Purpose: more efficient and intelligent use of agricultural land with respect for the environment

VITO, the Flemish Institute for Technical Research, focuses on the major societal challenges of today by carrying out research and providing support. Examples of this include climate change, scarcity of raw materials, sustainable energy supply and improving air quality, etc. The agricultural and horticultural sectors can also count on VITO’s support. Many research projects focus on the developments and challenges facing the sector. And there a great many of those. For example, the changing climate is obliging society to review its use of water and there is also a growing public awareness that it is necessary to limit the impact of food production on the environment.

Smart farming

Bruno Reyntjens, Commercial Director at VITO: “Soil and water resources are becoming scarcer as a result of climate change, economic developments and increases in the world's population. VITO therefore regards research into, and support for, a more sustainable agricultural and horticultural sector as an important task. By 2050, the world will be home to 9 billion people. In order to feed everyone, agricultural productivity will need to increase by at least 70%. At the same time, we must ensure that the negative effects that food production has on the environment are considerably reduced. The solution? Smart farming. In other words utilising natural resources and using agricultural land in an efficient way by applying detailed information about crop growth, agricultural dynamics, environmental interactions, and so on.”

Predicting harvests at plot level

“One example of smart farming is what is known as remote sensing, or earth observation. Satellite and aerial images, enable us to gather data about large regions, as well as individual plots of land. In this way, we can evaluate the health status of a particular crop. Armed with that information, we can help agricultural and horticultural businesses and organisations to optimise production. As a specific example, we are working with the Flemish potato sector by monitoring the status for the crops and even predicting the harvest, and we can even do that at plot level.”

Focus on the environment

“Very interesting and useful data, without losing focus on the environment,” says Bruno Reyntjens. “It is essential to make more efficient use of agricultural land without harming the environment. In that regard, we need to take account of emissions to water, into the atmosphere and into the soil, but we also need to make the very best use of scarce resources, such as energy and water. VITO works in close collaboration with governments and a wide range of stakeholders to improve air quality and the quality of life and to achieve the environmental objectives.”

Better products using fewer raw materials

Another concern for the farmer, and therefore also for VITO, is the finite nature of our phosphorus reserves. Bruno Reyntjens: “Phosphorus is an essential component of artificial fertiliser and animal feed and is a resource for which no replacement has yet been found. VITO advises farmers on more sustainable materials management and on the life cycle of products, while at the same time developing technologies to enable people in the field to produce better products with fewer raw materials. We have also included the optimisation of waste streams in this research project. In this way, we are defining zones that are more vulnerable to the leaching of crop protection products into the ground and surface water. This will enable us to take more effective action against pollution.”

Making better products with fewer raw materials will also help to make agriculture and horticulture more sustainable in the future.

Water – a precious commodity

Partly due to our changing climate, water has become an even more precious commodity. The quality of our water is essential for all life on our planet. Bruno Reyntjens: “For a long time, water was a commodity that we took for granted in our part of the world. Nowadays, the West is also faced with situations in which one moment there is too much water and the next moment there is too little. As everyone is increasingly aware, appropriate and effective water management is therefore a must, and that is something that VITO is fully committed to. In that regard, we are investing in areas such as sewerage infrastructure, flood protection, wastewater treatment, etc. In this way, our aim is to work with our partners in order to achieve the water quality objectives in a cost-effective manner. A specific example from the agricultural and horticultural sector – by using all manner of techniques, we are striving to improve irrigation and water distribution on each plot. That way, we will consume less water and generate a higher yield.”

Sustainable energy is a KPI

“As a society, we are putting our open spaces and our living environment under ever greater strain. Policymakers who wish to introduce measures to bring about sustainable policies in the area of land-use are therefore confronted by a need to make significant and complex choices right away. VITO is helping them to do this. The essence of our work lies in deploying transition thinking as a binding factor between our research programmes. This collaboration is making it possible to maximise the outcomes achieved as a result of VITO's research. Of course, as a European research institution, we are also active in the areas of renewable energy and energy efficiency. The switch to a sustainable energy supply is one of our KPIs at VITO”, says Bruno Reyntjens.

Transition thinking is a binding factor that links our research programmes
together and is making it possible to maximise the outcomes from our research.

Green energy for more environmentally friendly agriculture and horticulture

The role of green energy within the energy landscape of the future takes many forms. Bruno Reyntjens: “The link with the agricultural and horticultural sectors was quickly established. Locally produced biomass, for example, is ideal for running small-scale installations. One specific example of this is that farmers can take the management of wooded margins back into their own hands and can utilise the wood that is harvested to produce heat. Another example of this is geothermal energy, in other words, utilising heat located deep underground. Greenhouse horticulture is one of the sectors that finds this possibility most appealing, however this type of heat is also an attractive proposition for other businesses, buildings and organisations. Thanks to objective scientific research and our cooperation with governments and stakeholders, we are creating technological innovations that offer unique opportunities to local entrepreneurs and service providers. The aim of this is to strengthen the economic and social fabric of Flanders. That is our mission.”

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