RELACS: 4 years researching alternatives to conflicting inputs in organic farming

29 Aug 2022

The objective of the RELACS (Replacement of Contentious Inputs in Organic Farming Systems) project was to develop and validate alternatives to conflicting inputs in organic crop production (copper, mineral oils, nutritional inputs) and in livestock production (anthelmintics, antibiotics and vitamins synthetic) and propose roadmaps for their application.

Building on a list of alternatives with varying levels of technological maturity, project coordinator Lucius Tamm of FiBL Switzerland says that many technologies have reached the final stages required for application on farms. For rapid adoption by farmers, multi-level political support and smart roadmaps are needed.

Alternatives to copper

Four alternative products for copper reached advanced technological readiness levels (TRL greater than 7). These alternative products can be used on grapevines, apple trees and other horticultural crops. The pilot products provided promising levels of protection in a wide range of crops and pedoclimatic conditions, either as a stand-alone application or in strategies combining the alternatives with low copper doses. The alternatives, if authorized, could reduce the use of copper in grapevines and apple trees in the next decade. The EU should also adapt the registration process for products of plant origin, which is currently very long and time consuming. However, supplying sufficient quantities of alternatives at an economically viable price remains an extraordinary challenge.

For this reason, RELACS recommends following a minimization strategy instead of totally replacing copper. Such a minimization strategy could consist of the cultivation of resistant varieties or the application of preventive measures (for example, improvement of functional biodiversity, crop management practices), the use of alternative substances and decision support systems ( DSS) to reduce application rates.

Alternative to replace mineral oil (paraffin)

In citrus production, two alternative products were tested to replace mineral oil (paraffin) against pests such as scales, thrips and mites. In addition, progress was made in the development of vibrational disruption that mimics pest-specific acoustic communication signals to thereby disrupt mating behavior and insect pest reproduction. A substantial reduction in 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 vibratory cues. Both mineral oil and copper alternatives have complicated approval procedures.

Alternatives to anthelmintics

Two alternatives to anthelmintics were tested at RELACS – a group of antiparasitic drugs that expel parasitic worms (helminths) and other internal parasites. Biocontrol products based on Duddingtonia flagrans and feeding tannin-rich forages such as heather can reduce the overall use of anthelmintics by 30-50% in organic cattle, sheep and goats. Alternatives provide complementary control strategies to reduce, but not replace, anthelmintics. The involvement of veterinarians and the adaptation of registration procedures for veterinary medicines based on natural substances will be essential to ensure the acceptance and rapid adoption of alternatives.

Reduction of antibiotics

Two alternative strategies to reduce antibiotic use in organic dairy cows were explored: An Animal Health and Welfare Planning (AHWP) protocol, which combines detailed farm-specific data, with Farmer Field Schools (RCT), and the use of essential oils to control mild to moderate mastitis. FFS are meetings where several ranchers share advice with each other on specific problems of the host ranchers, following an established meeting protocol. Both approaches show promise for antibiotic reduction, as no difference in healing of clinical mastitis (mild or moderate) was observed between essential oil treatment and antibiotic treatment, nor was there any negative impact on the quality of the milk or on the health and welfare of the animals. The correct application of the animal health and welfare planning protocol has a very high potential -up to 50%- to reduce the use of antibiotics in mastitis treatments in dairy cattle.

However, it is necessary to invest heavily in advisory services and involve veterinarians to facilitate their adoption. In the medium term, antibiotic reduction strategies could be complemented by the use of essential oils, although this needs to be confirmed by research. The EU should also adapt the authorization process for herbal veterinary products, which is currently very long and time consuming.

Vitamin supplements

Current levels of supplementation of vitamin E and other vitamins in organic ruminants and of vitamins B2/B12 in organic poultry can be substantially reduced, as the reduction of vitamin diets did not have a negative impact on the animals or on the diet. milk or meat quality in FiBL trials. Complete elimination is not possible, but it should be possible to reduce vitamin E in organic dairy cows by about 50% and vitamin B2 in organic poultry by 30-50%. These reductions can take place in the very short term, since there are no technical limitations for the feed industry. The identification of a non-GMO yeast strain that overproduces riboflavin (vitamin B2) opens an option for additional non-GMO and non-synthetic production.

Currently, the situation is precarious, since 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 of vitamin B2. The European Commission is encouraged to make a clear decision on the regulatory status of vitamin B2 products produced without the aid of GMOs, and will need to adapt its registration of feed additives at EU level to facilitate access to alternatives.

External contributions of nutrients

The current use and need for external nutrient inputs on organic farms in Europe was assessed in eight study regions. In many areas, the additional contributions of nitrogen (N) to organic farming are necessary to increase productivity, while the contributions of phosphate (P) and potassium (K) are necessary to avoid mining the soil. RELACS data shows that the importance of nutrient supply in organic farming has been underestimated so far. The limited availability of inputs for soil fertility is the factor that most limits performance in organic farms without stocks. Furthermore, the lack of a profitable supply of plant nutrients prevents the increase of organic plant production beyond 15 to 20% in many regions. However, it is possible to reduce the dependence of organic farms on conventional manure and external nutrients from non-renewable sources by recycling social waste streams in the medium term. It is crucial that the safety and acceptability of these products is ensured and that criteria for their use are agreed by the organic sector.

Feasible and cost-effective solutions identified

The conclusions of the RELACS project were developed through a series of national and European workshops with researchers, policy makers, industry and farmers’ associations. The three resulting roadmaps for the reduction of conflicting plant protection products (copper, mineral oil), the progressive introduction of new sources of nutrients and the reduction of conflicting inputs used in livestock production (antibiotics, anthelmintics, vitamins) are available at the RELACS website.

The objectives of the European Farm to Fork strategy add the need not only to replace problematic practices, but also to provide widely accessible and cost-effective alternatives in sufficient quantities. While the tools and technologies explored at RELACS largely met expectations in terms of efficacy, significant challenges have also been encountered in terms of the length of time until alternatives can be legally used by farmers (i.e., authorization from farmers). supplies). In addition, many alternatives will be more expensive than standard options, so policy support as well as education and training will be needed for them to be adopted by farmers.

RELACS provided the necessary scientific information to identify viable and profitable solutions and the way forward for their application, but also identified bottlenecks at various levels along the value chain. It has also become clear that relevant EU policies will have to be tailored to address different problems, depending on the specific input. Roadmaps were developed to establish fair, reliable and applicable standards for the conflicting inputs addressed in the project. As expected, immediate removal of the conflicting inputs would create unbearable risks and costs for the organic sector. Conversely, a smart roadmap with staggered transition phases can lead to a rapid and successful change in agricultural practice. It is/was essential to involve all stakeholders in order to reach joint conclusions on the technical feasibility of solutions in the various pedoclimatic and socio-cultural situations in Europe.

Source: BioEco Actual