€10 million research grant to investigate the transition to sustainable arable farming

Arable farmers, government agencies, crop protection organizations, breeders, nature conservation organizations, banks, food chain partners, environmental education and researchers are joining forces to achieve a breakthrough in the transition to sustainable arable farming.

The Dutch Research Agenda (NWA) is funding a major study that should help accelerate the realization of this goal. Sustainable arable farming is based on the ecological principle of crop diversity. The €10 million research grant will enable the interdisciplinary team to develop new knowledge about the ecological principles that make crop systems sustainably productive and to identify socio-economic and societal factors that hinder or enable the transition to crop-diversity-based agricultural systems. The project is led by researchers from Wageningen University & Research.

The current arable farming and food production chain in the Netherlands enables high productivity that is based on monoculture with high levels of fertilization and chemical pest and weed control. As a result, arable lands become vulnerable, biodiversity declines, and diseases and pests become resistant to chemical pesticides, potentially reducing productivity. To reverse this trend, the Netherlands has decided to make the arable farming sector much more sustainable by 2030 and to link the agricultural ecosystem to natural ecosystems. To maintain productive and resilient crop production systems, the reduction in chemical pesticides and fertilization must be compensated with alternative approaches.

The trans-disciplinary research program CropMix connects ecology, agronomy, socio-economics and transition studies.

Crop diversity
“By increasing the diversity of crops in the field, we can benefit from ecological processes that partly replace pesticides and fertilization,” says Erik Poelman of the Laboratory of Entomology. He is the overall coordinator of the program. Various forms of intercropping such as strip cultivation ensure pest suppression and reduced spread of diseases. More species-rich crop production systems can also ensure more efficient use of nutrients and sunlight to promote plant growth.

Rotation of crops over time not only provides opportunities for green manure and suppression of dominant field weeds, but biodiversity also increases in these crop systems. As a result, arable farming can contribute to biodiversity objectives.

Understanding the restoration of biodiversity
Poelman: “Our research program focuses on developing knowledge about which crop combinations and rotations make optimal use of ecosystem services. This requires a system approach that takes account of ecological processes both belowground and aboveground. For example, how does nutrient use and plant competition affect crop resilience against insect damage or plant disease?

In two large system trials on crop diversity in Wageningen and Lelystad, we are studying how these processes can be scaled up to production systems. In the field we are also focusing on the rate of biodiversity restoration of plants, insects, small vertebrates and, in particular, farmland birds after starting a more sustainable crop system.

Understanding biodiversity restoration is not only important for estimating when natural pest control can effectively replace pesticides, but also how measures to increase general biodiversity can be factored into the price of products or into farm subsidies.”

Diversity of transition paths
“In the program, 24 arable farms have taken a risk to collaborate with us on the required transition. We have thus ensured that arable farmers play a guiding role in the research,” says Dirk van Apeldoorn, from the Farming Systems Ecology chair group and Wageningen Research. He studies crop diversity on commercial farms. “The ecological issues must emphatically go hand-in-hand with social-scientific issues, including how changes in logistics, use of new technologies, investments and yields from sustainable arable farming can create good revenue models.”

CropMix also investigates which societal and institutional changes in the food system are needed to enable and accelerate the transition to sustainable mixed crop production. This is done by assuming a diversity of possible transition paths, such as short local chains or adaptation of existing national and international chains. In three ‘living labs’, the researchers work together with arable farmers, chain parties, consumers, government agencies and other parties.

“With an active approach based on experimentation, joint learning and joint decisions about the next steps, we promote three transition paths in commercial practice, with combinations of technical, social and institutional innovations. For example, we are investigating several promising options simultaneously, while working with them in a future-oriented approach and gradually discovering ways to overcome barriers,” says Barbara van Mierlo of the Knowledge Technology and Innovation chair group at the Department of Social Sciences.

For more information:
Wageningen University & Research


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