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Vue d'ensemble de parcelles de différentes variétés de céréales : catalogue variétal des blés tendres d'hiver et des orges. La Minière (Yvelines).. © INRA, FOUCHARD Marc

Innovative Agricultural Systems: System Experiments

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Daniel McKinnon
Updated on 07/04/2017
Published on 10/18/2012

In an agricultural world faced with increasing environmental and economic pressures, Homo agricolus and Homo scientificus are together exploring new ways to produce better and more sustainably. Welcome to the world of system experiments, a crucial idea for devising, testing, and evaluating new agricultural systems.

System experiments are gaining ground at INRA. They represent a new way of thinking about experiments in order to create innovative agricultural systems that meet various environmental criteria such as reducing inputs, protecting water and soil, curtailing greenhouse gas emissions, and maintaining biodiversity, as well as economic and social criteria such as impacts to the organisation of labour.

System experiments look at:

-      Experimenting to innovate: not only by introducing new techniques, products or varieties, but by creating coherent agricultural systems.

-      Devising: new ways of farming land and rearing animals that make best use of natural resources while remaining competitive.

-     Changing space and time scales: working not at the level of plot or animal, but at the farm level, or even the landscape level. Working on a minimum timeframe of a crop rotation or of a lifecycle.

-    Evaluating: the impact of agriculture on the ecosystem in terms of nitrogen and carbon fluxes and biodiversity, but also in terms of energy consumption, yields, profit margins, and labour. A multicriteria economic, environmental, social assessment.

-      Understanding: changes and evolutions in farm practices.

System experiments draw heavily on modelling. There are two types:

-     The “prototype” approach consists of developing an entire system ex ante, by setting one (or several) priority constraints such as zero herbicide use or zero greenhouse gas emissions. The system is tested on paper using modelling with a number of rounds of development and assessment until the constraint has been met. Only then will the system be field tested. This approach is used in the Integrated Weed Management system experiment in Dijon and the System Under Constraints system experiment in Grignon.

-      The “step by step” approach seeks to constantly improve a system in the field to better meet, or even exceed, project objectives. The goal is one of learning. Each year, the system is evaluated to find possible improvements. This approach is used in the system experiments in Mirecourt and Saint-Laurent-de-la-Prée.