Changing the future of food and farming

Crop diversity & agronomy

Key research questions

  • How do you generate crops that are adapted to reduced input conditions?
  • How can we expand the crop basket of an increasingly homogeneous agricultural system with underutilised crops?
  • How do you improve crop rotations with the optimisation of companion cropping, plant teams and subsidiary crops?

The importance of crop diversity and agronomy

Since its foundation, the ORC has consistently worked on crop science and has been a driving force in diversification in cropping systems and plant breeding. Cropping system research encompasses the way agricultural production is organised, including rotation and the management of crops and soils. Cropping system design is the basis of how agriculture provides ecosystem services, including the production of food and the regulation of climate, nutrient, water and carbon cycles, diseases and biodiversity. Organic cropping systems are a catalyser of agroecological innovation, and have a pivotal role in redesigning the whole of agriculture towards greater sustainability and resilience.

Plant breeding is the process by which human beings have made plants useful for agricultural production. It is one of the major challenges for organic farming as many current crop cultivars and varieties have been bred for conventional, highly standardised (monoculture) systems that rely on external inputs. Organic farming, instead, is characterised by conditions of low external inputs and high heterogeneity and unpredictability of agro-climatic conditions. This calls for a diversity-based and inclusive approach, and for deep integration of plant breeding and cropping system design.

Our general hypothesis is that crop performance is the result of the interplay between crop genetics, environmental conditions and crop management. To optimise this interplay, the key action is to diversify: broadening and optimising varietal choice, diversifying plant breeding strategies including use of genetically heterogeneous crops, expanding the range of available crop species, providing varied strategies for crop protection and weed control; optimising the use of subsidiary crops in rotations. 

Our research in this area aims to strengthen work on cropping system diversification by expanding the scope of on-farm data collection and analysis, driving improved decision-making in the light of complexity and supporting agroecological transition in this process.

Key elements of the theme

Functional biodiversity, plant breeding, crop rotation, intercropping, soil fertility, crop diversification, weed control, pest control.

Current projects

DiverImpacts

ORC is a partner in a five year crop diversification project under the EU Horizon 2020 programme, called DiverIMPACTS. The project is led by INRA (France) and aims to realise the full potential of crop diversification through rotation, intercropping and multiple cropping.

The work aims to demonstrate clear technical, economic and environmental benefits of crop diversification for farmers, value chains and society. It also aims to provide key tools, strategies and innovations to remove any barriers and ensure uptake of practices and subsequent benefits at farm, value chain and regional levels.

DIVERSify

Designing innovative plant teams for ecosystem resilience and agricultural sustainability (DIVERSify) is a new 4-year Horizon 2020 project.

DIVERSify aims to optimise the performance of crop species mixtures (‘plant teams’) as a means to improve yield stability, reduce pest and disease damage, and enhance stress resilience in agricultural systems.

LIVESEED

Boosting Organic Seed Production in Europe (LIVESEED) is a 4-year Horizon 2020 project aiming to boost organic seed and plant breeding efforts, and increasing the availability of cultivars adapted to organic growing conditions.

ORC is leading the socio-economic work-package to identify business and governance models to improve the efficiency of organic seed supply chains in the market place. Alongside this we are drawing together research on the role that heterogenous crops, and breeding for organic systems, can play in improving the performance of organic agriculture.

LiveWheat

We are coordinating the LiveWheat “Farm-Based Organic Variety Trials Network” project, which is establishing a network of farms and researchers committed to enable a significant improvement in informed decision-making in the organic and conventional farming and supply chains, that will ultimately work towards delivery of more efficient and sustainable arable production systems.

The results will be of value in conventional, low-input and organic farming systems and will inform future plant breeding strategies. The project will also improve and standardise experimental designs and protocols for on-farm participatory trials.

ORC Researchers and staff

These ORC team members are working on Crop Diversity and Agronomy projects
Deputy Head of Research
Principal Researcher
Crops Researcher