One particular question stood out for me at the recent AgriTech 4.0: Crops, Seeds & Soil virtual event: How can we make agriculture more sustainable by mending the divide between academia and industry?
Research is critical to the agricultural industry. Education can play a role in shifting the way we think about soil tillage, inputs and machinery, all of which contribute to overall yields for farmers. But a lack of financing and other challenges often lead to a divide between academia and industry.
The session was presented by Dr. Robert Malek, scientific officer at ORO Agri Europe, an agrochemical producer based in Portugal.
1. Academia vs. industry is a matter of perspective
With a PhD in agricultural entomology, a masters in plant production and another in integrated pest management, Dr. Malek has sat on both sides of the academia-versus-industry conversation.
According to him, researchers in academia tend to seek out solutions for issues that have a high innovation risk, such as pest management. This is not the case for industry, where players — in this case farmers — have to go for low-risk innovations, usually due to costs.
He said both sides share common goals, especially around sustainable agriculture and tackling global ecological issues or problems around crop yield.
The real problem is that “academia and industries have different skill sets and perspectives on how to solve these issues,” he said.
2. There’s a misalignment between theory and practice
Another observation he made is that while the agriculture industry needs practical and applicable solutions, academia tends to focus on the theory side of innovation. Smallholder farmers who form the bulk of food producers in many regions aren’t always able to implement the more theoretical findings.
“Academic courses in universities and applications of this knowledge in agriculture and food systems can sometimes have barriers to practical development,” said Dr. Malek.
For instance, using unmanned robots to increase crop yield is not an affordable or accessible option for many smallholders farmers.
“[Unmanned robots are] an amazing technology and will have a lot of benefits for our sector. But the 500 million small- and medium-scale farmers who put 80% of the food we eat on our table will find such technologies very hard to afford.” he says.
3. Shrinking financing and opportunities in academia are widening the gap
Dr. Malek noted that the amount of financing going into research has dwindled in recent years. For instance, the success rate for proposals for European Research Council (ERC) grant is just 16%. The number of applications received in 2022 has dropped by 28% to just over 2,900.
This lack of financing in turn impacts resources available for particular projects ranging from equipment to the actual researchers.
4. Lack of access to research is a key challenge for industry
A huge problem the agricultural industry faces is technologies becoming outdated.
According to Dr. Malek, companies that have specialized in synthetic fertilizers for a long time are now starting to feel the effects of demand for safer farming inputs. They are also impacted by stricter regulations in some places, as seen in regions like Europe, which aims to ban synthetic pesticide use in public spaces.
But the commercial side of this conversation is only just getting access to research findings discovered quite some time ago.
Farmers, too, lack access to research that could solve some of their basic challenges, said one event attendee.
“From my point of view being a farmer, I just wonder whether science is getting too narrow in trying to find solutions to problems we don’t necessarily have. And we have an awful lot more problems on farm that are fairly basic,” they said.
While this is partially true, financing plays a role in the problems scientists focus on. Unfortunately for farmers, it isn’t always the basic ones that easily get funding.
“There’s always the money problem and the funding problem for scientists who need to maintain their jobs,” said Dr. Malek.
Possible solutions to bridging the gap
According to Dr. Malek, proper partnerships can help turn these challenges into opportunities.
- The issue of lack of financing can be solved by the two sides sharing infrastructure and industries fostering long-term relationships with research institutes.
- Academia needs to work with other players in agriculture in order to test out theories and verify their applicability. This will also bring out the necessity in capacity building of players from both academia and industry through trainings and internships. This synergy will also help in developing courses in universities that will be lucrative for both students and their future employers.
- Industry should be cautious to adopt technologies and inputs that will still be deemed fit in the future. Stakeholders also need to have more long-term goals and take advantage of existing research.
- There needs to be more democratization of science. There are already some initiatives championing this. It was suggested that an open database of research findings be made available to prevent redundancy.