Public policy recommendations to advance food systems through farmer-centric On-Farm Experimentation (OFE)
An outcome of the #OFE2021 conference
Background: OFE opportunities and barriers
On-Farm Experimentation (OFE) is an innovation process that brings together several stakeholder groups (farmers, advisors, researchers) to experiment on practices and technologies in real-life, and to share results, creating and sharing value through dynamic business models (see the box “What is OFE”). OFE can be seen both as a way to develop actionable knowledge for practitioners about individual farms, and as a way to accumulate data about various agroecosystems to create additional knowledge relevant to broader communities. “Data-rich” OFE based on automated data collection and analysis is a particularly promising application of digital technologies.
The transformation of food systems through OFE, as a locally-relevant data-driven innovation process that engages farmers and others around specific changes on the farm, requires regulation and investment in infrastructure and processes in both institutions and the broader food environment. Effective and responsible OFE deployment is as much about institutional and policy changes as it is about technological change. This includes promoting governance arrangements such as interoperability standards, the development of individual and organizational capabilities, and new patterns of partnerships.
A key outcome of #OFE2021, the first international conference on OFE held in Montpellier in October 2021, was the identification of six strategic areas for governments and agencies to focus their efforts when supporting the development of OFE at local, regional, national and international scales: 1) Policy systems; 2) Rural community development and social innovation; 3) Rural education and training; 4) Agricultural science and research practice; 5) Support for diverse food systems; and 6) Innovation governance. These recommendations overlap with the need for widely recognised changes. Previous experiences with farmer participatory research has made it clear that if these policy and institutional challenges are not addressed, OFE will remain a niche activity and fail to fulfil its transformative potential. Currently, initiatives around OFE are occurring in spite of institutional structures and incentives within the agricultural sciences, with funding mechanisms, career paths and norms favouring conventional experimentation (centred around scientists or, on the other hand, dedicated to single farmers and non-scalable). Harnessing the potential of OFE by mainstreaming its implementation alongside other science-based innovation processes requires significant adaptation of institutional settings, with regards to both agricultural research practice and the innovation system more generally. Mainstreaming OFE will require an innovation policy setting that recognises the need to support this novel mode of innovation, explicitly supporting its integration into existing science and technology capability and practices. This will require well-designed legislation, well targeted and secure public and private investment, and new forms of innovation governance that better reflect the farming community’s aspirations for a sustainable, just and productive future.
Farmer-centric On-Farm Experimentation (OFE) is a pathway toward improving agri-food
The OFE process is systemic and adaptable, implemented by people in varied ways according to 6 guiding principles:
#OFE2021 (2022) What is OFE? A 2-page introduction to farmer-centric On-Farm Experimentation and #OFE2021, the first international OFE conference. #OFE2021 Proceedings, Montpellier.
Policies development: considering 6 strategic areas
1) OFE policy systems
The #OFE2021 conference, through the 70 presentation topics submitted by attendees, revealed a concerning dearth of analysis on the evaluation of the impacts (both ex-ante and ex-post) of policy on OFE initiatives. This is concurrent with evidence that policy is not given the attention it deserves in applied agricultural research, and is therefore an obstacle for the integration of OFE in change.
2) Rural community development and social innovation
OFE is a powerful co-innovation process which requires agility and support. The conference highlighted specific needs in the following areas:
• Increased clarity regarding the positioning of OFE within Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation Systems (farmers, especially smallholders, do not know where to
find help for experimenting collaboratively).
• Regulations must be softened or adapted to allow OFE, without paperwork overload for farmers (e.g. cover crops were outlaw for years in some countries;
testing small strips requires authorizations outweighing potential benefits).
• The social value of the contribution of farmers engaged in OFE to produce knowledge and innovation should be promoted: financial support may be necessary
to cover risks. The social capital they build amongst farming communities merits resourcing.
3) Rural education and training
Increasing farmers’ and farm advisors’ skills, or rather “innovation preparedness”, must remain a priority, including in situations of adverse demography. OFE is an engaging
and promising avenue to learn, an opportunity that should be supported by applied training and online courses through tertiary education institutions:
• Digital technologies, from use to value framing (e.g. farm business intelligence, capture of empirical evidence, embedment in information networks).
• System agronomy, notably applied exploration for both problem-solving and problem-finding.
• ‘Soft skills’ to conduct and manage the OFE process at the intersection of distinct fields of expertise (e.g. drawing from insights in Implementation and Integration Sciences).
4) Agricultural science and research practice
Experience demonstrates that without policy reframing, participatory approaches are considered desirable options for researchers rather than institutional imperatives to support endogenous change within food systems. Recognizing the value of researchers working through OFE with farmers requires evolution of institutional design, funding priorities, organisational capabilities, individual skills and partner relationships to incorporate OFE alongside other innovation and development processes:
• Definitions of excellence and other professional incentives for impact-driven KPIs (with a balance between quantity and quality of engagement) have to
match classical academic KPIs (e.g. scientific publications).
• Transdisciplinarity has to be owned as a strategic asset by academic research institutes, reforming the way innovation priorities are set up (e.g. to de-siloed
communities and research agendas; rewarding the study of frontier and boundary objects; reviewing disciplinary mixes).
• The specificities of OFE engagement must be recognized, with new patterns for project funding and result reporting (e.g. mainstreaming discovery and exploration
phases enabling the development of custom methodologies rather than pre-empting local situations with linear and pre-decided ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches, as well as broad-scale system studies of unanticipated impacts).
• Research institutes must anticipate and accommodate the impacts of distributed experimentation processes where varied stakeholders play different roles toward common goals for different reasons (e.g. implications for evolving mainstream experimentation devices, data exchanges, role of extension services, travel costs, etc.).
• Institutions must acknowledge and promote the ripple benefits of collaborative and applied research through OFE for the community through, for example, researcher
satisfaction through social impact, diversification of research activities, embodied learning of participants, social licence and linkages through positive dialogue and useful controversies, such as mainstreaming of system thinking (One Earth), etc.
5) Support for food systems diversification
By tailoring practices and technologies locally, OFE can develop more complex and resilient farming systems. However, diversity in practices and production is hindered by agri-food inertia and lock-in situations that favour simplified practices and specialisation. Policy incentives to favour an enabling environment could include:
• Partners along entire supply and network chains to support and accompany mutually beneficial change driven by OFE (e.g. the search for market rewards that
promote practice change, to capture added values, etc.). This would include supermarkets, retailers, and procurement managers who should be pro-actively invited in OFE initiatives.
• Banks and insurances could pass incentives onto OFE farmers through rewards for knowledge to manage risk.
• Incentives should also support creative solutions by third parties to building bridges between the different parts of innovation ecosystems, as OFE goes beyond research institutions and even farmers themselves.
6) Innovation governance
Innovation is never socially neutral. Responsible innovation must cater for vested interests and power imbalances that exist in all contexts. OFE is based on open innovation, which will raise issues of intellectual property, value and data governance, as data produced in OFE are made available in order to scale insight. Policy needs to guide processes via mechanisms that enable fair distribution of the value created (stakeholder expectation management, informal and formal contracts, relationship brokering etc.):
• Farmer-centric theories of change and reflexive monitoring have to be promoted as necessary processes, with ex-ante and ex-post requirements for projects to demonstrate how farmers are engaged and contribute to the identification of questions (discovery process) and the design of research (farmers are not solely data providers), notably by clarifying research direction strategies (who sets priorities and how), intellectual property rights (as an indicator of farmer-ownership of process), and engagement rules (active management of balances of power, vested interests and biases during partnership brokering).
• As soon as value is created, the issue of intellectual property becomes critical, therefore policies should emphasise the importance of this topic, promoting early consideration to protect people, their resources and their environment when commercial and economic interests intertwin (e.g. market values, carbon sequestration, landscape planning).
• The qualification of OFE as “mandated safe spaces” could be considered, notably to explore the local relevance of solutions designed in response to external
national or regional policies; in effect providing incentives for farmers to engage in OFE as a means to innovate towards ever-increasing environmental stewardship demands.
• OFE should be encouraged not only at the plot and farm levels but at the landscape level as well, notably through the involvement of regional and local decision-makers.
Policy deployment: favouring multi-level approaches
Policy development and implementation are essential to translate the new OFE paradigm described by the six OFE principles into a new way of supporting change in farming. In essence, the objective should be to progress from the current situation that is characterized by fragmented initiatives across the globe, to one where broad scale OFE adoption and investment are achieved. For this, the above policy recommendations could be implemented at varied levels as follows:
• Recognize OFE as a farmer-centric, real-life, evidence-driven, multi-actor (with shared benefits) scalable innovation process and encourage agricultural innovation
based on OFE.
• Raise awareness of international funding agencies.
• Build a shared international “home” (e.g. a supporting group and resources centre) to bring together global OFE experience within a broad picture of food
• Map archetypes of OFE initiatives (portfolio) to guide new ones where to easily share and find OFE results from around the world (e.g. TECA from FAO).
• Demonstrate the various values (not only financial, but also cognitive and social) of OFE for farmers through narratives.
• Acknowledge and promote these varied OFE values (direct/indirect, strategic/tactical, tangible/intangible).
• Develop metrics (that may be qualitative) for assessing the change induced by OFE, perhaps to be developed by an international task force.
• Convene an OFE public policy task force, to further refine policy recommendations and to raise awareness towards the specificities of OFE-related policies (e.g. academic training).
• Soften farming legislations to support agile OFE implementation that foster innovation
• Provide national recognition and incentives for encouraging farmers to take risk in OFE (e.g. the Co-Innovation fund in France).
• Recognize the role for OFE to support national food policy implementation.
• Clarify the AKIS ecosystem structure, so that OFE actors are easily identifiable and accessible (the diversity of actors in innovation ecosystems implies that intersectional
crossing-overs are required, e.g. agriculture, environment, education…).
• Promote interdisciplinary, open innovation approaches.
• Encourage students of academic institutes to work with farmers in OFE processes.
• Secure shared data governance at the national level (data management plans with farmers) by financing partnership brokering mechanisms.
Regional and local levels
• Support the status of OFE-involved farmers as active co-producers of knowledge, for instance by promoting publicly the value of the endogenous growth achievable through OFE and by mitigating financial risk in OFE.
• Support the creation of new value chains that valorise agricultural products resulting from new practices (e.g. public procurement for school canteens, etc.).
• Support OFE that results into the reduction of environment footprint for agricultural productions (incl. through circular economy processes).
• Promote policies as a tool to foster trust through transparency and inclusive dialogue.
To cite contributions from these proceedings please use :
OFE2021 (2022) Public policy recommendations to advance food systems through farmer-centric On-Farm Experimentation (OFE). Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on Farmer-centric on farm experimentation (#OFE2021), Montpellier, 12-15 Oct 2021, pp. 28-33, DOI : 10.17180/NP12-JB28