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The face of tomorrow's agriculture

The aim of Cemagref's agricultural research is to set up assessment and technological innovation activities to serve a form of agriculture that feeds human beings, respects the environment and participates in social and economic territorial development.

Dominique Didelot, leader of the INSPIRE (Technological innovations for sustainable agriculture and the environment) research topic, reviews the new scientific strategy adopted by its teams.


"The Grenelle Environment round table consultations found practical expression in the implementation of new agricultural plans, such as the 'Objectif Terres 2020 [Earth Objective 2020] - For a new French agricultural model' plan or the 'Ecophyto 2018' plan. Various European directives on issues closely affecting the world of agriculture, such as the sustainable use of pesticides, nitrates and water, and, in the near future, the 'soil directive' supplement these national action programmes.

21st-century agriculture has many new challenges. In particular, these involve increasing production to meet the needs of 9 billion people by the year 2050, improving production to protect the planet's natural resources of water, soil, air and biodiversity, and adapting to current climate changes.

Cemagref has many resources to support the changes in agriculture. Cemagref draws on over thirty years of research and expertise in the field of new technology for agriculture, information and communication (sensor development, embedded computing). Furthermore, since the end of the 1980s, scientific research has incorporated environmental criteria such as protecting aquatic environments, precision agriculture, good agricultural practices, etc.

Today, the scientific issue is designing technology with greater respect for the environment, as well as putting forward new production scenarios for a form of agriculture that is both productive, or even intensive, and ecological.  Research is also refocusing on the behaviour of people working in agriculture, which conditions human and ecosystem health." Dominique Didelot.

Characterising, understanding and designing

Research mobilising existing expertise at Antony, Clermont-Ferrand, Montoldre and Montpellier is structured by an overall logic defined by three key words: characterising, understanding and designing. 

In the first instance, it involves characterising the crops, soil and equipment handled (mineral fertilisers, organic matter, pest products) by developing 'laboratory' methods and portable or embedded sensors. Three technical support centres at Montpellier, Montoldre and Antony enable the technological and environmental performance of agricultural equipment to be measured.

The second stage consists of understanding the phenomena operating in the machines and how they interact with the environment and humans. This stage involves developing models that, beyond detailed description of physical mechanisms, enable the material flows, gas pollutants and energy in agricultural equipment during use to be simulated.

Technology with high functional, environmental-protection and operator-safety performance is then to be designed. Research conducted at the crossroads of robotics, computing, energetics, agronomy and cindynics is based both on laboratory and field-based work. It integrates various levels of complexity: equipment, land parcel, catchment area and territory. 

Strengthening assessment and innovation

To supplement this 'traditional' research system, new fields of investigation are also being added to devise tomorrow's agriculture.

The aim is first to strengthen the environmental assessment activity initiated as part of the previous strategic plan. This finds current expression in systematic and rigorous assessment of the technological systems studied, using indicators and techniques from life-cycle analysis that will integrate socio-economic criteria.

The diagnostic assessments carried out using the assessment tools form a strong initial basis from which to find avenues of innovation. 'Bright ideas' reconciling sustainable development and performance will then need to be found. To stimulate technological innovation processes, CEMAGREF has developed a research line devoted to new support tools for innovation.

Not forgetting people and decision makers

Operators are the key factors for the 'good' functioning of any technology. Their work on the ground may cause risks for the environment and also for their own health. "Our teams are conducting original and innovative research to model how operators behave, with a dual aim: to improve the safety of agro-equipment and limit the risks of exposure to toxic agricultural products."

A final line of research involves developing decision-making support tools. For example, it involves supporting producers to change over to agricultural practices with low inputs (especially of pesticides) that are therefore more susceptible to many hazards, such as climate or disease.

A few reference points

The 'Objectifs Terres 2020', emerging from reflection elaborated in the Grenelle Environment round table and Forestry and Agriculture Conference, contains 60 measures 'that must help agriculture adapt to the new environmental challenges'.
The ECOPHYTO 2018  plan aims to reduce pesticide use by 50% between now and 2018.
The aims of the European directive on the sustainable use of pesticides, passed in January 2009, include the objective that farms will have an integrated approach to crop protection by January 2014.
The aim of the 'farms energy performance' plan is for 30% of farms to become low energy dependent between now and 2013.
In keeping with the 'nitrate directive' (1991) and 'water directive' (2000), the future 'soil directive' will help combat soil regression and erosion at European level.
The "2nd Standing Committee on Agricultural Research –Foresight" has drawn up the list of strategic issues in climate-change adaptation to be resolved at European level.