Experts call for more research on organic farming

Summary

Organic farming associations are calling for local universities and researchers to add sustainable agriculture studies to their curricula

“Limited understanding”

More and more consumers and growers around the world have embraced organic farming in recent years. With a growing number of local organic farming initiatives, Flanders has solidly jumped on the bandwagon.

Yet sustainable farming still represents just a fraction of the region’s agriculture industry, and it remains absent from the curricula of most bioscience engineering departments.

The government of Flanders is giving the sector a nudge with initiatives to help new organic farmers set up, to assist experienced farmers in transitioning to organic production and to encourage research into organic farming.

The number of organic farms in Flanders has steadily increased over the last five years. According to the most recent annual report of the government’s agriculture and fisheries department, 39 new farms began growing organic crops in 2014.

Part of this success appears to be the result of the administration’s decision to support the budding industry with subsidies. In 2014, the government invested €3.8 million in the sector, an increase of 6.7% compared to the year before.

The government supports, for instance, the Antwerp training centre Landwijzer, which offers a two-year training programme to those interested in becoming professional organic farmers. It also provided funding to Bio Zoekt Boer (Organic Seeks Farmer), an initiative of organic farmers’ association Bioforum and two farmers unions, for farmers looking for concrete advice on adopting organic methods.

For Bio Zoekt Boer’s Sander Van Haver, this type of basic training in organic farming is absolutely vital for Flanders. “Both young and older farmers have a very limited understanding of what organic farming entails,” he says. “It seems that universities and colleges devote little attention to the topic.”

Van Haver himself graduated as an agricultural engineer four years ago without much insight, he says, into organic farming.

Inadequate training

Koen Dhoore from Landwijzer says his training centre caters to a different crowd than local universities and colleges. “We provide very practical training to people who have a clear ambition to become organic farmers,” he says. “But it is a problem that organic farming is not well integrated in curricula at higher education institutions yet.” 

Organic farming is not well integrated in curricula at higher education institutions

- Koen Dhoore from Landwijzer

According to Van Haver, not many people recognise that, beyond the ecological advantages, organic farming also provides major economic opportunities. “Organic farmers distinguish themselves on the market from the mass of regular farmers,” he explains. “By focusing on a certain product for which there is a huge demand, they can be very successful.”

Organic farms today represent just 0.8% of the total agricultural area in Flanders. Van Haver feels the government should increase its financial support of organic farming even more so that the sector can begin operating on a larger scale.

Another challenge in Flanders is the lack of robust research into organic farming. “There are initiatives at universities, mostly in Ghent and Leuven, but only on a small scale,” says Johan Van Waes, president of the Netwerk Onderzoek Biologische Landbouw en Voeding (Network Research Organic Farming and Food), which streamlines exchange of knowledge between researchers working around organic farming in Flanders.

“Among the different research institutes,” he says, “the Flemish Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research is especially active on the topic.”

According to Van Waes, traditional farmers could also benefit from additional research into organic farming, since it provides important insights into crop diversification and soil fertility. He hopes the growth of the organic farming sector will result in more financial support for future research projects. “A chair at a Flemish university devoted to the topic would also be a big step forward,” he says. 

Flemish agriculture and horticulture

Flanders is an important global food exporter. The main agricultural activities differ from region to region – with pig, cow, vegetable and dairy-farming the most important. In recent years, the sector has been heavily affected by the economic downturn and falling global food prices.
Green - Organic farming accounts for just a fraction of Flemish agriculture, but the sector has slowly been growing in recent years.
Greenhouse - Flanders has been a trailblazer in mapping the carbon footprint of agriculture.
Forgotten - Flemish horticulture’s “Bel’Orta” label aims to promote lesser-known vegetables like parsnip, parsley root and kohlrabi.
90

percent of Belgium’s fruit harvest comes from Flanders

25 982

agriculture businesses in Flanders in 2011

51 530

people employed in Flemish agriculture and horticulture in 2011