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RELACS – four successful years of research on alternatives to contentious inputs in organic farmingqrcode

Aug. 29, 2022

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Aug. 29, 2022

RELACS – four successful years of research on alternatives to contentious inputs in organic farming

The RELACS coordinator reflects on the project’s most relevant results. Funded under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme, the project was coordinated by FiBL Switzerland.

The aim of the project RELACS (Replacement of Contentious Inputs in Organic Farming Systems) was to develop and validate alternatives to contentious inputs in organic crop production (copper, mineral oils, nutrient inputs) and livestock production (anthelmintics, antibiotics and synthetic vitamins) and to propose implementation roadmaps. Starting from a list of alternatives at various technology maturity levels, project coordinator Lucius Tamm of FiBL Switzerland states that many technologies have reached the final stages necessary for on-farm implementation. For a rapid adoption by farmers, policy support at various levels and smart roadmaps are needed.

Copper alternatives

Four alternative products for copper achieved advanced Technology Readiness Levels* (TRL higher than 7). These alternative products can be used in grapevine, apple and other horticultural crops. The pilot products provided promising protection levels in a wide range of crops and pedo-climatic conditions – either as a stand-alone application or in strategies combining the alternatives with low copper doses. It will be possible to reduce copper use on grapevine and apple in the next decade, provided the alternatives can be authorised. The EU should also adapt the registration process to plant-based products, which is currently very lengthy and time-consuming. However, the supply of sufficient quantities of alternatives at an economically feasible price remains an extraordinary challenge. RELACS, therefore, advises pursuing a minimisation strategy rather than full replacement of copper. Such a minimisation strategy could consist of the cultivation of resistant varieties or the implementation of preventive measures (e. g. enhanced functional biodiversity, crop management practices), the use of alternative substances and Decision Support Systems (DSS) that allow lowering application rates.

Alternative to replace mineral (paraffin) oil

In citrus production, two alternative products were tested to replace mineral (paraffin) oil against pests such as scales, thrips and mites. Furthermore, progress was made in the development of vibrational disruption that mimics the acoustic communication signals specific to the pest to thus disturb the mating behaviour and reproduction of the pest insect. A substantial reduction of 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 vibrational signals. Both mineral oil and copper alternatives suffer from complicated approval procedures.

External nutrient inputs

The current use of and need for external nutrient inputs on organic farms in Europe was evaluated in eight case study regions. In many areas, additional nitrogen (N) inputs to organic agriculture are needed to increase productivity, while inputs of phosphate (P) and potassium (K) are required to prevent soil mining. The data produced in RELACS show that the importance of nutrient supply in organic farming has been underestimated so far. Limited availability of soil fertility inputs is the single most limiting factor for yields in stockless organic farms. Furthermore, a lack of cost-efficient supply of plant nutrients prevents upscaling of organic plant production beyond 15 to 20 % in many regions. Reducing the dependence of organic farms on conventional manure and external nutrients from non-renewable sources is nevertheless possible in the medium term by recycling societal waste streams. It is crucial that the safety and acceptability of these products are guaranteed and that the organic sector agrees on criteria for their use.

Feasible and cost-effective solutions identified

The conclusions of the RELACS project were developed through a series of national and European workshops with researchers, policymakers, industry, and farmer associations. The three roadmaps for reducing contentious plant protection products (copper, mineral oil), phasing-in new nutrient sources, and reducing contentious inputs used in livestock production (antibiotics, anthelmintics, vitamins) that resulted from them are available on the RELACS website (see link below)

The objectives of the European ″Farm to Fork Strategy″ add the necessity not only to replace problematic practices but also to provide widely accessible and cost-efficient alternatives in sufficient quantities. While the tools and technologies explored in RELACS fulfilled the expectations to a large extent with respect to efficacy, we also encountered major challenges concerning the duration until alternatives may be used legally by farmers (i. e. authorisation of inputs). Furthermore, many alternatives will be more expensive than the standard options, thus necessitating policy support as well as instruction and training to be adopted by farmers.


RELACS provided the scientific information needed to identify feasible and cost-effective solutions and the way forward to implementation, but it also identified bottlenecks at various levels along the value chain. It has also become clear that relevant EU policies will need to be tailor-made to address the various issues, depending on the specific input. Roadmaps were developed for fair, reliable, and implementable rules for contentious inputs addressed in the project. As expected, immediate phasing out of the contentious input would create unbearable risks and costs to the organic sector. In contrast, a smart roadmap with tiered transition phases may lead to a rapid and successful change of agricultural practice. It is/was essential to involve all relevant stakeholders to reach joint conclusions regarding the technical feasibility of solutions in the various pedo-climatic and socio-cultural situations of Europe.

* Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) are a type of measurement system used to assess the maturity level of a particular technology.

Read more on FiBL's website.

Source: FiBL


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