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).
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. We also use interactive holographic landscapes for community based design of sustainable foodscapes. You can read more about it here.
This network of lighthouses creates a uniquely tangible ‘real-life’ global outdoor classroom and laboratory that:
- Provides excellent opportunities for engagement and collaboration with farmers, stakeholders, industry and policy makers (“we’ll have something to show”);
- Facilitates valuable shared learning between contrasting ‘lighthouse systems’, in line with the vision of Organics 3.0;
- Provides a platform to anchor international collaborations.
Where are the lighthouses located?
So far, these farms are connected as lighthouses:
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 complex rice systems has been published in Nature Scientific Reports.
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.
8. La Junquera is an organic farm and village that is being transformed into a beacon of regenerative agriculture in Southern Spain. The farm is based in Caravaca de la Cruz, Murcia, Spain which is on the border of the desert and as such faces many challenges related to soil erosion, water shortages, irregular rain events, unemployment, graying, and lack of possibilities. La Junquera focuses on building silt traps, swales, composting, limited tilling, and the restoration of natural areas. These practices not only help to reduce erosion, improve fertility and increase water infiltration but also help to increase biodiversity. The Regeneration Academy helps to make this transformation to regenerative agriculture.
9. The Basic Unit of Cooperative Production Organopónico Vivero Alamar in Havana, Cuba, is one of the largest and most successful organic urban gardens. This highly productive farm of 11 ha and 150 cooperative members contributes to local development by supplying healthy food and providing employment especially for women and older people.
10. The Climate Smart Village (CSV) in Cauca is located in the northwest of the municipality of Popayan, south west Colombia. Its main productive systems are coffee, sugarcane and vegetables for local consumption. Since several years, the farmers in the region have experienced droughts, heavy rains, hails and strong winds that have caused crop losses and increased their vulnerability to climate variability and change. Since 2015 the farmers together with the CGIAR program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), the Ecohabitats Foundation, the rural communities and different local stakeholders started to implement the CSV approach in Cauca, to support climate resilience and rural sustainable development.
The CSV approach is a space where different actors like farmers, researchers, governments, private sector and civil society co-develop, test, adopt and evaluate integrated and innovative portfolios of options that seek to promote a sustainable agriculture and improve the livelihoods of the communities in a context of climate variability and change.
Some of the unique and exciting components of the Cauca CSV include capacity building to better understand the climate, which allows farmers to make better-informed decisions and plan for short and medium term, through participatory, double-track and multi-scale construction processes. Here and here you can find photo's of different learning exchanges in Cauca.
11. B.V. ERF is the largest private organic farm in the Netherlands. Its cultivated surface constitutes about 1800 ha. On average, B.V. ERF is growing around 20 organic arable and vegetable crops such as cereals, peas, spinach and beans. The large production scale allows for the introduction of modern techniques in the cultivation as well as in the processing of the products. The production sites are mainly located at city borders. Therefore, citizens can witness food production without being burdened by the use of synthetic pesticides. The company plays a leading role in the development of sustainable food production. Therefore, it experiments with various kinds of innovative mechanisation and production techniques. To combine landscape biodiversity and sustainable production, the company has started experimenting with various kinds of mixed cropping systems and crop diversity in time and space. One of the methods used is strip cropping.