs and growth are to be cultivated in given areas.

In other words, from now on, all research avenues need to explored in order to fulfil our political objectives:

  • food security ;

  • the management of natural resources ;

  • but also aspects related to the agricultural economy as such, including, for example, the issue of adding value within the food chain, the organisation of specific sectors and the balanced development of rural areas.

All these problem areas need to be addressed in an inclusive way. What is a good idea for food security is only a good idea if it also respects ecosystems and the capacity of our natural resources, of our land, to keep producing food sustainably - for us, our children and our grandchildren.

We need to change our working methods

We should not, of course, simply dismiss the past and ignore all that has been done up to now. I am thinking in particular of the great research institutions on which European farming has been built. We need the expertise of these centres of excellence now more than ever.

However, if we are to make progress, we have to do away with managing knowledge within isolated 'vertical' specialist areas. We need to shift away from a knowledge-transfer culture to a culture in which all stakeholders are integrated into and participate in the research process so as to cross-fertilise approaches and thinking.

Genuine concertation along the entire agronomic knowledge chain, extending into the farms themselves, will make it possible to work more effectively on two counts:

  • Releasing the wealth of knowledge available and making it accessible. Present-day communication tools make information available at an astounding rate. Why not develop agronomic "wikis", easily accessed on each farm holding, along the lines of wikipedia?

  • Developing the knowledge which will shape the farming industry of tomorrow. Research is a long-term investment which needs to be prepared well upstream in order to gradually feed the stock of knowledge and give shape to the expertise which will form the basis of the economic and ecological competitiveness of twenty-first century farming. We have to show that we are capable of considering long-term issues without forgetting more short-term concerns of the main players.

In order to achieve both objectives, we need to do away with distinction between the scientific world and real-life practice. Both sides have to be involved in defining problems, analysing situations, investigating solutions and spreading knowledge. I await your expert input so that the best way of getting all stakeholders involved can be found.

The EU must be a facilitator, making available not only appropriations, but also an efficient toolbox for research and innovation

Today's conference is specifically dedicated to discussions aimed at ensuring that our toolbox contains the instruments and working and implementation methods needed so that we can interact effectively. Apart from the budget, we need to ensure that all stakeholders are working together in an integrated way.

Thanks to the Horizon 2020 Programme, the expanded Farm Advisory Service (FAS), the rural development programmes offering enhanced cooperation and innovation measures and the new European Innovation Partnership, we are in a position to address four priority areas:

  • Improving the identification of problem issues to be researched, specifying needs more precisely and expanding the field of 'sponsors' of research to include farmers;

  • Promoting research in all areas and for all agricultural structures, without having just a single model in mind. How can a very broad range of scientific disciplines be brought into play in a coherent fashion? How can subjects as disparate as ecology, genetics, soil science and molecular biology be made to work hand in hand? The more complex the problems, the more the solutions need to be based on multi-disciplinarity without exclusivity;

  • Supporting not only pure research but also applied research and innovation: in addition to scientific excellence, excellence in transfer and in practical application must be made to play a role. Alongside the conventional scientific communication channels, how can we develop short scientific communication channeles based on practical experience and innovative ideas from the grass roots? The full range of what is possible should be analysed without closing the doors to any ideas.

  • Lastly, ensuring that good ideas do not remain confined to scholarly publications but are, instead, made available to farm holdings, including small farms, and notified to all farmers. Knowledge transfer is a key element in a "bottom-up" approach, providing an effective response to practical questions.

I would like to thank you once again for taking part in today's event and to repeat that, looking beyond today, we need to go on working together more closely than we ever have in the past.

The budgetary resources allocated to achieving this are sizeable, and the European Commission has stepped up to the mark, undertaking to boost its capacity for action. It is also vital to boost the participation of all stakeholders and the synergies between them. This will undoubtedly prove the key to success in years to come, since all too often it is the clash between points of view and apparently contradictory starting positions which provides the spark for new ideas.

I wish you every success in your work.

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