How can Europe’s agricultural research institutions reinvent themselves as essential partners in a sustainable food system?

By Dr. William Burns PhD MSc


  • Agricultural research organizations need to position themselves as a key partner for revival of the economy. They must also be seen as a delivery agent for decarbonization and other transformations of the food system.
  • I spoke with scientists in Albania, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine. My feeling was that these countries would make an informative case study, given that they rely on agriculture as an income source more than other European countries.
  • I found that there is an excellent base of well-trained, creative, and often multi-lingual scientists to build upon. However, some of the scientists I spoke with expressed concerns about low budgets, lack of research equipment, staff departure (to better-paid jobs in the private sector), and declining scientific quality.
  • Overall, my impression was that agricultural research is under strain. This implies the need for reform. But funding is the immediate problem. Unless it is increased, scientific capacity could fall to levels from which it cannot quickly be rebuilt. Cuts to public research will not support sustainability. Quite the opposite.


Transforming food production into more sustainable forms will be central to quality of life across Europe in the years to come – helping to decarbonize the economy, improve human health, and protect the environment.

For more than a century, agricultural research institutes and agricultural universities have been a link between new knowledge, and improved agricultural practice (alongside other policy measures). Their major role was to support increases in agricultural productivity by developing, demonstrating and disseminating new techniques.

How can these institutions reinvent themselves as essential partners in the transformation of the food system? For this report, I spoke with prominent scientists in agricultural research institutions in a mix of EU member and ‘neighborhood’ states – Albania, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine. (1)

My feeling was that these countries, where agriculture features more prominently than average as a means of earning a living (i.e., contribution to GDP above the European average of about 2%), would make an informative case study.

My core questions were as follows. What does the agricultural R&D enterprise across these five countries look like? Where do scientists in the region see the future of agricultural science and innovation as we emerge from the pandemic? What strategies are they pursuing to achieve their goals?

Agriculture across the countries in scope of this report

Country% GDP agriculture (2019)Agricultural products as % total exports (2018)Top agricultural export (2019)Government agricultural research expenditure €m p.a. (2)
Albania1811Tomato<2-3 (2020) (3)
Moldova1042.5Sunflower seed4.6 (2018)
Ukraine941.1Sunflower seed or cotton oil41.9 (2018)
Romania410.7Maize (corn)21.8 (2019)
Bulgaria316.2Wheat and meslin24.8 (2019)
Sources: Eurostat; FAOSTAT; World Bank; World Trade Organization.

Science blocked by lack of finance

My interviews touched about 20% of taxpayer-funded agricultural research organizations in the countries under review. Obviously, this was not a systematic survey. But one aspect I identified was that science relevant to sustainable practices could not be done due to lack of basic investment.

“We lack everything for doing research, starting from the possibility to participate in conferences, even books and journals. Nor do we have any equipment,” a scientist, who is an expert on big data applications in agriculture, wrote in an email to me.

“I do not get any level of funding for doing my research work. I have participated in individual projects and gained a scholarship for post-doctoral work from an EU-funded program, but beside this scholarship, there is nothing.”

“We need basic recognition from the international scientific community.”

“We need to update our research facilities. For financial reasons, it is currently impossible to buy new scientific equipment. This means we cannot reach our scientific potential,” another senior scientist informed me.

“We also need the resources to pay our scientists better, otherwise we lose highly-qualified personnel to the private sector,” the senior scientist added.

The scientist directs an institute that has pioneered research on organic agriculture due to its expertise in questions of soil fertility.

Scientists at the institute created microbial preparations to improve crop nutrition, increase yields and protect against pathogens, with application in crops as diverse as rapeseed, sunflower, potato, tomato, sugar beet and wheat.

Yet underfunding risks “diminishing the reputation of scientific work,” my contact wrote. The scientist is keen to “develop new competitive science-intensive products.” But there is inadequate support to commercialize inventions.

The scientist would like to establish a laboratory to check soil improvement products marketed to organic farmers. “The market for biological preparations needs to be regulated and laws introduced to penalize farmers who damage the fertility of their soil by poor practices.”

“We would like greater interaction with scientists around the world. I hope my institution would be able to participate in EU grant programs for updating facilities, promoting cooperative research work, and scientific exchanges.”

An extreme need for technological renewal

“There is an extreme need for technological renewal in our agricultural industry. Yet everything is constrained by lack of finances.”

“For our scientific institutions, the main problem is outdated material and technical base, in particular, laboratory equipment.”

“This limits what we can do in vital areas such as environmental protection, climate resilience, food quality and safety.”

“The utmost priority for us is to buy a DNA sequencer, an RT-PCR machine, and an amino acid analyzer,” said the director of another agricultural research institute in the region.

These machines, which are vital tools for biology research, “would allow us to work on long-term conservation of genetic resources and detection of new genotypes with valuable characters. The creation of a biotechnological laboratory accredited in the production of standardized material (rare genotypes, local strains) is an important goal.”

“Better equipment will let us perform the research at international standards needed for such studies.”

Previous achievements at the institute directed by my contact included research on crop responses to stress factors, and the curation of seeds from medicinal and aromatic plants, vines, cereals, and legumes. These biological libraries can be used to develop new crop varieties, considered an essential part of a resilient agricultural system.

My source would like to see “a review of national procedures for the purchase of reagents and scientific equipment directly from producers, which would allow for quality assurance, significant price reduction and simplification of procedures.”

“We would welcome any national or international assistance. This could mean support for particular projects, or finance to buy laboratory equipment,” wrote the director of another institute.

Over the last decade, the institute used plant breeding techniques and grafting of rootstocks to create a large number of new varieties of cherry, apple, plum, pear, strawberry, apricot and other fruits.

The director highlighted recent innovations such as self-fertile cherry, and an apple resistant to a cause of crop losses known as ‘scab’.

The institute has conducted research projects with North Macedonia, as well as in Poland, and with the Yantai Academy of Agricultural Sciences (China).

The director would like to work with producers to build greater climate resilience in orchards, such as by the development of stress-resistant varieties, and an improved irrigation regimen based on soil and leaf analyses.

My contact was also keen to boost underpinning capabilities at the institute, such as characterizing a gene bank of over 1000 varieties, and developing greater expertise in biotechnological methods (tissue and embryo cultures). Yet, of course, many of these plans would appear to hang in the balance due to lack of funds.

The Agricultural University of Tirana, founded 1951, is one of Albania’s main venues for agricultural research.

Prof. Astrit Balliu, Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, wrote that funding is “highly variable from several thousand € per year to none.”

“Changing the procedures for delivery of national government funds to predefined, well-specified scientific topics could help. In addition, I would like to see reforms that bring Albania closer to EU standards in terms of ethical standards, performance evaluation, and appreciation of achievements of academic staff.”

Prof. Balliu is an expert on horticulture. She wants to investigate how different agricultural practices could help alleviate the negative effects of abiotic stresses on horticultural crops.

The need for communications that support agricultural R&D

Underfunding of public research definitely does not encourage sustainable agriculture (citing as evidence the interviews above as well as the relevant study of Romania by Roger, 2014). How, therefore, to gain funding increases or at least prevent cuts?

A senior source with knowledge of the region told me that the agricultural sector is now in a relatively strong position to argue for taxpayer investment. It ‘kept going’ through the early months of the covid crisis.

However, the risk of cuts is high (particularly in the event of an economic recession but also due to the crucial ongoing need for budgets to fight covid and vaccinate citizens).

My source added that agricultural ministries are not always making the most of their own R&D assets, particularly for policy advisory. “Ministries will ask for highly-paid international advisors, rather than using their country capacity. They have no advisory contracts with their own research institutions. I would strongly encourage ministries in the region to make use of what they have.”

“The forthcoming UN Food Systems Summit is a major opportunity to get the sector into the political spotlight,” the source said, highlighting the Science Days on 8-9 July.

“What we need to see is recognition that basic and applied research are connected. We must also get the message across that agricultural research is not just about production but also such factors as environmental protection and improved public health through diets.”

“The new generations of scientists in the region really understand these connections.”

But the source added that there is as yet no consensus on food systems research challenges in eastern European countries that are not EU members, as well the states of central Asia. Food safety, environmental protection, digitalization, and adaptation of technology to local contexts are all in the mix but scientists have yet to clarify what needs to be done in terms of research. “In this sense, these countries are behind the EU member states, but they could easily catch up.”

Without well-funded public-sector R&D and extension services, my source said, small-scale farmers will be completely unsupported. This is a major risk in Albania as EU funds did not address that sector. In Bulgaria and Romania, the EU subsidization regime missed out smaller farmers. This led to increased rural poverty, the source added.

Agricultural research organizations need to position themselves as a key partner for revival of the economy post-covid. They must ensure they are seen as a delivery agent for decarbonization and other transformations of the food system. This message needs to be targeted at Brussels and other significant centers of decision-making such as their national capitals.

There are more than 20 agricultural and scientific academies and agricultural universities engaged in research, higher education and extension in the countries under consideration. These institutions would benefit from forming research associations that can coordinate shared tasks, offer policy advice, and lobby strongly (Germany’s Agricultural Research Alliance, known as DAFA, is an example that merits evaluation).

Horizon 2020 research funding from the EU was absorbed by a handful of big research institutions in western Europe (which have therefore become the dominant EU venue for agricultural research). These institutions have departments dedicated to developing fundable grant proposals and also lobby in Brussels. Smaller institutes had little chance of competing with them. This situation will not change in Horizon Europe.

However, newer funding criteria in Horizon Europe around application of knowledge might offer opportunities for smaller institutions if they can demonstrate ability to implement research findings in practice. This ability, in my view, could make them potential partners in grants led by the big institutions. But I believe a prerequisite would be for agricultural academies and agricultural universities in scope of this report to raise their international profile.

The business model

As far as I could tell, there is no solid consensus about the future of agricultural research in the countries under consideration. Understandably, the main concern seems to be ensuring financial viability. Discussions between institutions could help clarify the destination or at least the direction of travel. But I suspect we will see a series of improvisations over the coming years rather than the emergence of a single agenda.

The obvious thought is that institutions will undertake a wider range of jobs than previously. They will need to help farmers produce cheap food as they have always done. But, in the name of sustainability, they will also be asked to support rural development, smallholder incomes and decarbonization, help cut pollution and food waste, and improve food safety and even dietary habits (public health).

Business model for agricultural academies and agricultural universities

Sources: institutional websites; Khodakivska, 2019.

Such an expansion in roles will require training of staff as well as the recruitment of individuals with new skills. This is a hard task because needs are not known exactly. The future of the food system has not been clarified (obviously, it is a topic that has, is and will be argued about). Different visions of the future have different implications for technology and the research needed to develop and apply it.

“Competence of scientists is a big factor. If the expectation is that we have to do more complex tasks, then we need training for them. The EU could help us with this,” wrote Dr. Fatmira Allmuça, a freelancer who has worked as an expert for the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (Albania).

“Scientific research in agriculture is currently at a crossroads or a situation where on the one hand we have little evidence of impact and meanwhile our institutions are conducting studies that are not always a function of the practical needs of agriculture,” Dr. Allmuça added.

“Gradually, the task of providing farmers with the best choices or solutions to their problems has decreased or been lost. I would like to see institutions return to their former status and serve as locomotives for development.”

“Furthermore, getting scientists to cooperate on issues directly outside their programs is difficult. I would like to see an electronic platform that covers all scientific studies in agriculture from different institutions, farm experience, etc. so we can at least understand where connections ought to be made.”

These comments might reflect tensions between the needs of local agriculture and those of international science, but also the traditional farm-level role of research institutions (as against a broader conception of the food system). Studying topics of international scientific interest potentially gains funding. But also criticism from international donors or agricultural ministries who prioritise what they see as local needs. I am sure, though, that different kinds of research can be combined.

In Romania, an agricultural university has been working hard to train its staff, expand international visibility (by English language publications and courses), while also increasing revenue and accrediting its own farms for organic production.

“I would say getting a good team together is one of the biggest challenges. We’ve put a lot of investment into training and implementing systems to encourage quality work,” Prof. Dr. Andrei Mihalca, Vice-Rector for International Relations, University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine of Cluj-Napoca (Romania) told me.

“The calibre of science was difficult to assess before but the obligation to publish makes it more visible.”

“The farms we operate are now profitable. The vineyard we own will be selling wine for the first time this year. All our farms have been accredited as ecological and use organic methods of production.”

“One of the steps we took recently was to introduce an entrepreneurial approach. We do not do things unless there is financial benefit. We plan to build new clinics for large animals and increase the size of the equine clinic. As Romanians grow richer, they are buying more horses. We plan to move the small animal clinic to a more commercial location. Tuition fees from overseas students taking our veterinary courses in English and French supplement our income.”

“I would like to see a bit more flexibility over the way we invest our income but that will need changes in legislation. Overall, though, I think we have been successful. At a national level we perform well,” he added.

To my mind, raised expectations need expanded budgets. They might also need updates to the public law basis for agricultural research (to incorporate an expanded scientific mission and provide the legal protections for it). Institutions could in future transform into foundations independent of the government.

I believe these would be politically difficult options. So far, there is no additional funding (as far as I am aware). Perhaps only a genius could find a way to resolve the situation. I certainly have no proposals!

Two issues strike me as relevant. The first is that agricultural research institutions are complex. A large number of invisible, informal and improvised processes glue them together and allow them to deliver their missions. Could these be leveraged? The second is thought for the career aspirations of staff working in them. In my view, good morale is key for innovation. It ought, therefore, to be the paramount concern in reform.

The other side of the world

New Zealand is an interesting case study. It could even be an aspirational model for some countries in Europe. It combines high dependency on agriculture with high income. New Zealand does not subsidize production (subsidies were abolished in the 1980s).

“As a research organisation, we have always been able to point to the value of agriculture as the backbone of New Zealand’s economy and one of our largest export earners,” wrote Dr. Trevor Stuthridge, Research Director, AgResearch, in an email to me in March.

“Our farmers and industry have been willing to take on board what the science says and adapt.”

“Through the COVID-19 pandemic – and the effective shutdown of our country’s tourism industry – our food production has been even more critical in keeping the New Zealand economy moving and our supermarket shelves stocked.”

AgResearch is a New Zealand government research institute in the agricultural sector. It is efficient by international standards with (at least) the taxpayer contributions within reach of countries such as Bulgaria, as the following figures illustrate.

AgResearch received NZ$43m (€25m) in core funding from taxpayers last year, out of a total annual budget of NZ$156m (€93m) – the balance from ‘commercial’, project grants, sale of farm produce, etc., according to its 2020 annual report.

“We have to economise as an organisation with limited resources. Sometimes that will mean being unable to pursue research that is important and worthwhile, but where the outcomes may be less certain or marketable,” Dr. Stuthridge wrote.

“A big focus now for New Zealand is how we can reduce our impact on the environment – specifically, climate change and water quality…by working more closely with our customers and…leveraging the dual knowledge systems of Western science and indigenous Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge),” he added.

Dr. Stuthridge cited an official report last year, Te Pae Kahurangi (Looking to the Horizon), that called for AgResearch and New Zealand’s other government research institutes to work together more closely.

“The strong signals coming from our government are that our institutes need to work more closely together to advance research that is important to New Zealand and the world.”

“If there are opportunities for greater ties with institutes in eastern Europe, then we would certainly be keen to learn more about those,” he wrote, in answer to a separate question about international collaboration.


We should not underestimate scientific achievements in the countries cited above and the potential for great achievements in the future. Scientists are well-trained, creative, and often multi-lingual. The scientists I spoke with were of the highest calibre. There is a good base to build upon.

The European Commission’s position is that a sustainable food system is blocked by the fact that ‘knowledge is fragmented and insufficiently applied in practice’. Accordingly, it will prioritize the ‘promotion of effective relations and information flows’ between ‘advisors, researchers and CAP networks’ (CAP networks mean, mainly, farmers) in what is termed the agricultural knowledge and innovation system (AKIS).

Transnational agrochemical and agro-industrial firms, large supermarket chains, and so on, are probably the main lever for systemic change. The Commission has instead placed emphasis on application of knowledge as the lever. This is politically astute. But it creates problems. Once we start trying to apply knowledge, questions arise as to what knowledge and who should be applying it. The answers are contentious.

Unless the AKIS directly engages agro-industrial firms, it will obviously be Sisyphean labor to transform agriculture by knowledge exchange. I think the Commission is optimistic that large firms will support a sustainable shift. Objectively, however, this is hard to substantiate.

The phenomena I heard about, e.g., inadequate budgets, lack of research equipment, departure of key staff, concern about declining scientific quality, and so on, suggest to me that the framework for agricultural research is under strain.

I believe that if research institutions are to live up to expectations, they will need to be properly supported. This is not currently happening at the level required. Unless there is a change in the attitude of donors and national governments, scientific capacity could fall to levels from which it cannot be quickly rebuilt. Funding cuts to public research will not support sustainability. Quite the opposite.

Sincere thanks to those interviewed for giving their time so freely and generously. Opinions expressed in this report remain my own and should not be construed as representing the views of others, except where clearly attributed.

(1) Several of my contacts chose to remain anonymous.
(2) Government budget allocations for R&D: Romania and Bulgaria (Eurostat GBARD by socio economic objectives Agriculture); Ukraine and Moldova (FAOSTAT Government Expenditure R&D agriculture forestry fishing). US$ values given by FAOSTAT converted to €. Most recent available data.
(3) Eurostat and FAOSTAT do not report budgets for Albania. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (Albania) budget statement does not contain a separate line for R&D. Therefore, this number is a guess based on the ‘agricultural advice and information’ line in the 2020 budget (451m Albanian lek) converted into €.
(4) Sale of goods and services (farms, veterinary clinics, etc.) and land ownership (e.g., rental to tenant farmers). Sales can generate significant income (tens of millions €) and are in some cases the main factor keeping institutions solvent. Institutions have in recent years come under political pressure to split or simplify activities (due, for example, to concerns about EU state aid rules). It is not clear if splitting activities into different legal entities is the right solution given it would cause insolvency.
(5) Agricultural research institutions tend to be subdivided into institutes, stations, departments, or other units, according to academic discipline (agricultural engineering, economics, microbiology, etc.), crop type (e.g., arable, orchard fruit) or location (sometimes reflecting climatic or other conditions in different parts of the territory).
(6) Hybrid between research and commercial.