Scientists are breaking the waves for organic farming
Unlike today, there might be a way to determine whether a tomato is organic or not. That was one of the conclusions, when the curly tails of scientists from all over Europe met in Stockholm for result exchanging.
By Marie-Louise Andersen
Questions about animal welfare and development of antibiotic resistance appear regularly in the news. The result is a growing appetite for organic food, and the origin of things we put into our mouths are becoming of critical importance. The organic sector is meeting that interest and has over the last decades increased with more than half a million hectares every year. Hand in hand with the increased farming goes research.
On 1 October the ERA-Net Core Organic invited leading scientists, stakeholders and funding bodies to the third seminar under the European research program CORE Organic. The seminar was a way to let project leaders share knowledge from their projects and to create an opportunity for scientists to network with stakeholders, funding bodies and each other. The overall receipt of the meeting seemed very positive.
Willemine Brinkman from the EIP-Agri Service Point especially highlighted the user perspective of the seminar and noticed that a lot of the projects had farmers involved in the entire research process.
“There is a need for more practice-oriented research. Scientists are often judged on whether their articles are published in peer reviewed journals, and not on whether farmers use this new knowledge. The ultimate goal for agricultural research is that it should benefit farmers and society as a whole.” she said, highlighting the philosophy of innovation that that EIP-Agri (The agricultural European Innovation Partnership) is looking to nurture within all levels of agricultural research and practice. The EIP-Agri is dedicated to foster innovation for competitive and sustainable farming and forestry.
Dissemination was a specific goal of the seminar, as Niels Halberg, director of ICROFS (Internationalt Centre for Research in Organic Food Systems), and coordinator of CORE Organic, said in his welcoming speech.
“In my experience scientists are not good at disseminating during the project period and that is why we need to arrange seminars like this,” he said and encouraged for discussions and possible cooperation in the following workshop in which each of the project leaders presented their project to small groups of listeners.
Read more: Find all presentations from the meeting
“Maybe the things you believe is important in your project are not what others see as important,” Niels Halberg continued.
The curly tails
At a closing panel discussion, project leaders from all the projects answered questions from stakeholders and audience and discussed among other things how to better communicate their research to the broader society.
There seemed to be a shared perception that it is difficult to share complicated research results with the consumers – they choose food based on prize and trust. In order to make consumers buy organic, trust is the main issue, many agreed.
Project leader of the ProPig project, Christine Leeb from BOKU University of Natural Ressources and Life Sciences, noted, that the organic farming has the advantage of “the curly tails”.
“It is complicated to explain about space allowance and provision of straw. So we need to find easy ways of communicating. And in pigs eg. we have the curly tails which is an animal based indicator of the system showing integrity, that the food is okay and the housing. It’s an iceberg communicator,” she said.
Organic production meets several challenges which might keep farmers from taking up the organic style of production – one of the most frequent is insufficient disease control in different variations. In Norway Atle Wibe from Bioforsk has lead the Soft Pest project - investigating how producers of organic strawberries and raspberries in Central and Northern Europe can keep pests from attacking their production – with significant economic losses as result.
“Our dream was to build a trap that only attracted certain insects. When you use pesticide you also kill insects that do good things to the crops, but with pheromones we have been able to attract only the pests,” he elaborated.
In Finland Heikki M. T. Hokkanen from University of Helsinki received support for his BICOPOLL- project through quite a coincidence. For years cooperated with strawberry producers on how to use bees as living doctors in the summertime – inducing them with microorganisms, mainly funghi, and then having them disseminate bio control to the flowering crops, protecting them from damage done by insects. A German scientist opened their eyes to the CORE Organic II program and funding for a bigger project. Results show, that the bee-disseminated bio control works better than chemical control and that it works on both strawberries, raspberries, pears, apples, blueberries, cherries and grapevine. This new procedure, however, is not ready to use by food producers because it first has to be permitted by the European Commission.
“The problem is that society does not believe it yet. And farmers are skeptical because they see bees everywhere. ‘How do we know, that the bees actually go to our crops’ is the main worry,” Heikki M. T. Hokkanen explains and answers the question by pointing to the results from the project:
“It is just as good as, and even works better, than pesticides.”
And it is cheaper as well. But conventional farmers trying it are not convinced and do not succeed. The problem is, according to Heikki Hokkanen that they do not have the same precision as with pesticide use.
“Farmers are very careful with the pesticides, they know that it does not work if they do it with their left hand. This is organic high tech and they need to place the bee hives correct and be careful with the filing of dispensers.”
One of the projects that attracted a lot of attention when presented was the AuthenticFood project which is coordinated by Professor Søren Husted from the University of Copenhagen. The project manager Kristian Holst Laursen presented novel analytical methods for measuring whether a plant product is organic or not.
“I have never participated in a project that received so much attention from the public”, Kristian Holst Laursen said joyfully before telling more seriously about the background for trying to find a way to distinguish between the chemical
composition of e.g. organic and conventional tomatoes.
As organic food becomes more and more popular and it is increasingly traded between countries, the price difference will potentially lead to more fraud and adulteration. Despite several attempts to find a suitable analytical method for organic authentication, pesticide residue analysis is still the most popular approach.
“But in some cases you do actually find organically produced products that contain pesticide residues and conventional products that do not,” Kristian Holst Laursen said, explaining, that the current method cannot take into account, that the pesticides can originate from remains in the soil, the water and even from air pollution from surrounding conventional fields. Pesticide residue analysis can therefore not always reveal if the organic potato has been produced according to the organic rules.
“We have developed and tested a portfolio of analytical methods that can complement pesticide residue analyses such as stable isotope analysis of nitrogen and oxygen in specific plant compounds,” he said about the preliminary findings of AuthenticFood.
“This work has shown that several methods are much better at discriminating the chemical composition of organic and conventional plants than the traditional pesticide residue analysis”.
The final results of AuthenticFood are still pending, but Kristian Holst Laursen and the AuthenticFood consortium will now encourage certification and inspection bodies to complement the insufficiently sensitive pesticide residue analyses with more novel methods as demonstrated in the project.
The day after the seminar, 11.3 million euros were distributed
to new projects under the call CORE Organic Plus.
The results from eleven of the 14 projects will be published during the next six months. All publications will be available in Organic Eprints.