CORE Organic: a very sustainable network

In a duo interview, CORE Organics’ daily coordinator Ivana Trkulja from ICROFS and the EC project officer Hans-Jörg Lutzeyer of the Bioeconomy and Food Systems unit of DG RTD reflected on the achievements and the future ambitions of the ERA-NET partnership on organic food and farming.

2019.10.01 | Interview by Christine Bunthof, manager joint programming, Wageningen University

Photo: Thomas Alföldi, FiBL

CORE Organic celebrates 15 years of ERA-NET partnership on organic food and farming. Working at the DG Research and Innovation for already twenty years, Hans-Jörg Lutzeyer knows CORE Organic from its early days and recalls the rationale for establishing an ERA-NET on organic farming: “While most agricultural ERA-NET topics came out of discussions of SCAR on building the European research area, this ERA-NET topic was actually proposed by the sector. As ‘Organic’ was an under-researched theme, but economically growing sector, it was an opportunity, to strengthen its innovation capacity also in terms of job growth policies. Furthermore, the 2004 European Organic Action Plan of the Commission called for support of research on Organic. The 2014 EU Organic Action Plan, outlines Core Organic as a tool to improve the coordination of research funding.”

Hans-Jörg followed the ERA-NET in its starting phase mainly through his involvement with European Research Coordination at that time. The ERA-NETs’ first project officer was Danielle Tissot, who was responsible for the organic projects. Hans-Jörg took over as a project officer for CORE Organic Plus and is the policy officer for the current Cofund phase.

Driving forces and engagement

CORE Organic was initiated by 13 organisations from 11 countries as part of the ERA-NET Scheme under the 6th Framework Programme for Research and Innovation of the European Commission.

It was the Danish Research Centre for Organic Farming (DARCOF), which in 2008 changed name to ICROFS, the International Centre for Research in Organic Food Systems with its managing office at Aarhus University in Viborg, Denmark, that was willing to take a lead. During the CORE Organic network-building phase and first call, Erik Steen Kristensen and Lizzie Melby Jespersen were primarily involved. From 2008, the new ICROFS director Niels Halberg was a driving force in expanding the committed network of funders launching joint call and aiming to push forward organic.

The present CORE Organic coordinator Ivana Trkulja remarks that many of the persons involved at the beginning fifteen years ago stayed engaged for a long time, and some still are. Ivana herself got involved in CORE Organic in 2016 when hired by ICROFS to take over the role of the daily coordinator from Ulla Sonne Bertelsen, who had been the central person of CORE Organic from 2010. More recently, Niels Halberg changed jobs within Aarhus University and the new director of ICROFS, Jakob Sehested, succeeded Niels. 

Strong in delivering

When asked ‘What were the Commissions’ expectations of an ERA-NET on organic?’, Hans-Jörg mentions several key points. “As for other ERA-NETs, we wanted it to link the national research programmes and to avoid unnecessary duplication of research. We also wanted it to reflect the growing market for organic and the globalisation of that market. The ERA-Net was also expected to be a driver for innovation and for knowledge underpinning new regulations, such as copper replacement in fungicides”.

Upon the question, whether the CORE Organic partnership lived up to these expectations, Hans-Jörg replies that “CORE Organic achieved the ambitions very well. It has become a very self-sustained network, as demonstrated by organising its own calls. Its importance in funding joint research remains high as organic is also still today an under-funded sector. The demand of consumers for organic products is higher than ever in Europe. Retailers and farmers could benefit more from this steady trend”.

“There are still challenges ahead”. The senior EC specialist adds: “CORE Organic is strong in delivering on sector relevant demands and beyond. Moreover, organic is at the core of the transition towards sustainable food systems, which are climate proofed, healthy nutrition focussed and circular. Research on organic farming is needed as an exemplary prototype for citizen driven innovative food systems”.    

Time to discuss opportunities

In the context of the upcoming Horizon Europe that will have a reformed frame and instruments for partnerships, and in which missions will inspire part of the funding activities, the recommendation for CORE Organic is to develop options and to think creatively along different lines. 2019 is the year to develop and discuss opportunities for strategic planning of European research and innovation funding. The long standing collaboration with stakeholders is a strong basis for building scenario’s for the future. The CORE Organic partners have not only build a strong research programme network, it is also a network to provide scientific evidence for legislative and regulatory issues. This is an important element to preserve in the coming years.   

Broad themes and inclusiveness

The fifteen years of CORE Organic have been supported by four EC grants: a Coordination and Support Action (CSA) grant for CORE Organic I under FP6, a CSA grant for Core Organic II and a grant to co-fund a joint call for CORE Organic Plus under FP7, and a CORE Organic ERA-NET Cofund grant under H2020. The latter consortium includes 27 partners from 19 countries/ regions. The consortium followed a clear strategy to secure the involvement of researchers from all partner countries in at least one project in each call, also after the selection. This has considerably allowed smaller countries in Eastern Europe to build capacity and competences in organic research.

In the course, its four periods a large portfolio of research projects around a number of contemporary themes within the organic area has been build. The calls included themes such as animal diseases, cropping systems, eco-efficient production, robust livestock systems, phosphorous management, and zero-waste management.

Focus on dissemination and monitoring

Ivana explains that from the start on the dissemination of the research results was a big priority. There is guidance for researchers and in the programme meetings there are workshops on communication. Project leaflets have been made for each round of project funding. Research papers are included in Organic Eprints (http://orgprints.org/), the repository of scientific publication in organic maintained by ICROFS. CORE Organic also encourages outreach to policy makers, citizens, and peer networks of farmers.

Another strong feature of CORE Organic is the project monitoring. The CORE Organic way of working includes evaluation talks aiming to assist the projects to reach their full potential. This may involve timely adjustments of plans and communications with all funders involved. As the coordinator of CORE Organic, Ivana is very aware of all small and big hurdles the funding partners and the research community faces. “Like other ERA-NETS, CORE Organic demonstrates that collaboration is a long-term process. Linking national research systems and funding programmes is a really big step. The efforts and achievements are not to be taken for granted, where the CORE Organic programme is an important transnational venue for the European scientific community dedicated to organic, but it is equally relevant for an alignment work among the funding partners. The enabling environment also has to have a long-term perspective”. Looking further, Ivana adds “existing collaboration with non-EU countries will  bring even a wider synergy”.

Joint call

The joint call of CORE Organic and SUSFOOD2, launched in September will extend the portfolio of projects and themes. “It is expected to be a fruitful collaboration, addressing areas on the interface of production and consumer, such as circular food systems, mild food processing, smart packaging and diversity in food from field to plate” Ivana says. The transnational projects can bridge front-runners to countries lagging behind in research or regulations, and can contribute to underpinning EC level strategies and policies on sustainability and decarbonisation. Hans-Jörg and Ivana agree: “organic is at the core of transition to sustainable food systems”.  


 

Fostering and funding transnational research through a sequence of calls

The partnership started as an FP6 ERA-NET with 13 partners that developed exchange and collaboration, and organised a joint call funding 8 transnational research projects in the area of organic farming. Core Organic II consolidated the European research area in organic farming by growing to a network of 21 partners that organised 3 calls. Then, in 2013 a call topped up by the ERA-NET Plus instrument of the Commission was organised that added 11 projects to the portfolio. Under H2020 the CORE Organic partnership is supported by the ERA-NET Cofund instrument. The consortium includes 27 partners from 19 countries/ regions. The cofunded call resulted in 12 new research projects that started in 2018. Currently, CORE Organic and SUSFOOD2 are jointly organising a call for research.


Overview of the CORE Organic Cofund projects:

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