IBLA - the biological research institute Director Dr. Stéphanie Zimmer explains the opportunities and challenges of Luxembourg's organic agriculture sector
The Institute for Organic Agriculture and Agrarian Culture Luxembourg (Institut fir biologesch Landwirtschaft an Agrarkultur Lëtzebuerg, IBLA) is a research Institute dedicated to organic agriculture in Luxembourg. In 2019, the IBLA was awarded the Bio-Agrar-Präis. This is the second time that the IBLA has won this award, which is awarded annually to a person, organisation or company active in the organic farming sector. Organic agriculture is increasingly popular in Luxembourg: many Luxembourgers love organic and like to buy products accordingly. However, 'going organic' isn't easy and this prize has been designed to encourage those who take on a pioneering role in Luxembourg's organic sector.
Every year, the jury chooses another theme which has a direct link to organic farming or the organic market in Luxembourg. For 2019, the organisers decided to choose the laureate from among past winners of the prize. The goal was to evaluate how these initiatives have developed in the past years. And the clear winner was the IBLA. A perfect opportunity for us to meet up with IBLA director Dr. Stéphanie Zimmer to talk organic.
What aims is the IBLA pursuing?
The IBLA is the Institute for Organic Agriculture and Agrarian Culture Luxembourg. Two fields of expertise are covered: counselling on the hand, and research and development on the other.
We mainly advise organic farms, but also conventional farms considering possibly switching to organic farming. If they decide to make the switch, we then give them advice and support.
As far as research is concerned, we focus on organic agriculture, but also on hot topics. For example, we are conducting research into the type of plannable wheat that not only gives the best yield, but also the best baking results.
Moreover, we carry out sustainability assessments of Luxembourg agriculture on four levels: economic, ecological, social and entrepreneurial. As an example, legumes is a focus of ours, i.e. peas, beans and soy. We currently have several projects in the area of protein self-sufficiency with the aim of reducing soy imports, in particular by establishing soy in Luxembourg.
True Cost Accounting – get to know the true value of products
Organic products are often more expensive... but is this really the case? True-Cost Accounting calculates the price of a product not only on the basis of the production costs, but also on the basis of the costs incurred by the general public. The elimination of ecological damage or compensation by Kyoto measures are taken into account in this calculation. As a result, conventional products are often more expensive than organic products, even if the consumer's impression in the supermarket is often different.
Why are legumes so important for organic farming?
The IBLA has been working in the area of legumes since 2010: which ones are best suited to Luxembourg? How can we establish these species here? How must the processing process be constructed so that the farmer can make optimum use of his produce?
These legumes are very important in organic farming because they have a special ability. The air consists of 78% nitrogen and legumes can fix the nitrogen from the air at their roots with the help of bacteria: the plant gets the nitrogen it needs and the bacteria get energy to live in the course of this symbiosis.
This free nitrogen from the air eliminates the need for mineral fertilisers. In addition, legumes improve soil fertility through their highly developed root system.
However, legumes have been ignored for a long time: indeed, mineral fertiliser is much cheaper. However, rising energy prices and the climate debate – the production of mineral fertilisers requires a lot of energy and is therefore not particularly beneficial for the climate – mean that more use is being made of legumes.
How does Luxembourg fare in comparison with other countries or regions – thinking about the 'Greater Region'?
We already have a focus in this area, and in the Greater Region there is virtually no soya cultivation. We are in communication with Wallonia. Most soya is grown in Germany, in regions such as Bavaria or Baden-Württemberg, where the climate is somewhat warmer. That is why I would say that we are playing a pioneering role here.
The number of biological labels has increased in Luxembourg in recent years. How successful are organic products currently?
Overall, Luxembourg ranks 4th in Europe in terms of per capita expenditure on organic products. In terms of production, however, we are relatively far down in the list. In other words, demand outstrips what we produce in the country. Farmers in Luxembourg are still not always ready, or the general conditions are not always so favourable as to induce many farms to switch.
Organic challenges in viticulture
More and more vintners are getting interested in organic farming. However, very few do actually dare to switch completely - most opt for a partial transition. Some areas are therefore cultivated organically, while others are not. It should moreover be borne in mind that wine is a luxury product: the additional costs of organic production are not necessarily reflected in the purchase price which the buyer is prepared to pay.
To what is this reluctance among farmers due?
That's hard to say. On the one hand, you can't 'go organic' just like that. All operations on the farm need to be restructured. This implies that you have to plan your activities carefully and think well in advance about how you are going to react. Short-term tools, such as pesticides or mineral fertilisers, won't be an option anymore.
Moreover, general conditions for organic farming are more strict. For some time marketing organic foods was tough, and Luxembourgers often prefer to buy national products. To meet demand is already not easy with conventional agriculture, given Luxembourg's relatively small size. If you then take organic, where the area under cultivation is considerably smaller, it gets even more difficult. Here you have to think supra-regionally in order to find a solution. Once you reach a certain mass it becomes easier.
Currently, just under 5% of Luxembourg's agricultural land is farmed organically. Will these figures rise in the coming years?
I think so. For the past few years, the number of organic farms has been on the rise. It is certainly not a decision that you take from one day to the next, but many farms are interested and are in contact with our consultants. It remains to be seen how quickly the number will rise.
In 2019, the IBLA received the Bio-Agrar Award for the second time, as recognition for developments since the first award in 2011. Why this second award?
In 2007, the IBLA was only two of us; right now we are 12 people working here. The IBLA has built its reputation as a research institute, but has also obtained the status of a non-profit organisation. By means of fundraising and donations we try to finance part of our research in the future so that we can remain independent.
Thank you for having agreed to this interview.