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Innovation for Sustainable Sheep and Goat Production in Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - iSAGE (Innovation for Sustainable Sheep and Goat Production in Europe)

Reporting period: 2019-03-01 to 2020-02-29

Sheep and goat farming systems in Europe are an essential part of the agricultural industry and contribute to the provision of ecosystem services to society. In marginal areas, sheep and goats are the most common form of traditional livestock farming keeping natural resources healthy and utilizing land that cannot otherwise be used to produce products for human consumption. Sheep and goat industries, however, have many challenges causing farmers to leave. The consumption of sheep and goat meat in Europe is declining, the market and prices are fluctuating more and many farms rely on subsidies to survive. iSAGE has brought together all the major players in Europe and Turkey that worked closely to find ways to make the sheep and goat sectors sustainable.Being a multifunctional sector, sheep and goat farming is expected by society to perform various roles; eg., support rural livelihoods that are connected to cultural heritage, shaping rural identities and the way of living. For the wider society, it will also benefit from sheep and goat products that are of high quality, produced with high animal welfare standards and processed, packaged, transported and sold in ways that consumers prefer. iSAGE identified the major strengths and weaknesses of the sector and proposed solutions to improve its sustainability and increase societal acceptance. Additionally, by incorporating consumer attitudes, societal perceptions and end-users aspirations, iSAGE has contributed towards re-designing sheep and goat products (meat and dairy) and provided solutions for the industry including changing the design and management of farms. The work done resulted in scientific publications, conference papers and other articles or reports and produced policy recommendations to target audience such as policy/farmer organisations/NGOs/International organisations.
The status of sheep and goat farms across Europe was assessed with an adapted version of the Public Goods Tool (PG Tool), addressing overarching environmental, economic, social and governance themes. A total of 236 farms across Europe were selected covering the spectrum of farm typologies defined by the iSAGE project. It was revealed that sheep and goat farming systems are little innovative specially compared to other livestock sectors. The main challenge is the socioeconomic and structural constrains that prevent farmer’s acceptance and uptake of innovations at farm level. Other challenges included farmer’s reluctance to modify farming practices, lack of innovation culture across farmer communities, limited farmer skills and knowledge in some areas, low farmer investment capacity, ageing of farmers and rural areas depopulation trends and lack of strong and well-organized, long-term, farmer collaborations. At sector level, internal competence between value chain stakeholder (e.g. farmers, processors, distributors, retailers) within the sector reduces its competitiveness in international markets but also in relation to other livestock species and to non-livestock food products. iSAGE exploited the latest advances in molecular genetics and DNA analysis to develop new tools in breeding programs. iSAGE case studies showed that extension programs emphasizing farm innovation that increase farm efficiency and profitability are the most effective approach to reduce at the same time the farm environmental impact. Results showed that there is enough room for product and process innovation in meat sheep production. New packaging and cuts, development of quality labels or other certification and traceability systems and new marketing campaigns to make society aware of the environmental and social services of sheep and goat farming systems are key strategies. Participatory farmer-group training programmes seem to be a strategy with high potential to develop a more knowledgeable and competent farming workforce. iSAGE identified requirements such as National organisations with regional branches, strong national network of farms, businesses, organizations and reliable funding sources. iSAGE contributed also to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) debate, with suggestions for new calculations for the global warming effect of CH4, policy implications from the isage case studies and potential of breeding for resilience to climate change. A new holistic farm level model has been developed. Research on genetic traits regarding efficiency and resilience was a key issue in iSAGE; relevant genetic parameters have been estimated along with novel animal resilience and adaptability phenotypes based on joint analyses of milk records and weather variables. Overall, iSAGE provided a comprehensive understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the sheep and goat industry as the basis to further develop and meet both farmer and public expectations. A significant part of results has been already disseminated through scientific publications, conference papers and technical reports.
iSAGE produced strategic information for a more sustainable and competitive future of the small ruminant industry. It was revealed that one of the main problems is the poor uptake of innovations mainly as result of the structure of the industry, lack of new entrants and low income despite heavy reliance on subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). iSAGE provided comprehensive overview of the status of the sector, identified the main challenges and current trends and opportunities. It contributed towards: (i) supporting supply chains and increasing consumption of sheep and goat products through novel labelling, packaging and cuts, (ii) climate change and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) using novel methodologies and technologies, and informing relevant policies, (iii) breeding for enhanced animal resilience, efficiency and adaptability, and promoting region-specific use of local breeds, and (iv) increasing the efficient adoption of innovations to increase the sector’s overall resilience and sustainability and decrease reliance on public support. Advancements beyond state of the art included sustainability assessments across different farming systems in different countries that filled the gap in relative knowledge. In-depth understanding of the interaction between various geographic, environmental, farm management, market and policy issues of the sheep and goat production sector in terms of socio-economics. Detailed technical and economic data of farms highlighting the weaknesses, strengths and future opportunities of the sector in terms of productivity. iSAGE investigated the influence of various attributes of meat and dairy product on consumer preferences and analyzed the value chain from farm to fork, providing details on the profile of market demand using a bottom-up. In terms of environmental and climatic challenges iSAGE used available information and developed predictive models regarding climate change effects on small ruminants and pasture in Europe. A whole farm simulation model was developed advancing fundamental understanding of complex livestock systems such as sheep and goat farming to underpin practical and theoretical solutions. Moreover, iSAGE developed novel breeding strategies and tools for sheep and goat breeds across Europe based on optimal combination of conventional and novel traits.
Photo of iSAGE participants at Kick off meeting in Thessaloniki
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