The lighthouse farm project

The lighthouse farm project

Global agriculture finds itself at a historic cross-roads: while population growth and rising affluence are leading to an increasing demand for food, agriculture is using land, energy and resources at rates that exceed the planetary boundaries and can thus not be sustained indefinitely. Notwithstanding recent efforts to incrementally improve the sustainability of our food, more radical changes are now required if we are to deliver on the many Sustainable Development Goals that refer to agriculture.

The ‘grand challenge’ is to transform global farming systems so that they simultaneously: 1) contribute to food security; 2) maximise resource use efficiency; 3) ensure stability and resilience; 4) minimise environmental impact and 5) contribute to social justice. This transformation requires the design of radically new future farming systems that meet the five objectives for a range of soils, climates, cultures and local conditions. The optimum design will vary between locations, resulting in a ‘mosaic of optimised systems’.

Bridging the think-do gap

But ‘designing solutions’ does not equate to ‘solving the challenge’. Decision makers (e.g. farmers, policy makers) encounter numerous obstacles to implementation, known as the ‘think-do gap’. Examples include issues relating to land fragmentation, taxation structures, gender inequality or poor local infrastructure (see diagram). Whilst these obstacles may appear to relate only indirectly to the topic of sustainability, they can lead farmers to conclude, perfectly rationally, that optimised lighthouse systems are out of reach within their unique farming contexts. Therefore, if we want our lighthouse farm systems to have an impact on global agriculture, there is little point in simply ‘trying to convince the neighbours to follow suit’. Instead, through co-innovation and in a transdisciplinary approach we will involve researchers and students in engaging with the local communities of actors, to identify and understand barriers to transformation, and either chart a path to removing these, or iteratively ‘redesign the lighthouses’ to be compatible with local decision making.

What is a lighthouse farm?

We are developing a mosaic of solutions, or customised farming systems for contrasting environments, climates, farmers and cultures. This involves both the agro-ecological-technical redesign of farming systems, and development of trajectories for farmers to bridge the think-do-gap between design and implementation (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Building bridges to close the “think-do gap”
Figure 1. Building bridges to close the “think-do gap”

Actual Lighthouse farms are existing farms in the real world that are positive deviants and are “already in 2050” in terms of providing sustainably produced food and ecosystem services. These farms demonstrate what can be achieved within the bio-physical and socio-economic solution spaces.

This project will create a global classroom and laboratory on sustainable food security, by establishing an international network of lighthouse farms (Figure 2). The FSE and FTE groups have been approached by a number of such lighthouse farms. These are actively seeking engagement with WUR, as their knowledge requirements are typically not met by the existing advisory services. We will carefully select a small number of lighthouse farms (on different continents) that are exemplars of specific aspects of sustainable production, and that can serve as real-life experimental farms to advance our scientific understanding of the principles and practices of sustainable production in contrasting environments.

Figure 2. Interdisciplinary approach to create a global classroom and laboratory
Figure 2. Interdisciplinary approach to create a global classroom and laboratory

This network of lighthouses will create a uniquely tangible ‘real-life’ global outdoor classroom and laboratory that:

  1. Provides excellent opportunities for engagement and collaboration with farmers, stakeholders, industry and policy makers (“we’ll have something to show”);
  2. Facilitates valuable shared learning between contrasting ‘lighthouse systems’, in line with the vision of Organics 3.0;
  3. Provides a platform to anchor international collaborations, so that the group can progress from ‘international partner’ to ‘international leader’.

Where are the lighthouses located?

We have identified 4 farms with potential to be lighthouses:

1. Syntropic farming in Brazil (permaculture on previously degraded soils in the Amazon region) A video on these farms was shown at the UNFCCC COP21 in Paris 2015


2. Symbiosis: an organic community in Finland creating a local circular economy with the ambition to become net exporters of both food and energy. The leading farm was named “Farmer of the Year of the Baltic Sea Region” by the World Wildlife Fund. Symbiosis is supported by the University of Helsinki and the SITRA fund. A video of the initiative can be found here.


3. Complex rice systems in Indonesia combine rice production with the cultivation of fish, azolla and ducks, creating a complex, resilient system. Building on research by the FSE group, a paper on this resilience has been submitted to Nature Climate Change.


4. The Lands at Dowth in Ireland aims to produce healthy beef on the historic World Heritage site of Dowth, by developing a healthy ecosystem from soil to grass to animal. Led by Devenish Nutrition, this project has engaged with WUR in the Heartland proposal, which will be resubmitted for an Industrial Training Network in January 2018.