Challenge of Getting Innovation on Farms

The challenge of getting better performance in agricultural production by encouraging innovation on farms was highlighted on a recent visit to Northern Ireland by Tom Tynan, an adviser to the EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Phil Hogan.

Tom Tynan claimed that the best performing farmers are about 100 times better than their least productive colleagues. He expressed the view that the major difference is not the land they are farming, it’s the implementation of the knowledge that is available about how to maximise the productivity of that land.

Tom Tynan, centre, member of the cabinet of EU Commissioner Phil Hogan with Prof Fred Gordon, left, and Dr Sinclair Mayne at the AgriSearch Breakfast. Photograph: Columba O'Hare

Tom Tynan, centre, member of the cabinet of EU Commissioner Phil Hogan with Prof Fred Gordon, left, and Dr Sinclair Mayne at the AgriSearch Breakfast. Photograph: Columba O'Hare

“Knowledge is no good unless it can be used by those who benefit from it,” said Tynan. “Agricultural knowledge and innovation systems need to be more efficient and interactive.”

The thrust of current thinking within the European Commission’s Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG Agri) is that links between researchers, farmers and the agri-food industry need to be improved – the Commission wants to support research and innovation that can be put into practice and to encourage its implementation.

One of the ways of doing that will be through the Rural Development Programme (RDP) 2014 to 2019, which will make £623m (sterling) available in Northern Ireland. It includes an initiative to establish 160 Business Development Groups (BDG) for farmers here, across all sectors, each involving 15 to 20 farmers and led by a CAFRE adviser. There will be payments to offset the costs for farmers attending BFG meetings.

“The model is based on the discussion group format which I know from experience has worked particularly well down South,” said Tynan. “The experience within Teagasc (the farm advisory service in the Republic of Ireland) is that group members tended to have higher stocking rates and achieved higher prices per head of stock sold. Group members are also achieving more days at grass and higher livestock gains with their stock”.

Most EU regions, including Northern Ireland, have another provision within their RDP for ‘Operational Groups’, which are to focus on tackling specific problems or testing innovative ideas in the field. The idea with Operational Groups is to identify a technical problem, bring together a group of people who can attempt to devise a practical solution to that problem. Such ‘multi-actor’ groups could include representatives of farmers, research scientists, software developers and machinery manufacturers working together to develop an initiative.

Some countries have already got these Operational Groups going and the EU authorities have also set up the European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI) to help farmers, scientists and everyone working with them to find and share innovative ways to make EU agriculture more productive and sustainable.

“EIP-AGRI is still young, and the coming year will be crucial for it to grow and fulfil its promise,” said Tynan.

€1.5bn EU budget for ‘relevant’ agricultural research

Until recently, the European Commission’s Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG Agri) did not have a budget for research and development. Now it has access to €1.5billion of EU ‘Horizon 2020’ funding of €3.7bn available between 2014 and 2020. This funding is subject to competitive bidding and is for projects put forward by researchers with the backing of farmers who support the proposed research work. At least 3 member states of the EU must be involved in any project to qualify for this funding.

There is an emphasis on ‘sustainable intensification’, which the Commission believes can only be achieved on the basis of research and innovation combined with real improvements to the knowledge transfer systems within the EU and its member states.

Tom Tynan said: “On the research side, the Horizon 2020 work programme which we will publish in mid-October will support European research for 2016 and 2017 to the tune of 550 million euro. (A draft programme is already online).

“We intend to support projects that are immediately relevant to the sector. We devoted over €370 million to innovation and to ‘multi actor’ projects that specifically contribute to EIP-AGRI (the European Innovation Partnership), more than twice what we had in the previous period”.

Tynan said that the agri-food industry needs to do more to champion the message that greater efficiency is a necessary element of any effective response to climate change. He said this applies to practices such as improvements in breeding, nutrient management and grassland management.


Tynan made specific reference to the LANDMARK project, which has obtained €5m funding from Horizon 2020. It concentrates on soil function and involves 14 EU countries as well as farmer representatives. One of the research partners is the University of Ulster, School of Environmental Science. It creates a decision support tool for farmers, which encourages them to match land use to the natural ability of its soil and rainfall levels.

According to Tynan, this is an example of sustainability and productivity being placed on equal footing.

“Soil health will be a trend for the future,” he predicted. “Healthy soil is being shown to be a significant factor in the natural prevention of a range of diseases.”


Tynan also referred to the importance of measuring grass and to EU funding available for development of tools to measure grass.

“A new product called the Grasshopper is about to be launched which involves partners from Ireland and France. The Grasshopper makes measurement of grass covers and using the results to manage grass a lot easier.

“New concepts such as Internet of Things and Big Data coming from the implementation of Precision Farming technologies will revolutionize the sector in the near future. We need to take advantage of what information and communications technologies could offer,” said Tynan.


Food waste

Over one third of globally produced food gets lost or wasted every year, an amount big enough to feed 2 billion people. The greenhouse gas footprint of food produced and not eaten is estimated at 3.3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, making food wastage a huge emitter.


Thanks to innovation, European farmers have progressively improved productivity, food security, safety and quality, whilst at the same time protecting the environment and making more use of our natural resources.

To feed the world sustainably requires knowledge, adoption and implementation of both existing and new technologies and training to make sure the best practices are shared globally.

Importance of agri-food sector

It is important to remind everyone of the importance of the agri-food sector to the EU economy and our society. Farming involves 25 million people in the EU, manages 50% of the EU territory and contributes to the whole economy due to upstream and downstream linkages with other sectors.

The EU agriculture and food sector together produce a value added of €420 billion a year.

The food supply chain including retail and services employs 47 million people in the EU.

Since 2013 the EU is the primary exporter of agri-food products in the world with €122 billion of exports.

Dependence on farmers

Every 20 years the number of people who depend on one farmer doubles. The world's best performing farmers are about 100 times better than their least productive colleagues.

Rodney Magowan

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