Alternatives for contentious inputs: Research well on track, 30 November 2021-1 December 2021

On 30 November and 1 December, the Organic Innovation Days 2021 entitled “Better inputs for organic agriculture” took place online. In 2021,TP Organics’ annual public event, and the only EU event on research and innovation for organic agriculture, collaborated with the two Horizon 2020-funded EU projects RELACS and Organic-PLUS. Both projects aim to reduce the use of controversial inputs in organic farming. 

About 140 participants gathered and actively engaged, asking many questions and participating in the intense discussions, exchanging views on the various alternatives to controversial inputs in organic farming and strategies to minimise their use, as well as the socio-economic aspects involved. 

Day 1: Alternatives to contentious inputs in organic farming 
On 30 November, participants learned more about the outcomes of research on alternatives for plant protection products such as copper and mineral oil, as well as soils and nutrients, peat and plastics, antibiotics, vitamins, and novel bedding materials in livestock husbandry. 

All about plant protection 
The event started with a presentation by expert Annegret Schmitt from the Julius Kühn Institute on the topic of copper, about promising alternatives for copper that have been developed but show some limitations. More continuous research is needed in the future. Nikolaos Katsoulas (UTH), another expert on this topic, emphasised in his presentation that zero-copper in plant protection cannot be achieved by a simple substitution strategy; it requires a profound reconstruction of the crop production system.  Vincenzo Verrastro from CIHEAM-IAMB showed the participants that alternatives to mineral oils are feasible, effective, in line with EU policies, and a safe option for the environment. Bringing innovations such as the practical application of the vibration signal method to the market requires support from consultants/advisors and an action plan to promote these innovations. 

Soil and nutrients 
In the following session, alternative soil nutrients as well as peat and plastic were presented and discussed by the experts Jakob Magid from Copenhagen University, Anne-Kristin Løes from Norwegian organic research institute NORSØK and Francis Rayns from Coventry University (Organic-PLUS).  Nitrogen use efficiency is highly variable between countries and farms​ and in the case of many farms below 60 kg N/ha. To ensure nutrient supply and avoid soil nutrient depletion, recycling of societal waste streams needs to be further developed and researched. Anne-Kristin Løes stressed that the demand for nutrients and organic matter to be applied in organic agriculture will increase significantly due to the EU Farm to Fork target of 25% organic land target by 2030. On the use of plastic and biodegradable mulch films, Francis Rayns remarked that many types of alternative materials are available, but more knowledge about treatment technologies and applications is needed. Loose mulch films also require further investigation, especially for small and medium growers. Organic farming should lead the way in phasing out the use of peat.

Alternatives used in livestock husbandry
In the afternoon, several experts talked about alternatives that can be used in livestock husbandry. Michael Walkenhorst from FiBL presented how to combat mastitis, one of the most important diseases in dairy cattle, with essential oils and without antibiotics. One challenge in introducing alternative animal husbandry methods that replace antibiotics is educating veterinarians and farmers about the protocol and legal requirements. Animal Health and Welfare Planning (AHWP) could halve antibiotic use under certain conditions.

According to Spiridoula Athanasiadou from SRUC, Scotland’s Rural College and Tove Serup from Danish research centre SEGES, while alternatives to anthelmintics in organic animal husbandry have shown huge potential, these should not be seen as a new drug. What is needed above all is a rethinking of how immune response and nutrition can contribute to infection control. Håvard Steinshamn discussed the work of RELACS on the reduction of vitamin B12 supplements in organic chickens. In some groups, doses can be reduced, but others require further investigation. 

Next, Federico Righi presented novel bedding material researched within Organic-PLUS, including studies conducted on poultry, broilers and dairy cattle which provide comparisons to traditional bedding materials. 

The first day was concluded with summary statements by the project coordinator. Judith Conroy from Organic-PLUS pointed out the differences between countries. There is no single solution; a combination of alternatives must be sought. Lucius Tamm from RELACS added that robust varieties and biodiversity are key to all alternative solutions to contentious inputs. In various cases, results of this research can be relevant for conventional farmers, too. 

Day 2: Socio-economic aspects and the way forward for contentious inputs 
In the introduction to the second day, Bram Moeskops, Senior Scientific Coordinator of TP Organics, emphasised that the debate about improving organic practices and developing the sector comes at the right time, with the new EU Organic Regulation entering into force on 1 January 2022. Reducing use of the most contentious inputs is part of living up to organic’s principles. 

Socio-economic aspects
In the first insightful presentation of the socio-economic results, Adrian Evans from the Coventry University highlighted the benefits of working together with citizens and farmers in the frame of Organic-PLUS. Next, Assumpció Antón reported on the environmental impact assessment of controversial inputs and organic alternatives carried out according to the EU-recommended Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) method, covering the whole production chain and consumption. Limitations were pointed out, such as the lack of background data for organic farming. In addition, the methodologies for impacts on organic production are not yet fully developed, for example, the category of impacts on biodiversity.

Lucius Tamm identified different minimisation strategies. Especially input suppliers have lots of work and investment to do in the coming years regarding copper alternatives. Robust varieties mostly depend on breeders, but farmers, retailers and consumers have to adapt as well. This applies also to plant protection products like orange oil and Clitoria, vibrational disruption, recycled fertilisers, and matching regional resources with demand to replace mineral oil. 

Mathilde Calmels from IFOAM Organics Europe closed the first session of the second day with a presentation of the development European roadmaps for the reduction of controversial inputs. She reported on national workshops with farmers, advisors and scientists that have been organised to discuss the alternatives developed by RELACS. While alternatives to copper, mineral oils and nutrients are well acceptable based on current knowledge, residues and impurities remain bottlenecks. Compatibility with organic principles must be ensured. 

What can the Organic Action Plan deliver? 
Nathalie Sauze-Vandevyver, Director for Quality, Research & Innovation at the European Commissions Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI) explained what the EU Organic Action Plan can achieve. She thanked the organic movement and praised the excellent multilateral partnership for the research and innovation contributions of the organic sector. She also emphasised that organic farming supports the EU Green Deal and related EU Farm to Fork and EU Biodiversity targets. Some regulations hinder the uptake of natural products, which should be resolved to give farmers a bigger toolbox. Work is being done on this, but there is no separate system for registering products used in conventional and organic farming under horizontal legislation. 

Policy debate: Tackling contentious inputs in organic farming 
The highlight of the Organic Innovation Days 2021 was the policy debate moderated by Eduardo Cuoco, Head of the TP Organics Secretariat. It brought together Nathalie Sauze-Vandevyver, Werner Vogt Kaute, advisor at Naturland and project coordinator, and Faustine Bas-Defossez, External Impact Director at IEEP. 

Nathalie Sauze-Vandevyver underlined the importance of platforms like the Organic Farm Knowledge platform for knowledge exchange and revealed that organic farming has been selected as a priority in the EIP-AGRI work programme 2022. She also pointed out that the EU Action Plan aims to promote research and innovation in forestry, agriculture and rural areas, all relevant topics for the organic sector. Werner Vogt-Kaute agreed but noted that it is also important to promote advice directly on the farms. There is also a need for solutions for livestock farming, as far too little research is done on this topic. Research activities need to be intensified here!  

The panellists agreed that it is a challenge to reach the 25% organic target and at the same time reduce the contentious inputs. To overcome the challenges and reach the target, the results of projects such as those presented at the Organic Innovation Days must be used and implemented. Faustine Bas-Defossez added that the 2050 carbon neutrality target will have a major impact on the food and agriculture sector. In this framework, the organic sector should be an example for this complex but necessary transition. European Commission initiatives to make sustainable food affordable in the future were discussed as well. All panellists agreed that research and innovation are crucial, and it is important that research results reach the ground. 

Next steps 
The project coordinators closed the event. RELACS Project Coordinator Lucius Tamm argued for a systems approach that reshapes agricultural landscapes. New solutions require ecological and economic impact assessments. Acceptance along the value chain, independent advice and real cost accounting are crucial. Organic-PLUS Project Coordinator Ulrich Schmutz agreed and stressed the need for working together to improve organic. Other R&I actions should also be looked at, and farmers should be involved. 

Conclusion and announcement
We hope you enjoyed this year’s online edition of the Organic Innovation Days and the sessions you took part in! If you signed up for the event, you have access to the Hubilo platform for the next 30 days and are encouraged to take the unique opportunity to browse the resources section. To help us improve your experience, we kindly ask you to fill in this evaluation form about the programme and format of the event.

If you did not get the chance to attend the event, we are pleased to inform you that recordings and presentations of all sessions will be made available on the TP Organics website, so stay tuned!

Stay tuned and join us at the next edition of the Organic Innovation Days, which will be held in November 2022 in Belgium.

TP Organics is the European Technology Platform for Organic Food and Farming. IFOAM Organics Europe is a founding member and hosts its secretariat

RELACS seeks to promote the development and adoption of environmentally safe and economically viable tools and technologies to reduce the use of external inputs in organic farming systems. IFOAM Organics Europe is responsible for the communication and dissemination of project results as well as the coordination of the science-practice-policy dialogue. RELACS is an EU Horizon 2020-funded project.

Organic-PLUS project (O+) is a European Horizon 2020-funded project and aims to minimise, and eventually phase out contentious inputs from certified organic agriculture and to provide high-quality, trans-disciplinary, scientifically informed decision support to help all actors in the organic sector. By doing so organic food systems can be truer to the IFOAM organic principle of ‘ecology’.

These sessions are financed by the projects RELACS and Organic-PLUS, which have received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreements No 773431 and No 774340, respectively

This event is co-financed by the LIFE programme of the European Union, under the under the Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency (CINEA). This publication only reflects the views of the authors and its sole responsibility lies with IFOAM Organics Europe. CINEA is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information provided.

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