Innovation in EU agriculture - European Union Committee Contents

CHAPTER 3: Innovation—theory and practice

    "Innovation is not a new phenomenon. Arguably, it is as old as mankind itself. Where would we be without such fundamental innovations as agriculture?"

Jan Fagerberg[31]

33.  In this chapter, we explore the theory of innovation and, in particular, its application to the sustainable intensification of agriculture discussed in Chapter 2.

34.  Joseph Schumpeter is known as one of the leading thinkers on innovation.[32] He saw innovation as a process over a period of time, involving individuals as entrepreneurs as well as large companies. While he considered it to be creative and beneficial, he also recognised that it could be destructive for some, unleashing the "gales of creative destruction".[33] It is important to note that, while boosting innovation is largely positive, it can have negative consequences, particularly of a social nature. When seeking to stimulate innovation in agriculture, Governments must be alert to this side effect.


35.  There have been major developments recently in understanding agricultural innovation as a process, as outlined in Box 2. These developments are important not least because they provide insights into how agricultural innovation can be enhanced across Europe in the 21st century.

36.  For many years, agricultural innovation studies were preoccupied with adoption and diffusion, an approach popularised by Everett Rogers's pioneering work on US farming. Innovations were seen as products developed by scientists, disseminated by advisory bodies and then put into practice by farm businesses.

37.  More recently, this view has been challenged by findings that agricultural innovation is heavily influenced by a wide range of local contextual issues, including the management goals of farmers, the type of farm enterprise, and local contacts that farmers may have. This depiction sees agricultural innovation as a social process dependent on farm-level knowledge, rather than the simple adoption of a new product or technique.

38.  A third approach treats agricultural innovation as a systemic process, involving not just farmers and scientists, but a range of intermediary organisations and factors (agricultural suppliers, wholesalers and retailers, and advisory bodies) as well as responding to new market demand and changing societal attitudes to innovation. Agricultural innovation from this viewpoint involves coordinating new technology, social attitudes, and R&D and advisory organisation activities, and introducing new policy approaches where needed, through what is termed an "Agricultural Knowledge and Information System". These are increasingly becoming known as Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation Systems.

39.  As we explore in Chapter 5, we heard that these approaches are all present to some degree in contemporary European agriculture and are not mutually exclusive.


Three theories of innovation as applied to agriculture

Innovation as a top-down dissemination of new technologies: science and research drive innovation through knowledge transfer to farms (Beal and Rogers 1959;[34] Rogers 1962, 1983[35])

Innovation as a bottom-up process: local context and farm-level networks shape innovation outcomes (Röling 1988;[36] Clark 2005, 2009[37])

Innovation as a socio-technical process: farm businesses, agricultural R&D and advisory organisations, retailers, wholesalers, higher education and regulatory bodies shape innovation as an agricultural knowledge and information system (R½ling 1992;[38] Birner et al. 2006;[39] Klerkx and Leeuwis 2008[40]).

40.  Professor Maurice Moloney, Chief Executive, Rothamsted Research, emphasised the centrality of innovation to agriculture: "the whole history of agriculture has been about innovation".[41] As we were reminded, however, the very factors that have forced agriculture to innovate through the ages—a unique confluence of climate, disease and price volatility—are also responsible for a reluctance to take the bigger risks that drive innovation forward. The National Institute for Farming and Food Investigation and Technology of Spain (INIA) commented that "the sector does not have, of its own, the energy or the resources to drive the changes and innovation that are needed".[42] We agree that innovation is an intrinsic aspect of agriculture. This does not mean, though, that the industry should be unsupported in its efforts to innovate. Rather, the particular risks that it faces—climate, disease and price volatility—and the small size of the average agricultural business, must be recognised as a basis for helping this industry to innovate.


41.  Agricultural innovation can take many forms: new technologies, such as biotechnology and new machinery; incremental change, such as commercial decisions to plant a new crop or alter a label; and process changes in the ways in which ideas are conceived, developed and deployed. Innovation in agriculture interacts closely with innovation throughout the food chain.

42.  In the course of our evidence, we heard of many examples of innovation in the agricultural sector. Hugh Crabtree, Director of Farm Energy and Control Services Ltd informed us about the PIVIT (Pig Improvement Via Information Technology) initiative. Still in development, this initiative between producers, academics and suppliers aims to "have most professional UK pig production sites on line and subscribing to data analysis, interpretation and knowledge transfer services within 10 years". The new IT tool will allow utility and water use, feed intake, environment and growth to be measured in real time. It is an example of both technological and process innovation.[43]

43.  Mr de Castro explained that "quality is one of the main issues to make European food production more competitive", particularly as "the consumer today is interested in knowing more about food".[44] The EU has three agricultural product quality schemes,[45] allowing protection for a particular term on grounds of geography and techniques or tradition. Examples include: "Balsamic Vinegar from Modena", "Camembert from Normandy" and "Traditional Bramley Apple Pie Filling". These schemes allow producers to add value to their products through marketing; the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) told us that farmers were doing this "in a far more innovative way than they were even 10 years ago".[46]

44.  A recurrent innovation in our evidence was precision farming. The machinery manufacturer, John Deere, explained that GPS[47] technology is now fitted to approximately 20% of new farm tractors and 50% of new combine harvesters. Such systems "reduce the overlap in field work allowing work to be completed in fewer passes across the field, with savings in fuel, time and other inputs such as fertiliser or spray chemicals".[48] Mr Mark James, product line manager for the company, said that savings on these inputs, which improve the economic viability of a farm, are in the region of 10%.[49] Professor John Oldham, of the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC), regretted that GPS technology had not been adopted more widely, which he attributed to the high cost and slow return on investment.[50]

45.  A number of witnesses made reference to the potential of genetically modified crops, views which we highlight in Chapter 6. One particular example brought to our attention was that of genetically modified grapevines in France. Some work has taken place in order to establish whether genetically modified rootstocks could tackle, or at least delay, the onset of a severe disease, grapevine fanleaf virus (GFLV).[51]

46.  Witnesses also emphasised that genetic modification was only one form of biotechnology available to the plant breeding sector. The use of genomics, such as genetic markers (see Box 3), was one such example.[52]


Genetic markers

Plants have been bred for over 100 years to resist pest and disease, traditionally through a trial-and-error approach in which large numbers of crosses are made from many sources of possible resistance, such as wild relatives of the crop species. Progenies are evaluated for characters of direct economic interest (for example, grain yield and grain quality) in target environments. Good performing crosses and progenies are selected for further use or testing.

This approach has been highly successful in many crop species and numerous breeding programmes, with cereal, potato and oilseed crops benefiting from the development of resistant varieties with improved yields that form the mainstay of food production. However, such conventional breeding approaches can take 5 to 10 years to create required plant varieties.

During the past two decades, molecular tools have resulted in the identification, mapping, and isolation of genes in a wide range of crop species. A genetic marker is a sequence of DNA or protein that can be screened to reveal genetic variation in a crop species, which may arise due to mutation or alteration in the relevant specific region of the plant genome.

Genetic markers occur in the nuclear and organelle (chloroplast and mitochondria) genomes. These three genomes differ in their evolutionary characteristics, for example, inheritance and sequence and structural mutation rates, which determine the types of genetic issues that they are used to study. In Marker Assisted Selection (MAS), plant DNA is screened to detect any genetic variation that may underlie a desired trait such as disease resistance. Several traits and hundreds of plant varieties can be simultaneously analysed. MAS has had a significant impact on several major crops, including maize and sugar beet. Despite its potential, the cost of the technology has limited its impact on the UK's major cereal crops thus far. MAS works most efficiently where there is a substantial genetic knowledge base, but in less well studied species this may not be available, and may be expensive to develop.

47.  Professor Oldham referred to the use of genomics as a form of innovation in the livestock sector. Genomic selection, he explained, can be used to improve traits to do with health in particular, where different individuals may be more or less susceptible to different diseases.[53] His SAC colleague, Professor Geoff Simm, suggested that genomic selection in livestock is an area "of major opportunity for Europe ... because of the costs of the technologies and the need to share skills and create joint approaches to exploiting them."[54] This might be within the context of a network such as SAC's involvement in an Animal Task Force with Dutch and French colleagues (see Chapter 4). It will of course be important to bear in mind the animal welfare implications of genomics as such technologies are developed.

48.  EU agricultural production is not restricted to food, and includes outputs such as cotton and wool for use in clothing. The innovative development of crops for industrial application, such as hemp for housing insulation, was mentioned by both Incrops[55] and the CLA. Another crop with industrial application was willow. Professor Moloney described it as "a very good example of a reproducible biomass which could become part of a supply chain to power stations". He added that technology in the form of such crops also provides refuge for wildlife, and sequesters a substantial amount of carbon, thus helping to reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture.[56] InCrops also gave us evidence about the innovative use of algae (see Box 4).


Innovation in use of algae[57]

Algae and their products have the potential to contribute to a wide variety of sectors, including energy, food, feed, and fertilisers. In addition, algae can play an important role in providing "bio-remediation" services: for example, they can scrub CO2 and NOx out of flue gases, and remove nitrates, phosphates and certain heavy metals out of waste water.

Generation of relevant expertise is accelerating; encouraging examples are given, amongst others, by two companies. Scottish Bioenergy Ltd collaborates with whisky distilleries and several research institutes. The liquid residue after distilling is rich in nutrients, but also contaminated with copper. Traditionally the distilleries have paid farmers to spread this on fields which, due to copper accumulation, then need to be set aside. Algae remove the copper and nutrients from the liquid residue (simultaneously using CO2 from the brewing process). The algal biomass may be used to generate energy, or to feed pigs or cattle (for which copper is a valuable micronutrient).

The Welsh company Merlin Biodevelopments Ltd has patented a process to turn the liquid residue from on-farm anaerobic digestion (AD) into algal biomass. This turns a bottle-neck in the expansion of AD—the storage of liquid digestate until it can be spread on the fields—into an opportunity for generating added value. In the simplest model, the algal biomass could be fed into the AD plant, leading to a closed loop for production of biomethane, but Merlin Biodevelopments use the biomass for higher value purposes, including animal feed. High performance fertiliser with low carbon footprint is another possible application. One particular benefit of this technology is that it can recover, and recycle, most of the water used in beef production, which is a highly water intensive industry.[58]

Along similar lines, the National Farmers' Union (NFU) added that "farmers are installing on-farm bioenergy equipment such as biomass boilers, combined heat and power units, anaerobic digesters as well as photovoltaic cells and wind turbines on their land and buildings".[59] There is clearly scope for the industrial application of agricultural innovation to make a significant contribution to job creation.

49.  It is clear to us that the farming industry and scientific community are contributing to agricultural innovation in a large variety of ways. But the reach of innovation in EU agriculture must be extended, if substantial future risks to European food security are to be avoided, and to respond to the need for sustainable intensification of agriculture. Member States and the Commission should both play a role in shaping the framework to strengthen this process. We look in detail at that role in the following chapters.

31   Jan Fagerberg, "The Oxford Handbook of Innovation". Edited by Fagerberg J; Mowery, David C; Nelson, Richard R. Oxford University Press, 2005.  Back

32   Joseph Schumpeter (1883 to 1950) was an economist and political scientist. Back

33   Dodgson M. and Gann D., "Innovation-A Very Short Introduction", Oxford University Press, 2010.  Back

34   Beal G.M. & E.M. Rogers, "The scientist as a referent in the communication of new technology", Public Opinion Quarterly, 22, 555-563 (1959). Back

35   Rogers, E.M., "Diffusion of innovations", 1st edition. Free Press, New York (1962); Rogers, E.M., "Diffusion of innovations", 3rd edition. Free Press, New York (1983). Back

36   Röling, N.G., "Extension science: Information systems in agricultural development", Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1988). Back

37   Clark, J.R.A., "Examining the New Associationalism in agriculture", Journal of Economic Geography 5(4), 475-498 (2005); Clark, J.R.A., "Entrepreneurship in European agriculture: identifying business enterprise characteristics and change processes", Entrepreneurship and Regional Development 21 2, 213-235 (2009). Back

38   Röling, N.G., "The emergence of knowledge systems thinking: A changing perception of relationships among innovation, knowledge process and configuration", Knowledge and Policy: The international Journal of Knowledge Transfer and Utilization, 5, 42-64 (1992). Back

39   Birner, R., K. Davis, J. Pender, E. Nkonya, P. Anandajayasekeram, J. Ekboir, A. Mbabu, D. Spielman, D. Horna, S. Benin, and W. Kisamba-Mugerwa, "From 'best practice' to 'best fit': a framework for designing and analyzing pluralistic agricultural advisory services", International Food Policy Research Institute (2006). Back

40   Klerkx , L. & C. Leeuwis, "Matching demand and supply in the agricultural knowledge infrastructure. Experiences with innovation intermediaries", Food Policy, 33, 260-276 (2008). Back

41   Q 114 Back

42   IEUA 12 Back

43   IEUA 7 Back

44   Q 218 Back

45   Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) and Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG). The European Commission recently proposed a simplification of the system (COM(2010)733). Back

46   Q 147 Back

47   Global Positioning System-a satellite navigation system Back

48   IEUA 45 Back

49   Q 712 Back

50   Q 338: but see Q 716 for detailed information about the economic case for precision farming technology. Back

51   Q 430, IEUA 37 Back

52   QQ 80, 306 Back

53   Q 351 Back

54   Q 640 Back

55   IEUA 21, Q 147 Back

56   Q 110 Back

57   Algae are unicellular or multicellular organisms which occur in fresh or salt water, that have chlorophyll and other pigments but lack true stems, roots and leaves. They include seaweed.  Back

58   Based on information provided by InCrops Back

59   IEUA 14 Back

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