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19 May 2014

SEK 62m for research on sustainable production systems in aqua-, agri- and horticulture

How do we optimise use of arable land? Is it possible to boost wheat harvests while simultaneously reducing the environmental impact of growing practices? Can more multifaceted farming, with both annual and perennial crops, help to enhance sustainability in present-day agriculture? What is required for development of sustainable, large-scale cultivation of macroalgae? How can production of sought-after species like spotted wolffish and lobster be made more efficient? These questions are to be studied in detail by five research environments, which will share a joint award of SEK 62 million from Mistra, the Swedish Research Council Formas and the research foundation of the Swedish Farmers’ Supply and Crop Marketing Organisation.

‘This is the first time Mistra, Formas and the Swedish Farmers’ research foundation have awarded funding jointly, and we think it may give the research added value,’ says Georgia Destouni, Secretary General of the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (Formas).

Besides the SEK 62 million awarded, funds have been allocated for a coordinator, who will have an overarching function. The coordinator will transfer knowledge among the research environments and help to ensure that the research is put to practical use.

‘It will be exciting to follow the research projects and how they can contribute to a more integrated view of production in water and on land,’ says Lars-Erik Liljelund, Mistra’s Executive Director.

‘There is great potential, both environmental and commercial, in this area.’

Background In autumn 2013, a joint call for applications was issued by Formas, Mistra and the research foundation of the Swedish Farmers’ Supply and Crop Marketing Organisation (Lantmännen). A total of SEK 68m was announced to fund research on ‘Efficient and sustainable production systems in aqua-, agri- and horticulture’. The aims of the call were to obtain new knowledge, strengthen Swedish research and pave the way for research environments in these areas, which are so vital for society. A total of 44 applications were received and, within days, the three funders decided which applicants would share just over SEK 62m over four years (2014–17).


Mistra: Thomas Nilsson,
Formas: Mattias Norrby,
Lantmännen’s research foundation: Helena Fredriksson,

The projects now awarded funding are described below.

Milk production from grass and by-products

Professor Kjell Holtenius, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Uppsala,
Award: SEK 14.9m.

How can we optimise the use of arable land? Land is needed for sustainable energy production, as well as for cereals and soybeans. Several estimates, from the FAO and other sources, indicate a rise of some 70% in global food requirements between now and 2050.

Stiffer competition for cereals and protein-rich products between human food and livestock feed calls for changes in the way cattle are fed. Ruminants can, in principle, live on coarse fodder (roughage, such as grass and hay) and by-products that are not fit for human consumption, with retained animal health and financial aspects and also reduced environmental impact. Cattle are well adapted for converting coarse fodder into high-value protein, and Sweden has a good capacity for efficient production of coarse fodder.

When cereals and other vegetable products are refined to make biofuel and human foodstuffs, by-products suitable for feeding dairy cows are created. Here, the researchers intend to create feeding systems for dairy cows based on coarse fodder and by-products alone. These systems are expected to be both competitive and appropriate from a long-term environmental point of view. Within the framework of the study, coarse fodder will be produced that is particularly suitable for matching the nutrient content of the by-products included in the feed.

Reducing the harvest gap by sustained intensification of autumn wheat production

Dr Bo Stenberg,, SLU, Uppsala.
Award: SEK 8.4m.

Is it possible to boost wheat harvests while reducing the environmental impact of growing practices? Wheat is one of the world’s most important crops for food purposes, but wheat harvests in Europe are stagnating. Harvests in Sweden have, moreover, shown a less favourable trend than most Western European countries.

The ‘harvest gap’ (the difference between potential harvests and actual annual harvests) needs to narrow if we are to achieve an increase in production. The potential harvest is the maximum one for a crop, under given climatic conditions, for which the crop is not exposed to water or nutrient shortages, or to any other adverse influence, such as diseases.

However, stepping up measures to boost harvests, such applying certain fertilisers on a larger scale, exacerbates the risk of the cultivation having a harmful environmental impact, for example through leaching. The overarching purpose of the project is to increase the size of wheat harvests while simultaneously reducing environmental impact. This can be done by varying and adjusting different growing inputs, such as fertilisers — applying more in areas of high potential and less in those of low potential, for example. The researchers will study autumn harvests in particular, and carry out field trials in four sites over the three years of the project.

Perennial crops — key components of robust and sustainable production systems?

Associate Professor Anna Westerbergh, SLU, Uppsala,
Award: SEK 7.1m.

Can more diverse agriculture, with both annual and perennial crops, help to enhance sustainability in modern farming? Present-day methods contribute to nutrient leaching and deterioration of soil fertility, and require heavy inputs of plant protection products and fertilisers. The advantages of perennial crops are many: from lower energy use and reduced soil compaction to greater carbon storage in the soil. Growing perennial crops may therefore help to mitigate climate change.

In-depth knowledge is lacking, however, since few relevant scientific studies comparing annual and perennial growing systems have been carried out. This is because, except for perennial wheat, there are no improved perennial varieties to compare existing annual crops with. To investigate whether perennial crops are important components in sustainable agriculture, the researchers must:

  1. identify differences in agronomic properties between perennial and annual wheat in soils with varying nutritional status
  2. identify differences in overwintering capacity between different lines of perennial wheat in North, Central and South Sweden
  3. develop perennial barley material for comparison with annual barley
  4. obtain more in-depth knowledge of the genetic background of perennial properties for future improvement of perennial varieties
  5. exchange knowledge with farmers and researchers in the course of the project.

Sustainable, large-scale cultivation of macroalgae in Sweden

Henrik Pavia, University of Gothenburg, Award: SEK 15.7m.

Growing macroalgae — ‘algaculture’ — is the subsector of aquaculture that is expanding most rapidly worldwide. Nevertheless, despite good natural conditions, it is entirely undeveloped in Sweden. What is required for sustainable, large-scale algaculture to be developed in Sweden?

Algaculture has many advantages compared with land-based biomass production. Macroalgae grow faster than land plans and capture carbon dioxide more efficiently. Growing algae in the sea does not, moreover, need fertilisers, pesticides or artificial irrigation. Neither does it lay claim to valuable farmland. Instead, nutrients are absorbed and, if algae are used for food, animal feed and fertilisers, a link to agriculture can be created to close ecological cycles.

This project involves investigating prospects of cultivating, in particular, sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima), a macroalga species. This brown alga is found naturally on the Swedish West Coast. Sugar kelp can be used in food and animal feed, and potentially also to produce bioethanol and plastic.

The project will cover methodological and environmental aspects, such as new growing techniques, mass production of spores and shoots, breeding of cultivated variants and socioeconomic sustainability analyses. Jointly with the Västra Götaland county administrative board, the problems associated with obtaining operating licences for large-scale algaculture will be studied. In the various parts of the project, the multidisciplinary research team will cooperate closely with public agencies, companies and other stakeholders.

Innovative solutions for developing high-quality marine aquaculture in Sweden: Focus on environmental and economic sustainability

Kristina (‘Snuttan’) Sundell, University of Gothenburg,
Award: SEK 15.9m.

How can production of sought-after fish and shellfish, such as spotted wolffish (Anarhichas minor) and lobster, be made more efficient? This project will develop new feeds based on sustainable raw materials from mussels and unused by-products from Baltic herring and shellfish, and also multi-trophic recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) with minimal effluents.

The aim of the project is to develop a sustainable strategy for establishing Swedish marine aquaculture. The project comprises experts in biology, technology, food science, life-cycle analysis (LCA) and economics. It will address the challenges of reducing dependence on fish oil and fishmeal in the feed required for fish farming; develop quality feed for larvae; reduce nutrient effluents; and apply a comprehensive approach to sustainability that includes socioeconomic aspects.

Pilot production sites will be laid out where research, innovation, training and collaboration between researchers and the sector can take place. The project comprises community stakeholders in West Sweden and private investors to support the project aim of creating model systems for marine aquaculture and business plans for feed companies. This will help to safeguard the emergency of sustainable aquaculture in line with society’s objectives.

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