Imagine a farm that optimizes the use of natural resources like soil and water, encourages biodiversity, reduces inputs and yet still manages to increase its yields. That’s where European farming could be heading, according to INSPIA (European Index for Sustainable Productive Agriculture) , a pilot project designed to demonstrate the value of sustainable agriculture. It is led by the European Conservation Agriculture Federation (ECAF) with support from the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), Spanish Association for Conservation Agriculture and French Association for Conservation Agriculture. Prof. Dr. Emilio González Sánchez, ECAF secretary general, tells us more.
Why was INSPIA started and what are the objectives?
NSPIA is designed to demonstrate sustainable, productive agriculture through the implementation of Best Management Practices (BMPs) and the measurement of progress through a set of key indicators. Sustainable agriculture requires a holistic approach — one that protects natural resources and provides more food, feed, fiber and biodiversity, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The main outcome we would like to see are INSPIA’s BMPs reflected in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is driving most European agricultural systems. In fact, about 40 percent of the total EU budget (roughly 52 billion Euros) goes to farmers as part of the CAP. We want some of that money to reward farmers for implementing our BMPs. We also want to guarantee INSPIA’s BMPs are making a positive impact — that’s why we have indicators of success. Ultimately, we want European farmers to perform better and strive for excellence.
What are the BMPs?
NSPIA has 15 BMPs for agriculture focused on protecting biodiversity and natural resources, while maintaining productivity. They are related to soil, water, crop protection and fertilizer, precision farming and pollution prevention — a wide range of topics. Taking care of the soil via conservation agriculture (no tillage with permanent soil cover and use of crop rotation) is one of our major calls to action. Other BMPs address optimizing the use of inputs like crop protection products via integrated pest management and precision farming, implementing field margins and buffer strips, cleaning sprayers and machinery, and managing empty product containers.
What are the benefits of INSPIA’s BMPs?
Overall, we have proven that our BMPs reduce the cost of inputs by 15 percent and save energy by 15-20 percent compared to conventional tillage systems. At the same time, yields can increase by about 5-10 percent — or up to 15 percent in dry areas. As a result, farmer income is on par or higher than conventional alternatives.
Why don’t more farmers implement INSPIA’s BMPs?
Good question! Some BMPs require a higher level of knowledge or new equipment. For example, no tillage requires new seeders with less powerful tractors. That’s why we want to impact the EU’s agricultural policy, which could support the purchase of new seeders. There was a program in Spain which subsidized 40 percent of new farm equipment in support of saving energy and increasing efficiency. Farmers were happy with the support and conservation agriculture adoption has increased significantly in Spain over the past 7-8 years. Another challenge is that the average age of European farmers is quite high, so openness to change can be difficult. Younger farmers tend to be more open to new techniques.
What are INSPIA’s indicators of success?
We have about 25 sustainability indicators that fall into three categories: 1) economic (profit and production efficiency); 2) social (farmer welfare and well-being) and 3) environmental (biodiversity enhancement plus natural resource use and protection). Specific indicators include use levels of crop inputs like nitrogen, phosphorus, energy, water and crop protection products. We audit each farm in our network to measure all indicators because we want to prove that the BMPs create an impact at the farm level. Note that productivity is considered a key element of sustainability in agriculture. That’s why INSPIA aims to build awareness that agriculture must both protect the environment and produce sufficient high-quality food, feed and fiber.
Which countries and how many farms are involved in this pilot?
INSPIA is a long-term project so we wanted to partner with motivated farmers who are committed to sustainability. We are currently operating on 58 farms located mostly in France and Spain, with a few in Belgium and Denmark. At this stage of the project, we are auditing all farmers. But with more farms, it may not be possible to audit everyone so we are initiating an online platform for farmers to check their own performance.
How and where will INSPIA be extended in Europe?
Our wish is to extend INSPIA across Europe. We can reach many via ECAF’s network, which includes 12 EU countries plus Switzerland, Russia and Turkey. In the next two years, we would like to extend to central European countries and longer term, to eastern European countries. We are also pleased to collaborate with the ECPA, which has a network in most European countries.
What will be the long-term impact of INSPIA to sustainable agriculture?
This is the best question! We can reduce soil erosion by up to 95 percent with the adoption of our BMPs, which is scientifically proven. We will improve water usage and quality, soil infiltration, soil structure and crop performance, not to mention optimize use of crop protection products and fertilizers. We will also increase biodiversity in the soil and above ground, such as bird and mammal habitats. We already see significantly more biodiversity on INSPIA farms than others. For example, the number of earthworms has increased by 600 percent — a testament to healthy soil!
Finally, the impact on farmers’ welfare also increases with the adoption of INSPIA’s BMPs. They feel more committed to their communities and the environment. It’s not only about economics, but also important that farmers feel happier and emotionally engaged. If by practicing no tillage, they spend less time driving a tractor, it means they have more time for their families and hobbies. INSPIA is inspiration for the EU and perhaps for the rest of the world, too.