26 August 2022, Switzerland: The aim of the project RELACS (Replacement of Contentious Inputs in Organic Farming Systems) was to develop and validate alternatives to contentious inputs in organic crop production (copper, mineral oils, nutrient inputs) and livestock production (anthelmintics, antibiotics and synthetic vitamins) and to propose implementation roadmaps. Starting from a list of alternatives at various technology maturity levels, project coordinator Lucius Tamm of FiBL Switzerland states that many technologies have reached the final stages necessary for on-farm implementation. For a rapid adoption by farmers, policy support at various levels and smart roadmaps are needed.
Four alternative products for copper achieved advanced Technology Readiness Levels* (TRL higher than 7). These alternative products can be used in grapevine, apple and other horticultural crops. The pilot products provided promising protection levels in a wide range of crops and pedo-climatic conditions – either as a stand-alone application or in strategies combining the alternatives with low copper doses. It will be possible to reduce copper use on grapevine and apple in the next decade, provided the alternatives can be authorised. The EU should also adapt the registration process to plant-based products, which is currently very lengthy and time-consuming. However, the supply of sufficient quantities of alternatives at an economically feasible price remains an extraordinary challenge. RELACS, therefore, advises pursuing a minimisation strategy rather than full replacement of copper. Such a minimisation strategy could consist of the cultivation of resistant varieties or the implementation of preventive measures (e. g. enhanced functional biodiversity, crop management practices), the use of alternative substances and Decision Support Systems (DSS) that allow lowering application rates.
Alternative to replace mineral (paraffin) oil
In citrus production, two alternative products were tested to replace mineral (paraffin) oil against pests such as scales, thrips and mites. Furthermore, progress was made in the development of vibrational disruption that mimics the acoustic communication signals specific to the pest to thus disturb the mating behaviour and reproduction of the pest insect. A substantial reduction of mineral oil, using less problematic products and innovative techniques, seems feasible in the near future. The mineral oil reduction strategy should include measures to enhance biodiversity, the use of alternative products based on plant extracts (Clitoria ternatea and orange essential oil) and the use of vibrational signals. Both mineral oil and copper alternatives suffer from complicated approval procedures.
Two alternatives to anthelmintics – a group of antiparasitic drugs that expel parasitic worms (helminths) and other internal parasites – were tested in RELACS: biocontrol products based on Duddingtonia flagrans and the feeding of tannin-rich fodder such as heather. They can reduce overall anthelmintic use by 30 to 50 percent in organic cattle, sheep and goats. The alternatives provide complementary control strategies to reduce but not replace anthelmintics. Involving vets and adapting registration procedures for veterinary medicines based on natural substances will be key to ensuring acceptability and rapid adoption of the alternatives.
Two alternative strategies to reduce antibiotic use in organic dairy cows were explored: An Animal Health and Welfare Planning Protocol (AHWP) combining detailed farm-specific data with Farmer Field Schools (and the use of essential oils to control light to moderate mastitis). FFS are meetings where several farmers share advice peer-to-peer on specific problems of the hosting farmers, following an established meeting protocol. Both approaches are promising for the reduction of antibiotics as no difference in (mild or moderate) clinical mastitis cure between essential oil and antibiotic treatment was observed, nor were any negative impacts on milk quality or animal health and welfare observed. Proper implementation of the Animal Health and Welfare Planning Protocol has a very high potential – of up to 50 % – to reduce antibiotic use for mastitis treatments in dairy cattle. However, it is necessary to strongly invest in advisory services and involve vets to facilitate its adoption. In the medium term, antibiotic reduction strategies could be complemented by the use of essential oils, although research needs to confirm this. The EU should also adapt the authorisation process to herbal veterinary products, which is currently very lengthy and time-consuming.
Current supplementation levels of vitamin E and other vitamins in organic ruminants and B2/B12 vitamins in organic poultry can be substantially reduced since reduced vitamin diets had no negative impact on animals nor on milk or meat quality in our trials. A complete phase-out is not possible, but it should be possible to reduce vitamin E for organic dairy cows by approximately 50 % and vitamin B2 for organic poultry by 30 to 50 %. These reductions can take place in the very short term as there are no technical constraints for the feed industry. The identification of a GMO-free yeast strain overproducing riboflavin (vitamin B2) opens up an option for an additional alternative GMO-free and non-synthetic production. Currently, the situation is precarious as only one European supplier offers vitamin B2 produced without the help of GMOs. Therefore, it is essential to further develop the market and stimulate competition to avoid any shortage in vitamin B2. The European Commission is encouraged to take a clear decision on the regulatory status of products consisting of vitamin B2 produced without the help of GMOs, and it will need to adapt its registration of feed additives at the EU level to facilitate access to alternatives.
External nutrient inputs
The current use of and need for external nutrient inputs on organic farms in Europe was evaluated in eight case study regions. In many areas, additional nitrogen (N) inputs to organic agriculture are needed to increase productivity, while inputs of phosphate (P) and potassium (K) are required to prevent soil mining. The data produced in RELACS show that the importance of nutrient supply in organic farming has been underestimated so far. Limited availability of soil fertility inputs is the single most limiting factor for yields in stockless organic farms. Furthermore, a lack of cost-efficient supply of plant nutrients prevents upscaling of organic plant production beyond 15 to 20 % in many regions. Reducing the dependence of organic farms on conventional manure and external nutrients from non-renewable sources is nevertheless possible in the medium term by recycling societal waste streams. It is crucial that the safety and acceptability of these products are guaranteed and that the organic sector agrees on criteria for their use.
Feasible and cost-effective solutions identified
The conclusions of the RELACS project were developed through a series of national and European workshops with researchers, policymakers, industry, and farmer associations. The three roadmaps for reducing contentious plant protection products (copper, mineral oil), phasing-in new nutrient sources, and reducing contentious inputs used in livestock production (antibiotics, anthelmintics, vitamins) that resulted from them are available on the RELACS website (see link below)
The objectives of the European “Farm to Fork Strategy” add the necessity not only to replace problematic practices but also to provide widely accessible and cost-efficient alternatives in sufficient quantities. While the tools and technologies explored in RELACS fulfilled the expectations to a large extent with respect to efficacy, we also encountered major challenges concerning the duration until alternatives may be used legally by farmers (i. e. authorisation of inputs). Furthermore, many alternatives will be more expensive than the standard options, thus necessitating policy support as well as instruction and training to be adopted by farmers.
RELACS provided the scientific information needed to identify feasible and cost-effective solutions and the way forward to implementation, but it also identified bottlenecks at various levels along the value chain. It has also become clear that relevant EU policies will need to be tailor-made to address the various issues, depending on the specific input. Roadmaps were developed for fair, reliable, and implementable rules for contentious inputs addressed in the project. As expected, immediate phasing out of the contentious input would create unbearable risks and costs to the organic sector. In contrast, a smart roadmap with tiered transition phases may lead to a rapid and successful change of agricultural practice. It is/was essential to involve all relevant stakeholders to reach joint conclusions regarding the technical feasibility of solutions in the various pedo-climatic and socio-cultural situations of Europe.
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