Importance of the AKIS for sustainable agriculture in the Danube River Basin

Reducing nutrient and pesticide pollution from agriculture in the Danube River Basin (DRB) has been an important objective of the ICPDR for many years in support of implementation of the Danube River Protection Convention and EU Water Framework Directive.  The ICPDR’s recent commitment to broaden this objective and reach out to the agricultural sector with the purpose of developing a more comprehensive ‘Guidance Document on Sustainable Agriculture’ is very welcome.  But there are also many challenges and Mark Redman asks the question – do all farmers in the DRB have access to the information, advice and training they need for making the transition towards more sustainable farming methods?

The ICPDR’s commitment to sustainable agriculture builds logically upon the original concept of Best Agricultural Practice (BAP) that was developed and implemented over 15 years ago with the support of the UNDP/GEF.  This progression clearly acknowledges two important realities.  Firstly, that it is not possible to decouple the renewed risk of increasing agricultural pollution from the trend towards growing agricultural productivity in the DRB without taking a much more holistic perspective on the nature and direction of agriculture in the region.  And secondly, that there are multiple drivers of agricultural pollution in the DRB, including some deeply rooted socio-economic issues in the rural areas of the middle and lower DRB, that cannot be addressed simply by “best practice” alone.

Concerted effort is needed by relevant authorities to enhance the enabling conditions for sustainable agriculture in the DRB.  Fortunately, the possibility exists for many new and exciting policy interventions to be applied, notably via programming of the post-2020 EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) by Member States with territory in the DRB.  But there is one central issue that needs careful consideration – the successful pursuit of more sustainable agricultural production inevitably involves a paradigm shift from being “agro-chemical intensive” to “knowledge intensive”.

This shift in paradigm is not only related to the increased complexity of managing different agricultural production systems with less mineral fertiliser and pesticides, but also to the current rapid pace of change in agriculture.   Farmers in the DRB are facing an unprecedented stream of both exciting new opportunities (e.g. digitalisation) and frightening new challenges (e.g. the climate crisis).  As the pace of change and associated uncertainty experienced by farmers increases then so does the need to speed-up knowledge exchange with and between farmers and to accelerate the creation of new knowledge through appropriate (ideally farmer-led!) research and innovation.

Although there is already a substantial amount of existing knowledge (as well as some new knowledge being created by research) which is of relevance to the opportunities and challenges faced by farmers in the DRB, there is a tendency for it to stay fragmented and insufficiently applied in practice.  This situation is not unique to the DRB.  It is increasingly acknowledged across the EU that the insufficient or too slow uptake of new knowledge and innovative solutions in farming (particularly by small and medium-sized farms) is hindering both the farming sector’s immediate competitiveness and its smooth transition towards a more sustainable future.

And this is the point at which a new concept has entered the lexicon of the ICPDR – namely, the concept of the Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation System (AKIS). 

The AKIS is a “concept” that is increasingly used to describe the organisation and interaction of all persons, organisations and institutions who create, transfer and use knowledge and innovation for agriculture and related activities.  This includes farmers, farmer organisations and farmer networks, advisors, suppliers / buyers and other technical services, agricultural education and training providers, researchers, NGOs, media etc.

The AKIS concept is very flexible.  It is most common to discuss the concept at national level, although it can be equally applied at both international or sub-national (regional) level.  It can also be applied at the level of individual farmers, farm businesses or farming families – the so-called micro-AKIS!

There is a great diversity of national / regional AKISs existing in the DRB.  Although some examples of strong and integrated systems do exist, in most countries / regions there remains scope to more fully and effectively interlink all actors which generate, share and use knowledge and innovation for agriculture and all interrelated fields.  This includes building closer links between research and practice; developing stronger farm advisory services with better resources, better knowledge / skills and new approaches to the organisation and delivery of advice; fostering and disseminating innovation; and supporting the uptake of digital tools by farmers and advisers. 

One very interesting policy and networking initiative that was designed by the European Commission and initiated during the 2014-2020 period is the European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability (EIP-AGRI).   The EIP-AGRI aims to speed up agricultural innovation and knowledge exchange at grass-roots level.  It is based on an interactive innovation model which promotes collaboration between various actors (e.g. farmers, advisers, researchers, etc.) to identify real needs / opportunities and to make best use of complementary types of knowledge to co-create and disseminate innovative solutions ready to implement in practice.

The EIP-AGRI benefits from a unique set of measures and instruments funded under two European policies working in close synergy: the EU’s Horizon 2020 framework programme for innovation and research that runs at EU level plus the rural development budget (Pillar II) of the CAP that is programmed at regional / level by relevant national authorities in the Member States. An important cornerstone of the EIP-AGRI are so-called Operational Groups which are set-up with rural development funding to establish and implement ‘local interactive innovation projects’ that support the development of innovations by groups of relevant actors in a bottom-up manner.

There are many EIP-AGRI Operational Groups already established in the DRB and they have great potential for creating innovative solutions that will make farming in the region much smarter, more efficient and more sustainable. At the same time EU-level research and innovation projects funded under Horizon 2020 and with partners in the DRB are applying the “multi-actor approach” to bring a diverse range of actors with complementary knowledge to work together on similar issues related to sustainable agriculture and rural areas. Furthermore, other EU programmes such as LIFE Plus and Interreg also include support for innovation and knowledge exchange that can be applied to agricultural issues in the region.

Do all farmers in the DRB have access to the information, advice and training they need for making the transition towards more sustainable farming methods? Definitely not yet. But awareness of the need for more knowledge exchange and innovation is growing and the rolling out of the post-2020 CAP with its obligation for all EU Member States to strengthen their AKISs will surely be ‘wind in the sails’ for the ICPDR’s vision for sustainable agriculture in the DRB.