Official Journal of the European Union

C 128/107

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: Towards a coherent strategy for a European Agricultural Research Agenda’

COM(2008) 862 final

(2010/C 128/20)

Rapporteur: Mr CHIRIACO

On 15 December 2008 the European Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the

Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions – Towards a coherent strategy for a European Agricultural Research Agenda

COM(2008) 862 final.

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 13 October 2009.

At its 457th plenary session, held on 4 and 5 November 2009 (meeting of 4 November 2009), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 155 votes in favour, with three abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

1.1.   The EESC welcomes the Commission's initiative to launch a process to develop a future agricultural research agenda with a view to creating a European agricultural research area. Research and innovation in this sector must indeed be intensified (1) in order to ensure that the supply of farm products can keep up with international trends in demand.

1.2.   The EESC endorses the approach put forward by the Commission, which is based on trials of the concept of joint programming which, taking into account the needs and specificities of the various national programmes, aims to guarantee the EU coordination of initiatives and effective and concrete resource sharing (2). More specifically, the EESC urges the Commission to strengthen cooperation, not only in relation to national agricultural research programming but also in relation to other initiatives promoted by the different Directorates General (e.g. DG Environment, DG Agriculture, DG Enterprise). The EESC therefore calls on the Commission to provide further information on the instruments and operational arrangements, including the financial resources, for the initiatives proposed in a future Communication, involving all interested parties in a consultation process and taking into account the results of the joint programming pilot trial.

1.3.   The purpose of joint programming in agricultural research is to explore society's potential for facing the challenges involved in developing biobased commodities at EU level. These challenges relate to climate change, human health protection and food security issues. These concerns, also in light of the results of the JPAR Workshop Towards joint programming in agricultural research, were the focus of in-depth discussion and analysis by the Standing Committee for Agricultural Research (SCAR) (3) summarised in the position paper on joint programming published in June 2009. Joint programming involves a strong element of participation and intensive efforts by the countries taking part, which translates into added value and benefits in terms of impact for citizens and European competitiveness. Even at this stage, therefore, the EESC proposes the development of appropriate mechanisms to secure the participation of all interested parties, including the private sector, especially businesses, mainly in the identification of research objectives, and to estimate the resources required and carefully identify the financial instruments for operating the system, thereby ensuring effective access to finance. In particular, the EESC recommends that the Commission and the Council take steps to draw up a proposal for a regulation to form the legal basis for the organisation and functioning of the ‘new’ SCAR, in line with the political process launched in 2004, and to replace Regulation (EEC) No 1728/74.

1.4.   According to the new governance model proposed by the Commission, the Standing Committee on Agricultural Research will play a coordinating role in promoting joint initiatives at EU level and in mapping the competences of the research programmes promoted. The EESC believes that SCAR should be based on a principle of fundamental flexibility in order to stay abreast of reforms already implemented (4) or to be implemented in the continually evolving regulatory framework of the Common Agricultural Policy.

1.5.   In the context of joint programming, the foresight and analysis process is closely connected with the mapping process which, by providing key figures and statistics on shortcomings, tendencies and needs in the organisation of agricultural research at the national level, contributes to providing an overview of developments in agricultural research in the EU. Until now, this type of information has been provided by the EU-AGRI-MAPPING project, an initiative of the 6th EU Framework Programme for Research. The EESC, taking into consideration not least the difficulties encountered during this project, believes that mapping should not be based on ad hoc initiatives but on a continuous and regularly updated process.

2.   Summary of the communication

2.1.   A new context for agricultural research in Europe

2.1.1.   European agriculture faces new challenges such as the changing farming demography and structure, the impact of modern farming practices on employment, changes to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and global factors affecting the sector.

2.1.2.   In order to cope with these challenges, it is widely acknowledged that there is a need for a strong agricultural research area within Europe. Agricultural research should provide the knowledge that is necessary for a thorough understanding of rural development, of the drivers and impediments for sustainability, and provide the new technologies and innovation needed for the development of the agricultural sector. It should facilitate knowledge acquisition to improve, among other things, our understanding of market dynamics. However, research efforts often remain fragmented and poorly coordinated; there is underinvestment and a lack of critical mass. In Europe, several mechanisms are in place, particularly under the EU's Framework Programme, which help to foster pan-European collaboration between researchers. In this respect, the ERA-NET scheme provides funding for the networking of national programmes, ministries or funding agencies across all scientific sectors. The EU Council agreed (in November 2004) that collaboration in this area would benefit from a more structured approach. In this respect, the recently devised concept of joint programming goes a step further than the ERA-NET scheme and elicits the direct cooperation of Member State public programmes in defining common visions, strategic research agendas, and the pooling of resources to tackle specific areas together. The Steering Committee on Agricultural Research (SCAR) was mentioned as a good example of a possible network structure in any new joint programming process.

2.2.   The steering role of the SCAR committee

2.2.1.   Following several dormant years, SCAR was given a new mandate in 2005 by the Council of the EU to play a major role in the coordination of agricultural research efforts in Europe. The ‘new’ SCAR is made up of the 27 EU Member States, with representatives from candidate countries and associated countries as observers. Initiatives promoted by SCAR towards a European Research Area for Agriculture include, in addition to joint programming, a foresight process to identify potential long-term scenarios for European agriculture, and a mapping process to identify needs and trends for agricultural research in the EU.

2.2.2.   SCAR has adopted a structured approach to the prioritisation of research topics for further collaboration, through the establishment of a number of Member/Associated State Collaborative Working Groups (CWGs). CWGs work in a similar way to ERA-NETs, in that they follow the same step-by-step approach – focussing on information exchange during the early stages, identifying gaps in research and priority areas for collaboration and, where applicable, launching joint activities and/or common research calls.

2.3.   Key actions towards a coherent European Agricultural Research Agenda

2.3.1.   There is an urgent need to acquire a much better understanding of the driving forces underlying the processes of climate change in order to reduce their adverse impact and safeguard the dwindling resource base of soil, water, and biodiversity, with a view to supporting and promoting a more sustainable agriculture in the European and global context. The priority research areas in this context are climate change and energy resources.

2.3.2.   Research could play a stronger role if different actors were better integrated in actual agenda setting and became part of the research process through actions such as innovation networks. The Commission therefore intends to strengthen the production and sharing of agricultural knowledge, through SCAR and the European Network for Rural Development (5). With a view to consolidating joint research programming for better governance of the European agro-food system, the strategic role of SCAR could be further strengthened so it can become the strategic oversight body supervising the various agriculture-related efforts carried out by all European public research bodies.

2.3.3.   In order to implement long-term research agendas based on common visions and shared objectives, there is a need to develop a monitoring mechanism that includes a combination of tools for foresight analysis and mapping of research capacities.

2.3.4.   Europe's responsibilities in a globalised world cannot be overlooked: agricultural sustainability is becoming an issue that will have both a direct effect (e.g. through food prices) and an indirect effect (e.g. through migration) in the EU, as well as on all regions of the world. Therefore policy synergies in the area of agricultural research within and outside Europe must be strengthened and there is a need in particular to enhance synergies between EU and Member States' research policies, on the one hand, and external policies such as development aid and neighbourhood policies, on the other.

3.   General comments

3.1.   A new context for agricultural research in Europe

3.1.1.   The role and functions of European agriculture have been transformed over the last 50 years, reflecting the changes that have marked the European society and economy and involving citizens and consumers, moving from a ‘rural’ to a ‘post-industrial’ agriculture. Consequently, it is now established opinion that the farm sector should, in keeping with the European Agricultural Model, be seen in multifunctional or agro-territorial terms, i.e. no longer solely in terms of production. The same criterion should therefore apply to the definition of ‘agricultural research’. This in any case confirms the primary role of agricultural production also brought to the fore by the international food crisis. Indeed, food competitiveness and security of supply are set to become challenges in the near future.

3.1.2.   In this context, the EESC warmly welcomes the approach taken in devising a broader definition of ‘agricultural research’, reflecting the challenges for European agriculture including, in particular, adapting to and mitigating climate change, the development of renewable energies from agricultural sources, conservation of biodiversity, sustainable management of water resources, not to mention the promotion of ICT and the quality of production.

3.2.   Towards common research agendas

3.2.1.   The communication adopts the recent concept of joint programming (2) as a novel approach for agricultural research aimed at making best use of the limited financial resources by opting for greater collaboration. Joint programming is currently being trialled through a pilot project on research into Alzheimer's disease. The Council is also scheduled to adopt further initiatives in other major research sectors by 2010 and, where positive results are produced, joint programming could have a decisive impact on future research coordination mechanisms at European level.

3.2.2.   Joint programming involves the Member States, on a voluntary and variable geometry basis, in defining, developing and applying strategic research agendas based on a shared vision of how the leading social challenges should be tackled. The concept can include strategic cooperation between existing national programmes or jointly planning and implementing completely new programmes. In both cases the purpose is to pool resources, select or develop the most appropriate instruments, apply them and collectively monitor and review progress.

3.2.3.   Given that agricultural research efforts are often fragmented and poorly coordinated, and that there is underinvestment, a lack of dissemination and targeted communication of findings, and a absence of critical mass, the EESC welcomes the joint programming approach, seeing it as an ambitious objective that, combined with a pragmatic and flexible approach, can launch a strategic, structured process of agricultural research.

3.3.   The steering role of the SCAR committee

3.3.1.   The Communication from the Commission and the accompanying Staff Working Document provide a detailed description of the analysis, monitoring, evaluation and consultation functions, as well as of the organisational and operational working methods of SCAR in keeping with the guidelines of the Agriculture Council of 19 July 2004. More specifically, SCAR would be responsible for monitoring national research initiatives in the agro-food sector, coordinating these activities at Community level, and establishing reasonable forecasts for the long-term development of research priorities in this sector.

3.3.2.   The EESC considers that Community-level coordination is crucial to tackling the common challenges and speaking with a single voice in international forums, preventing duplication and further developing programmes, and increasing competition for obtaining funding and, consequently, the quality of research proposals. It must be borne in mind, however, that the research situation is very different in every Member State, and that national programming must take account of specific priorities and needs, where European-level cooperation would not always guarantee benefits of significant scale or scope. For this reason, SCAR should be provided with instruments for ensuring the management of a continuous and up-to-date monitoring process.

4.   Specific comments

4.1.   Among key actions towards a coherent European Agricultural Research Agenda, the communication includes reducing the negative impact of climate change, safeguarding water and soil resources, and protecting biodiversity. The EESC believes that the social impact should also be considered, as underlined in the 2008 FAO report Gender and Equity Issues in Liquid Biofuels Production, covering the overall connections between business, employment, and region.

4.2.   The new priority areas for the future Agricultural Research Agenda should reflect – in addition to climate change and agriculture-related energy issues – the struggle to preserve biodiversity, the sustainable use of water resources, environmental and human health impact assessments on the cultivation and marketing of GMO products, issues relating to the agro-food sector, with special reference to the processing stage and biotechnologies, and all innovations that can be used to deal with these issues that present new challenges, as recently pointed out in the ‘Health Check’ on the reformed CAP (November 2008).

4.3.   Research could play a stronger role if different actors were better integrated in actual agenda setting and became part of the research process. In particular, it is essential to involve businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, in identifying research objectives based on the real needs of the businesses themselves, and in promoting applied research and technological transfer by ensuring effective access to funding. As a consequence, the EESC welcomes the Commission's proposal to strengthen links between knowledge and innovation in order to reconcile the interests of business and the individual and urges the Commission to set up appropriate training programmes to this end.

4.4.   With particular regard to the European Network for Rural Development (5), rather than introducing specific measures, which might give rise to problems of coordination with the network's regulatory functions, incentives for the exchange of best practice should be provided. The European Network for Rural Development, the European technological platforms and the other knowledge-sharing tools are strategic solutions for sharing and developing viable ideas, reliable information and practical experience across Europe, thereby structuring and strengthening production and knowledge-sharing.

4.5.   If European research is to be networked with international research, especially in the developing countries, then appropriate mechanisms must be put in place that can ensure the efficacy and efficiency of the initiatives that are promoted, in particular by means of boosting local governance capacity and enhancing the quality of the relevant human resources.

Brussels, 4 November 2009.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Mario SEPI

(1)  EESC opinion on Food prices in Europe (see page 00 of the current Official Journal).

(2)  OJ C 228, 22.9.2009, p. 56.

(3)  Article 7 of Regulation (EEC) No 1728/74.

(4)  Regulation (EC) No 72/2009, Regulation (EC) No 73/2009, Regulation (EC) No 74/2009 and Council Decision 2009/61/EC of 19 January 2009.

(5)  Article 67 of Regulation (EC) No 1698/2005.