To all who participated: Note that this is a closely adapted transcription from the audio recording! This is a wiki document, you can edit it if you want to modify your own words.
The intention with the event was to lay the foundation for meaningful collaborations to come out of it. We meet, we connect, we understand where we’re all coming from and see what common priorities and topics emerge, then Edgeryders manages the community to follow up and explore new projects with those interested.
18 Participants: Entrepreneurs, farmers, activists, researchers, public servants, EU workers in service of the agriculture sector, and people passionate about food.
Countries: Serbia, Poland, Croatia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, US (and others where some participants originate)
The image of the farmer is a primary concern in food sustainability
@angelo: I’m from Italy, I live in Brussels since 2010. I’ve been covering agricultural news exclusively for 7 years, and since 2016 also environment, climate and EU policy. I write for ANSA, the main Italian news agency, and I also collaborate as a writer with other projects, such as a Horizon2020 on plant health. I met edgeryders 10 years ago and was really interested in the open approach.
I’m concerned about the gap between urban and rural, farmers and environmentalists, and this is something I would like to overcome. I cannot stand these ideological battles. I’d like to contribute to fill the gap.
@Paco21: I’m living 30km in the North of Brussels, in Flemish Keerbergen. I’m staff for the Flemish Land Agency, a gov agency in charge of rural development […] Sometime I’m advising my friends in Africa in sustainable agriculture, because I’m an agronomist specialising in rural ecology.
My concern is the perception that we have regarding the farmers. All the problems start with the way we look at farmers. We tend not to take seriously the work they are doing. We have more respect for someone who is a teacher, who has a PhD etc. The farmer is the one producing the food: if you don’t have anyone producing the food, you can have all the degrees but there is an issue. Besides, there is a social and environmental care and the role of biodiversity that we don’t put a focus on.
Are policy instruments like the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) Agri working? How are local farmers accessing the funds?
@Paco21: The purpose of EIP was to change the way we look at things. It is happening slowly, but we saw the increase of the people involved in the process. Ex: in Horizon, the EC research program, in the past they were always taking farmers as sub partners. But one of the criteria to evaluate multi actor projects dealing with societal challenges is involving the farmers’ community. It is early to see the impact - we did it for only 8 years, and for the next period the system has been reinforced. What we got as feedback even from some researchers - they say that it is interesting that what they are doing is applied. But they are still reluctant, because it doesn’t end with a nice publication in science journals.
First of all, the issue is that you still have local authorities in between. There is no direct contact between EIP and local actors. Brussels is delegating everything at national level, but people still complain that they cannot access.
Rural development pillar 2. is really dedicated to local actors. Each region in Europe has that specific program and they are free to apply or not. As soon as the regions apply, 80% of the funding comes from the EC, and 20% from local funds. If you’re not successful, you don’t need to pay back. The tricky thing is that the call for projects is launched by each state or region, and the local selection means everyone is free to organise a consortium.
@Angelo: The EIP attempts to put together the practice and the theory. I can talk about the Italian experience. In the 20th century, there were itinerant professors, they went on the field. Most of this practice-theory approach is lost partly because of this publish-or-perish system that Pacome referred to. It’s important because it’s public research! Agricultural research until the 50s and 60s were mostly public. After that, corporations took their space and now agricultural research is mostly corporate. Nothing bad in that. They do their job and want the return on investment. We need instead something that is not related only to ROI, something related to communities and everyday problems. There are 2 sides to the coin: we need more local, everyday problem research, and more long term big research. And we need the public sector support and openness in both these two levels of research and innovation.
@Nadia: What stands in the way of building new journals or publication channels that premier that kind of practice oriented research?
@Angelo: If I remember well, one of the drivers of this EIP approach was the consideration of the researchers themselves, that they were totally separated from the farmers.
@Paco21: There is no testing on the field. For some of the researchers it started to be boring to do things where people don’t see the results. Local farmers sometimes don’t have the ways to reach the researchers, they speak other languages etc. They know they have a problem here, and would need the solution. We are bringing them together. In the agriculture environment, the problems are complex, you don’t have one researcher that has the answer. You need different expertise to come to a common solution. The way we perceive the farmer is important: we need to make him feel proud of what is doing. Right now they’re ashamed, it’s not rewarding to say: I’m a farmer. I usually say a farmer is an entrepreneur.
The cost of farming innovation and why local food is more expensive
@FrankDieters: I live in Germany, but I work in the Netherlands. I recognise a lot of what I heard here. What I find very important from my experience and the research we did in the province of Limburg (south of NL), we have an innovative agricultural complex, international campus that specialises in food innovations and new business models.
It touched me when Pacome said we have to see the farmer as an important part of our communities. What we found was that the transition of the agro complex has to take into account that innovation power (= what comes after the first innovation) is financially driven. Our subsidies are most often focused on the first innovation, first pilot. We expect that the rest of the sector incorporates that in their business models. In the last 20 years there was so much focus on producing more and more, and in such a way that the environment would be respected, that the farmers had to invest in that. To be able to have a farm with cows, you have to have stables with a certain system. They became more and more advanced, and the Dutch government updated the bar, so a lot of them don’t have the means to implement a good solution in their own business. The banks don’t want to give more loans, it’s a high risk sector especially when entering the market.
We innovate, but if there’s no way to incorporate that in the business model of the mass, you’re not going to get to the transition that you want. You’re also wasting money, because the innovation doesn’t have the sustainable impact.
When we talk about local food being too pricy: the basic line is that if people pay more for their food, the farmer can earn more and therefore he has more money to innovate. But if we have a growing part of the population in precarious economic situation, the group that can actually afford to pay more for local products is getting smaller. You look at production and farmers, but in the end they need to be bought. Local food as a business model is not going to be a sustainable model.
@Paco21: The problem: when you do produce something, you have the cost of production, and the price you need to live from your activity. We need to understand that the farmer needs a revenue to live off of that.
I think there is an issue of the production cost: when you look at the huge farms, or imports, you come to the scale economies. If you want to make it affordable, we should look at the production factors. When you have input coming from the outside, expensive, the product will reflect the production cost. It is a specific sector, not like other commodities, and we cannot avoid the same principles. We are now considering agriculture as something like: you can produce everything. But at a cost.
@Vladb : We do have a philosophy in our operation to make good food accessible, and the accessible food has to be good quality. Yes, you need to have an entrepreneurial mindset: we do have costs that cannot be amended. In small farming, you cannot have the economies of scale, but you need to have some economics in your prices and match the costs with what the consumer can pay. There may be the best tomatoes ever, but no one is going to buy them. In Romania, we have a large portion of the society that is unable to pay a large amount of money for exceptional quality. This puts me in the situation of having to find ways to make my farm more efficient. I do believe you need to have support for farmers to buy machinery and infrastructure that helps them lower the costs. The more investments you make, you can lower your costs and sell your products at a better price.
@Nadia: When we were talking about research, I picked up that there were channels through which knowledge is produced and validated, and it doesn’t serve farmers, or they are not necessarily appreciated. How new ideas and new models are coming into the farming community - and how tied this is to the social and political context? This conservative wave passing through the continent - are we seeing that in farmers’ communities, or are they completely disconnected?
@angelo: The Farm-to-Fork strategy is the EU strategy for the next 10 years, it’s about food sustainability. There was a lot of insistence to put into it some targets - not measurement tools, but rather political communication tools. For instance, we will cut halve the use of pesticides in 10 years. This is a good message for mobilizing urban dwellers. But farmers reaction in rural areas is: oh my god, and how am I going to make my living? This message is too simplistic and getting it as a target makes people in rural areas angry. So the message has the opposite effect on the two sides, galvanizing the urban dwellers and disappointing farmers. The farmers, in my experience, are not champions of innovation, they are a bit conservative. They are thinking about making a living. With this kind of communication, you are pushing them towards the conservative way. There is this gap where we don’t talk the same language.
@lylycarrillo: All those rules, legislations put a lot of administrative load on the farmers. To have a certification, they need to collect thousands of papers, so their work gets very complicated. Their work is affected by this load from even us as consumers wanting change. They are getting tired. To be honest, there are not enough farmers. What do we need to do? Actually there is enough research, but we need farmers, we need to take care of them.
@Dragan_Jonic: When I say that organic food has to be expensive, it doesn’t mean it has to be so for the end user. The producer must receive much more incentives from the state, maybe some vouchers for the state to provide for the poorer population. There’s problems farmers have with all the paperwork, a phenomenon called bolshevization: they have to fill in forms and it takes a lot of their time which means food has to be expensive. For example, organic onions are 3 times more expensive than commercial one. On one hand, the food has to be expensive to reward producers, and on the other hand, if you want to be healthy, you have to pay a bit more for this. Otherwise the state will have to pay for your health.
Breakout sessions raised the following issues:
What is food quality?
For @Vladb: to get a product with the best nutritional value and having little time from the farm to the fork. For Angelo: two ideas of quality- 1. food safety 2. taste and the uniqueness, the tradition behind a product - we might push more for that third notion of quality. For @EwaJ-L: ‘We need a just transition in agriculture’.
How do farmers handle administration? Do we/they need more digital?
Vlad: We had a strong digital presence from the get go. It’s difficult to sell your product in a physical location - organic, not a huge quantity. I also prefer this. The support for administration and subsidies are poorly thought out, and not focus on growing small farmers into being better.
Angelo: In the farming community the narrative of ‘no alternative’ is overwhelming, so I see a strong need to get more information and practical solutions: how to change the use of pesticides etc. This is far from the debate, we focus on the first part of innovation and then we also need to know how to make it available for everybody. This is what we called technical assistance.
‘You need to offer them more than just a plot of land’
This is the topic discussed at length in the end of the session. Read about it in this post and register for the next session 23 November at 18:00 CET.