Case study 13: France: Introduction of innovative crops and of legumes to foster the sustainability of arable systems under oceanic climate

Cluster 3: Crop diversification in systems from Western Europe

Emergence of sustainable farms requires a shift towards new production systems, based on ecological intensification, adapted to local conditions, and manageable by farmers. The objectives of the case study is to produce references, knowledges and tools, to promote innovations in arable crop production mobilizing farmers and stakeholders to address local challenges of low mineralization dynamics, but high industrial production.

What are the main problems underlying the emergence of the case study?
The emergence of sustainable farms requires a shift toward new production systems (including new crop sequences), based on ecological intensification, adapting to local conditions, and being managed by farmers. The objectives of the case study are to produce references, knowledge, and tools to promote innovations in arable crop production; mobilizing farmers and stakeholders.
On the local scale, specific problems are due to deep, chalky soils in which the mineralization dynamic is low, and that are sensitive to capping and erosion, but where industrial production (sugar beet and potatoes) are valuable. Cropping systems in this area are highly dependent on the use of pesticides and fertilizers, especially nitrogen and phosphorus.

How is the problem addressed and which actors are involved?
The three French technical institute of arable crops - Arvalis-Institut du végétal, ITB and Terres Inovia -  launched in 2014 a national project about co-design, ex-ante evaluation, and experimentation of multi-service farming systems matching with regional challenges.
The case study, “Introduction of innovative crops and of legumes to foster the sustainability of arable systems under oceanic climate” is one of five locations, representing main arable crop productions.
In order to build the case study, the methodology of ‘de novo’ co-design of cropping systems was applied to reconcile global issues and local constraints. Working groups were set up with farmers, local advisors, researchers, crop specialists, and grain collectors to keep a view on new production opportunities.
After several workshops, diversification was identified as a solution in the area to reduce nitrogen use, i.e. by introducing legumes as cover crops and other low-need crops such as hemp and sunflower, which provide organic fertilization. Such crops also protect the soil surface and increase soil stability (permanent cover or long vegetation cover crops can be used as energy source biomass).
This work has led to the implementation of “cropping systems experiments” (work package 3) and factorial trials. Moreover, it aims to develop links with innovative farmer groups to assess innovation at the farm scale. The first framework for interaction between technical institutes and innovative farmers was drawn with the AgroSol group led by the Vivescia cooperative.
Economic organizations (Cristal Union, Vivescia, Acolyance, and Groupe Soufflet), regional agricultural chambers, technical institutes (Arvalis-Institut du végétal, ITB, and Terres Inovia) and consortium stakeholders (Terralab, Fnams, Agro-Transfert, and Ceta de Romilly) were involved in the co-conception of the working group and now form part of the case study steering committee.

Solution investigated
According to the ex-ante assessment, the introduction of legumes in a crop sequence seems promising to simultaneously reduce nitrogen use, energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emission. Reduced tillage (plow only one time on nine), permanent cover, and organic supply help concentrate soil organic matter in the upper soil horizon and reduce erosion. While the impact on organic matter is satisfying, gross production and margins are maintained.

Expected outcome
The case studies have social, economic, and technical expectations:
Social: Scaling out cropping systems to other farmers, involvement of current processors, emerging supply chains (hemp, biomass cover crops);
Economic: Identifying target markets for emerging and new supply chain, raising competitiveness of new crops;
Technical: Managing complex cropping systems and new crops in the rotation, permanent cover, associated crops; adapting measures, observations, and decision rules to decrease pesticide and nitrogen use; overcoming impacts of intensification in legumes.

Relevance to the DiverIMPACTS goals
The work with the case study will contribute to the development of high productivity system, with required quality for cereals, little dependence on mineral nitrogen fertilizers to reduce costs and greenhouse gas emissions, and preservation of soil fertility (physical and biological).


  • Rémy Duval, ITB (ACTA), Case study leader