In the next five years, Europe has to invest in developing systems that measure and explain as to why some agricultural crops are growing well or others aren’t. That is the opinion of advisors from the European Commission. They want to know how European forests are being used by consumers. As well as what conditions farms need in order to be able to produce in an optimal, circular way. One of the aims is to ensure that less waste is released into the environment.

In a nutshell, this is the result of a discussion between scientific advisors about planning research paid for by the European innovation fund Horizon. This is how they will try to conserve nature and available water. This should also prevent a further depletion of biodiversity in forests and agricultural areas.

Sensors in fields

Agricultural engineer Helena Gomez Macpherson of the Association for Sustainable Agriculture IAS-CSIC in Spain said that the EU must invest in research into a more efficient use of water in crop cultivation. This is to prevent dehydration and soil acidification.

There are sensors on the market that farmers can use in their fields. They may use these to gauge how their crops are growing. However, Gomez notes that farmers won’t find out why their crops are progressing or not with these sensors. Subsequently, farmers sometimes do not know if problems are due to a lack of irrigation or an excess. Nor do they know what state the soil is in or what the effect of fertilization is having on the environment around their fields. Because this is not the type of information that the sensors pass on. It is possible that they are not taking appropriate measures as a result.

Intelligent fertilization systems

If farmers were to be provided with intelligent irrigation and fertilization systems which use sensors that are also affordable and accurate, (which she considers not to be the case at the moment), that would save them a lot of money. In her opinion, existing sensors do not do this. This would require European research funding from the Horizon Fund, which has a budget of around €100 billion.

Water use during dry periods

The aim is that the environment will improve because farmers will be able to use water and manure much more precisely and sparingly. They will be better able to determine which crops are thriving well in their fields and which ones aren’t. This should also alleviate the burden on the environment.

Climate change, (whereby certain areas in southern Spain, for example, are extremely dry in summer), makes research into environmentally friendly and effective cultivation methods absolutely vital, says Gomez.

Greater use of forests by city-dwellers

The problems are very different when it comes to forestry, as one of the recommendations made by the German professor Georg Winkel from the European Forest Institute (EFI) has shown. He sees a shift in the use of forests, which accounts for some 33 percent of European woodlands. Cities have become more closely involved with forests than in the past. As an example, there is a trend in Germany towards kindergartens in the woods, he explains. Known as ‘Waldkindergarten‘, there are now around 2000 of these as far as he is aware of. Plus there are more and more cultural activities that take place in the forests, such as funerals. If it is up to him, there will be research into how Europeans would most like to use their forests, what the advantages and disadvantages are, and how we can protect them.

Biodiversity under pressure

Albeit to a lesser extent than in agriculture, Winkel states that there is a clear trend that biodiversity in forests is also coming under pressure. He also wants European scientists to work with forest scientists on other continents, such as China, in order to exchange knowledge like this. Forests in the EU are not the only ones. As far as Winkel is concerned, a policy will be put in place to deal with products on the market which are linked to the loss of tropical forests outside of Europe.

Less soy from South America

One way to become less dependent on cattle feed such as soy from the US and South America is to reuse nutrients in agriculture that would otherwise become waste, according to Ghent professor Erik Meers, who specializes in bio-regeneration. In this context, he is focused on research into methods which will turn farming in the EU into a circular industry.

Manure as a source of energy

An example that he gave was the direct use of fresh manure for energy production. That way, the farmer avoids, among other things, the build-up of manure and the release of nitrogen into the soil. This is beneficial to the environment. Moreover, the European farmer saves money on energy because they then become an energy producer themselves.