Point of view: agro-food and forestry policies and technologies need an integrated vision


It has never been more urgent to develop an integrated vision of agricultural practices, food production and forest management.

Although this has been recognized by national and international organizations around the world and translated into different strategic approaches, it is clear to us that political and technological development must be at the heart of the practical implementation of any strategic vision.

Moreover, all the political, economic, environmental or social objectives that we must achieve to ensure a viable and sustainable future for generations to come depend on our ability to develop and provide adequate technological solutions. There is no credible or feasible trade-off between the world as we know it and adequate levels of investment in research and innovation.

This mission is urgent and the alignment of priorities at all levels is crucial, from EU policy and funding to regional or even institutional level management and agenda setting for research and development. ‘innovation.

Take, for example, the 2022-2031 strategic framework of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), with the goal of better production, better nutrition, better environment and better life. This must be achieved through a transition to more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable agrifood systems – which address concerns about social inclusion and leave no one behind.

Or the Green Deal, developed as part of the European Commission’s strategy to simultaneously improve the EU’s economic competitiveness, while implementing the United Nations 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. The Green Deal epitomizes the complexity and scale of today’s challenges. It is seen as a new growth strategy, with the destination of a resource-efficient and competitive economy – where there are no net greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from use of resources.

This requires a huge leap and a radical shift in our cultural, economic and political biases, which is only achievable through technologies that have yet to be developed and made available to ordinary citizens and industry. This requires a multi-level approach and alignment of priorities, as well as an unprecedented capacity for collaboration between different stakeholders in regional and national R&I ecosystems and value chains.

Placing innovation at the heart of agricultural policy

In our home country, Portugal, a new “Innovation Program for Agriculture” implemented by the government with the support of stakeholders, is aligned with the Green Deal, the FAO strategic framework and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Bearing in mind the specific factors facing southern Europe and climate change in the Mediterranean region, this national agenda addresses the main challenges on the horizon by giving a central role to knowledge and technology, but oriented towards regional specificities.

Let’s take this opportunity to dig deeper into what that means. Above all, rapid progress in the digitalization of food systems will be crucial for the competitiveness and sustainability of organizations, and for the preparation of countries to meet the main challenges in this area. Like human health systems, the ability to improve the health (sustainability) of land, water, food and agrifood systems depends on the ability to monitor, diagnose (evaluate), prescribe (manage) and implement treatment (restoration) protocols.

Over the next few years, we will need a dramatic increase in food production, bear the heavy impact of climate change, emerging and re-emerging diseases, and a shortage of agricultural workers, among others. Given this, the technologies and policies we have today are clearly insufficient.

We will have to work in two main complementary areas: to provide new solutions and to strengthen the capacities of farmers, technicians and organizations.

In terms of relevant technologies, we focus on biotechnologies, plant and animal breeding, including the development of molecular markers associated with physiological traits and new phenotyping tools, and the use of digital technologies to ensure:

  1. Smart monitoring.
  2. Intelligent planning and control.
  3. Transparency, accountability and security.

For example, real-time and remote diagnostics and sensors, the development of high-throughput phenotyping and the improvement of traceability and biosecurity are major areas of interest.

Other important dimensions that require a high level of skill to translate into user-friendly applications for the end user include irrigation management (crop coefficients, water status indicators and stress intensity quantification water); diagnosis of the nutritional status of plants and early detection of diseases; use of digital technologies in animal husbandry to improve performance and blockchain-based solutions.

Increasing the technology adoption capacity of farmers, technicians and organizations will be a critical success factor. Upgrading and retraining should be implemented on a large scale and geared towards the specific needs of agriculture and food.

Experimental facilities and pilots for the development, testing and demonstration of different technologies will be essential to achieve large-scale adoption of innovative products and practices.

In Portugal, we are developing a network of experimental stations, with local field tests and living laboratories, in order to strengthen the national capacity for innovation in agriculture and food.

At the same time, we strengthen the links between research and innovation, experimentation and the development of innovative applications, focusing on solving specific problems. This is done through innovative organizational approaches that increase proximity and interaction between research organisations, private companies and other stakeholders.

Competence centers, for example, the National Skills Center for Technological Innovation in the Agroforestry Sector – InovTechAgro) and collaborative laboratories, i.e. Smart Farm collaborative laboratory) where INIAV and INESC collaborate are good examples of this effort.

In summary, if we are to adequately address the challenges that are common to us all, such as those identified in the Green Deal and all its “sub-strategies” and policies, as well as the challenges specific to each region, we must ensure :

1) multi-level policy and institutional alignment and complementarity of policy objectives;

2) clear synergies between funding instruments;

3) understanding the complexity of the challenge.

It is not possible to realistically address these issues without much greater investment in R&I, both public and private. But above all, it needs a co-created and integrated vision of future policy priorities and R&I efforts – one that sees life and the planet itself as the main priority.

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Nuno Canada (left) is president of the Portuguese National Institute for Agronomic and Veterinary Research (INIAV)

Ricardo Migueis (right) is the head of the European representation of the Institute for Systems and Computer Engineering, INESC Brussels HUB

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