Bridging Europe’s agricultural innovation gap is vital for a sustainable future

Written BioAdvantage Europe coalition partner, Alarik Sandrup, director public and regulatory affairs, Lantmännen

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Throughout history, innovation has helped farmers across Europe overcome famine and disease to safeguard our food systems. Today, Europe’s agricultural sector faces a new challenge: how to help feed the world’s growing population while meeting the climate targets set out in the Paris Agreement and EU Green Deal.

Innovation in the European bioeconomy – which spans agriculture, aquaculture, forestry, and all the products and waste streams that arise from these activities – could help farmers meet this challenge. By 2030, Europe’s growing biotech sector – an enabler of the bioeconomy –  promises to generate up to €100 billion in added value thanks to scientific advances and cost reductions in the sector. For every biotech job created, an estimated four more are created elsewhere in the value chain, which could lead to over one million new jobs in the sector across Europe.

But right now, there’s a gap between future possibilities and the everyday reality on our farms. To bridge this gap and unlock the bioeconomy’s full potential, we need to strengthen agricultural research and development (R&D) and create policies that promote innovation.

Driving change through innovation

Thanks in part to a very productive agricultural sector in the EU, we’ve enjoyed enough and even a surplus of agricultural commodities and products. As a result, we haven’t needed to invest significantly in R&D in the sector for decades.

But to be part of Europe’s green transition, we now need to modernise farming. This means developing technologies and new methods that produce more crop per litre of water, fuel, hectare, kilogram of fertiliser and so on, while emitting fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in total and per unit of produce. Currently, our food systems are responsible for a high share of the total GHG emissions and a majority of those emissions occur during cultivation. At Lantmännen, we’ve calculated that sustainable farming practices could reduce our climate impact per kilo of winter wheat by 63 percent and increase yields by 38 percent by 2030.

Many of the technologies we need to grow more with less already exist in other sectors. But we need to boost agricultural R&D to modify these technologies so that farmers can use them in their daily operations.

We also need a shift in the way we develop new policies for agriculture. Rather than promoting sustainable practices through legislation, we need to incentivise farmers to adapt. Farmers want reassurance that growing more with less won’t harm their livelihoods. Sustainability must help them flourish. The bioeconomy employs around 18 million people across Europe, which is around 9% of Europe’s total workforce. So, it’s vital that we work with farmers and agribusiness, and offer funding and market-based incentives for adopting sustainable farming methods.

Thinking beyond the field

As a cooperative of farmers, at Lantmännen we’re playing our part. Our innovation and business roadmap ‘Farming of the Future‘ charts our plans to increase crop production on Swedish farms 50 percent by 2050, while also meeting international climate targets and contributing to environmental development. Our future food security depends on a stable climate. So, it’s vital that we adapt farming to ensure both the environmental and economic sustainability of our industry in the future. 

To achieve these goals, we’re investing €30 million each year in R&D. We also recently launched a green bond programme to direct investment towards sustainable activities. We’re working with farmers to test new technologies and farming methods in Sweden on our high-tech farm called Bjertorp. These technologies include different precision-farming methods, such as using satellite images to analyse and control cultivation to constantly improve productivity. When applied in combination with digitalisation, optimal management and plant breeding, precision farming techniques can improve wheat yields by over 40 percent.

We’re also collaborating with Yara on a pilot project to use mineral fertilisers produced from renewable energy. The production process for nitrogen fertilisers is one of the largest sources of GHG emissions in agricultural production — so, if we can use alternatives, we will reduce emissions significantly. Sustainable methods like this do come at a cost, but we hope that consumers will respond well to this more climate-friendly solution.

Innovation has led us to some entirely new opportunities that also help curtail emissions in the food supply chain. For example, we generate bioethanol from local feedstock and residues and are working with Scania to develop climate-friendly heavy transport solutions. Our biorefinery Agroethanol uses carbon capture and utilisation to catch the CO2 produced during the fermentation process, which we e.g. sell as carbonic acid for beverages.

Combining expertise across sectors

We can’t succeed alone. Achieving a sustainable future is a mission we share with all businesses across the bioeconomy. If we combine our expertise — from engineering to energy — we can find solutions that help realise Europe’s green recovery.

That’s why we’re proud to be part of the BioAdvantage Europe coalition with Avril, DB Schenker, Scania, Shell and Yara. Together, we are working to create a unified and constructive dialogue with EU policymakers on how to untap the full potential of the European bioeconomy.

If you’d like to learn more or  are interested in joining the coalition, visit bioadvantage.eu.