The lighthouse farm project

The lighthouse farm project

Global agriculture finds itself at 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 and nutrition 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

‘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 land fragmentation, taxation structures, gender inequality or poor local infrastructure (see diagram).

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 involve researchers and students in engaging with the local communities, 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?

A lighthouse farm is an existing, commercially viable farm 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.

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”

This project creates a global classroom and laboratory on sustainable food security, by establishing an international network of lighthouse farms (Figure 2). These are actively engaging with WUR, as their knowledge requirements are typically not met by the existing advisory services. Within the network we are engaging with 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 creates 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.

Where are the lighthouses located?

So far, these farms are connected as lighthouses:

1. Rizoma has the ambition to regenerate 1 million hectares of land by 2030 in Brazil by implementing integrated farming systems (agroforestry, silvopasture, organic grain crops), that allow nature to recover degraded land, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, optimize the water cycle and restore soil biodiversity, while being productive and profitable at the same time. More on Regenerative Agriculture by Rizoma can be found here.

Rizoma Brazil - Fazenda de Toca

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.

Palopuro in Finland

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 complex rice systems has been published in Nature Scientific Reports.

Complex Rice Systems in Indonesia

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 animals, humans and the planet. Led by Devenish Nutrition and WUR, this project has developed into the Heartland project, an EU Marie-Curie funded project which will start in September 2019.

Lands at Dowth in Ireland

5. GRAND FARM in Absdorf, Austria, is an organic farm applying low-tillage methods to maintain and improve the soil. On-farm research projects support the development of agroforestry, the livestock sector and a the market garden. GRAND FARM is a frontrunner in advancing vermiculture and vermicomposting – composting with the help of earthworms.

GRAND FARM in Austria

6. Saimniecíbas Kopskats in Latvia comprises of 4000ha of land where 1000 dairy cows are being kept to produce biogas. Their biogas installation, which runs on slurry, generates 45 MW per day; the digestate is used as fertilizer. The surplus heat generated by the engine is used to warm up water, that is transported to the adjacent fish culture, producing eel and sturgeon caviar.

Latvia dairy farm - Photo: Ronald Hissink
Latvia dairy farm - Photo: Ronald Hissink

7. The Atsbi catchment in Ethiopia is a community that has successfully reversed land degradation in a semi-arid environment over the past twenty years. Unique to Atsbi is the community based land governance structures, where the community both contribute to and benefit from regenerative agricultural practices.

Atsbi Catchment in Ethopia