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Europe Forges New Bonds Between Agriculture and Biodiversity

By Jessica Berthereau

As the environmental and economic costs of industrial farming grow, so do opportunities to spur an ecological change.

For avocado farmers in Peru, it appears to be a boom time. Their production has increased sixfold over the past decade to meet growing demand abroad.

But appearances can deceive.

Farm foundations

These and other single-crop growers are now grappling with rising energy and fertilizer costs and increasing public awareness of the adverse effects of pesticides, according to Brenton Ladd, a researcher at the Scientific University of the South, or UCSUR, near the Peruvian capital Lima.

"The industrial model of agriculture production begins to look less viable," Ladd said.

In agriculture, growing only one crop—monoculture—has tended to encourage increased output by lowering overall costs. But these so-called economies of scale have brought with them  resulting from intensive production.

Now, single-crop farming is increasingly an economic risk for producers themselves.

The EU is tackling both sets of challenges through new policies and , harnessing its position both as a major agricultural market and as a leader in the fight to green economic activities including farming.

Food fashions

That's where Peruvian avocados enter the picture, revealing the EU's global influence in spurring a shift towards more ecological agriculture.

Avocados are very much in food fashion across Europe, as shown by the continent-wide abundance of trendy cafes serving avocado on toast.

This growing consumer demand has helped drive production growth in Peru, which is now the world's third-largest producer of avocados. It trails only Mexico and Colombia in the global rankings.

In the Peruvian province of Ica along the Pacific Ocean coast, the surge has resulted in an intensive monoculture of avocados, which require about 10 times more water than tomatoes.

The province also grows grapes and asparagus to supply Europe during the winter months. Both grape and asparagus production can be water-intensive too.

Researchers to the rescue

The EU is funding research to help agricultural producers in Peru as well as 10 European countries operate sustainably and profitably. This is part of a series of European research initiatives advancing the EU's 2030 biodiversity and Farm to Fork goals.

The project, called BioMonitor4CAP, runs for four years until the end of November 2026. The European countries represented include Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Poland.

The researchers are designing advanced biodiversity monitoring systems to accelerate the shift towards sustainable farming.

Intensive agriculture destroys or damages natural habitats, emits significant quantities of greenhouse gases and eats into water supplies that are ever more precious as global warming accelerates.

In the EU, 1 in 10 farms followed ecological practices in 2021—almost double the share a decade earlier. This shows that growing numbers of European farmers are doing their part to preserve biodiversity.

The EU has set a goal of increasing organic farming's share to at least 25% by 2030. Recent changes to Europe's Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP, will bring the target closer.

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EVENT PREVIEW: You Can Help Reimagine Plant Breeding at the 2024 NAPB Meeting

Video: EVENT PREVIEW: You Can Help Reimagine Plant Breeding at the 2024 NAPB Meeting

Martin Bohn can’t wait to welcome people to the 2024 meeting of the National Association of Plant Breeders meeting being held in St. Louis, Miss., July 21-25. This year’s meeting, hosted by Bayer Crop Science and the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, promises to be one of the NAPB’s most important yet, evident in its theme Rethink, Reimagine and Revolutionize.

While the main conference will be held at the St. Louis Union Station Hotel, it will feature a tour of the nearby University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign facilities. Bohn serves not only as co-organizer of the meeting, but as crop sciences professor at the university.

“The conference theme revolves around rethinking, reimagining, and revolutionizing plant breeding. We’ve witnessed significant technological advancements over the past decade, with an abundance of genetic, phenotypic, and environmental data becoming more accessible, alongside the integration of artificial intelligence into data science, opening up new possibilities,” Bohn says.

During the conference, attendees will examine these advancements, reassess the field, and explore how we can adapt to or leverage them. The event will feature three sessions: Reimagining, Rethinking, and Revolutionizing, with speakers delving into each theme. Audience participation is encouraged, with lively Q&A sessions expected.

The climax will be the Revolutionize session, featuring speakers from St. Louis startup companies at the forefront of plant breeding innovation, all hailing from the St. Louis Innovation Hub. It promises to be an exciting showcase of cutting-edge ideas, Bohn says. Ultimately, the conference aims to inspire attendees with the innovative work happening at the University of Illinois and beyond.

Bohn is looking forward to showing off the facilities at the university, where there exists a thriving plant breeding program. Visitors are in for a treat.

“When you’re coming from St. Louis to the university, you might expect to see a lot of corn and soybeans, but there’s much more in store. We’ve put together a diverse program featuring various facets of agricultural innovation,” he says.

“Throughout the day, we’ll showcase national initiatives focused on advanced bioenergy and bioproduct innovation. We’ll also explore autonomous farming, environmental resilience, and soil quality at two different stops.”

You’ll get a peek into the USDA Maize Genetics Cooperation Stock Center, home to crucial genetic stocks for corn breeding, and the USDA Soybean Germplasm Collection. Additionally, the tour will highlight the CornBox, a project by some of Bohn’s colleagues which is their version of a sandbox to test innovations for digital agriculture in a live corn field. Visitors will also see the breeding programs spanning soybeans, corn, small grains, hemp, and more.

“One highlight close to my heart is our organic farming systems breeding program. We’ll also tour our student farm, featuring research on vegetable production systems and how robotics aid in managing insects. And let’s not forget about our local startup companies at the University of Illinois Research Park, showcasing their latest research and products,” Bohn adds.

Visitors will wrap up the day at Riggs Beer Company, known for using locally grown seeds and grains. Their motto, “On our farm, we grow beer,” sets the tone for a relaxed Q&A session with the brewery’s owner and team, accompanied by great food and, of course, some beer.

Of course, organizing a conference like this is no small feat; it’s a monumental task that requires careful coordination and collaboration.

“Initially, I thought it would be as simple as putting together a program and inviting speakers, but it’s far more complex than that. Many moving parts need to come together seamlessly to make it a success,” Bohn says.

The beauty lies in sharing the workload among many shoulders, ensuring that no single organization or individual bears the burden alone. The meeting is being co-hosted by Bayer Crop Science.

“Working together toward a common goal of hosting the best conference possible is a tremendous opportunity to build relationships. I truly believe that the connections we forge with our colleagues and partners at Bayer will endure beyond this event,” Bohn says.

“Working with Bayer has been eye-opening. While we often operate within the confines of academia, collaborating with a company brings a fresh perspective on what matters in the real world. It’s invigorating to explore shared interests and embark on collaborative projects together.”