Europe’s farms need to maintain food production and remain competitive, but they also need to be more sustainable, becoming a solution to climate change and biodiversity loss. The answer may lie in the traditional knowledge of Hungarian herders or the ancient technique of intercropping, but also in transformative, innovative farming practices.
Farms have been a key part of Europe’s territorial and social organisation for centuries. Over one-third of the European Union’s land is devoted to agriculture and livestock, producing hundreds of millions of tonnes of food per year. However, according to the European Environmental Agency, the future ahead looks challenging, as farming has also led to biodiversity loss, water overconsumption, soil degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions.
As a result, Europe’s farms are being pulled in two directions: they need to maintain food production and remain competitive while simultaneously also needing to be more sustainable and become a key part of the solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss. That’s no small challenge.
An increasing number of researchers are looking for innovative answers as well as for ancient solutions, working closely with farmers and herders to study how traditional and new techniques may help them meet the demands of the future.
Using Biodiversity to Our Advantage
More than half a million hectares of Hungary’s territory are ‘high nature value’ grasslands – agricultural areas dominated by semi-natural plants supporting biodiversity. Over thousands of years, herbivores have shaped the ecosystem of these plains. Before agriculture, many of them were already grazed by mammoths. This means grazing these Hungarian grasslands now helps to conserve them and their ecosystem services. That is where traditional herders come into action.
“Traditional knowledge is not learned in school. It’s not learned from books, but from real life and from nature. However, scientists and conservationists have often undervalued such knowledge,” explained Zsolt Molnár, botanist at the Centre for Ecological Research (Ecolres), which is one of the research partners for the BIOTraCes project.
Through nine case studies, this research project aims to develop knowledge, tools, and novel approaches that encourage a more nature-positive society. In the Hungarian case, this means breaking down the barriers between traditional knowledge, science, and decision-makers.
“Most of the biodiversity-rich grasslands in Hungary is patchy. So, if you want to manage it properly and protect it, you have to move your animals properly. A fencing system places the animals in paddocks and they go wherever they want. But if you have herders, they know how to direct the herd, how to portion the pasture sustainably, and how to lead the animals through diverse foods on the patchy pasture,” said Molnár. “The knowledge of herders is important for conservation. And it’s also the only way this land can produce food.”
“Traditional knowledge is a huge knowledge base. And if we aim for a transformative change, we need as much knowledge as we can have. Herders deserve respect and justice from society, which they currently don’t receive”, he added.
The Power of Combining Crops
Traditional knowledge could hold the answers to some of agriculture’s complex challenges, and that extends to crop farming too. Plants have the power to transform sunlight into food for the rest of living beings on the planet, and also release a great diversity of chemical compounds into the soil through their roots and thus interact with life below ground.
One of the most important elements is nitrogen, which plants use as a major component of chlorophyll (an essential pigment for photosynthesis) and to build amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). No plant can survive without nitrogen, which is why farms across the EU use nearly 10 million tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser every year.
However, there’s a family of plants that has the ability to fix nitrogen from the air. By partnering with bacteria, leguminous plants such as peas and lentils are able to transform nitrogen into ammonia, a compound that is useful for both the legumes and other plants growing nearby. Agriculture also benefits from this relationship. “By growing legumes together with cereals we reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, and we increase soil health and diversity,” pointed out Shamina Imran Pathan, lecturer and researcher at Università degli Studi di Firenze, coordinator of the Leguminose project, which studies the benefits of an ancient technique called intercropping.
“Intercropping is a multi-cropping technique that involves cultivating a minimum of two plants simultaneously in the same field,” explained the researcher. This method of farming can increase crop yields by up to 20% and improve soil health, which then reduces the need for synthetic fertilisers by up to 50%. Intercropping can also increase biodiversity, enhancing the resilience of agricultural systems to climate change.
The Leguminose project is assessing the potential of intercropping to become a mainstream technique in Europe’s farms (currently, only 2% of European arable land is used for legume-cereal intercropping). It is also establishing a network of 180 on-farm living labs in different pedoclimatic zones (a microclimate within soil) across Europe, Egypt, and Pakistan, to overcome the barriers to intercropping implementation.
“So far, we’ve found that the main barriers are lack of awareness and the challenges of implementing an efficient harvesting system for different species,” added Shamina Imran Pathan. “Intercropping is still used in many parts of Africa, Asia and America. But in Europe this knowledge has been mostly forgotten.”
Bringing Transformative Knowledge to Every Farm
Humans have been farming the land for at least 12,000 years, a period over which huge amounts of traditional knowledge have been piling up. Over the last decades, the number of new, innovative farming practices has also been growing. Today, under the agricultural European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI) initiative, there are more than 3,000 projects looking for innovative solutions for agriculture and forestry.
Ancient and new knowledge can work together so that agriculture can keep feeding the world as it becomes more sustainable. But all this knowledge does not always reach the practitioners, both in farms and forests.
“Successful innovation in the agri-food sector requires the collaboration of multiple actors, such as farmers, researchers, companies, public administration, non-governmental organizations, and society,” said Víctor Carbajal, strategic project responsible at BETA Technological Centre from the Universitat de Vic – Universitat Central de Catalunya (UVic-UCC) in Spain.
Carbajal also coordinates NUTRI-KNOW, a European project that will gather the findings from 12 research projects in the field of nutrient management across Ireland, Spain, Italy, and Belgium, and increase their reach. Its goal is to encourage farms to adopt innovative nutrient management practices.
“We need the circularisation of knowledge, which involves breaking down traditional barriers to knowledge transfer, where information flows linearly from experts to end-users,” said Carbajal. “Instead, we seek to create a continuous cycle of knowledge exchange, where the different actors involved can share their experiences, research, and lessons learned, compiling, translating and sharing knowledge in an easy-to-understand and ready-to-practice way.”
All the partners of the NUTRI-KNOW project are currently working – among other actions – on building a community of practice as an accessible, informative platform to share learnings, new technologies and best farming practices that will be consulted by farmers, professionals, public administration and researchers and industry.
Powerful answers may be hidden in the past, in the traditional practices of Hungarian herders, or in the ancient techniques of intercropping, but also in disruptive science and innovation. However, if knowledge doesn’t flow in every direction, reaching farmers, scientists, companies, and administrations, its true transformative value will remain buried.