Design and evaluation of systems reconciling economic and environmental performance

Faced with an increasing global food demand and the depletion of natural resources, research and development is an essential lever in enabling agriculture to achieve the priority objectives of both economic and environmental performance. ACTA and the network of ATIs are resolutely committed to research on this dual performance, particularly through innovative experimentation at the cropping system scale and examining the different factors in production.


Agroecology and promoting biodiversity

 While the concept of agroecology has been acknowledged as the overarching framework for agricultural policy over the coming years, biodiversity has been identified as a theme that should be addressed by almost all of the technical institutes in the plant and animal production sectors.

Therefore, most of the ATIs are already working on this theme by focusing on the services provided (the control of pests, pollination etc.) or working on overall assessments of production systems. However, biodiversity is a polysemic, multi-scale and multidisciplinary concept and can’t be addressed solely by one sector.


ATIs have expressed the need for transversal coordination for:

  • Formalising and supporting a collective space for discussion and sharing on the work of the different stakeholders involved in agriculture and biodiversity. The challenge is to initiate joint discussions but also to share human and experimental resources.
  • Representing institutes and publicising their work with the various bodies concerned with biodiversity issues in agriculture.
  • Providing institutes with specific skills (ecology, geospatial technology, human and social sciences etc.) and expanding their partnerships.
  • Organising and participating in projects on more global and/or exploratory issues which are not addressed by the institutes.

In order to meet these expectations, in 2013 ACTA participated in various forums and working groups to publicise the network of institutes with new partners and to position the institutes as key players in the reflections on biodiversity relating to agriculture. It is involved in CASDAR projects addressing transversal and new themes.  

“A need for coordination expressed for cross-sector subjects”

Above all, 2013 made it possible to forge new partnerships and formalise transversal issues involving several institutes. In particular, this exploratory work was reflected in the construction of the ‘Biodiversity and Agriculture’ mixed technology network which began work in 2014. 

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Representing ATIs in the Foundation for Research on Biodiversity 

The mission of the Foundation for Research on Biodiversity (FRB) is to promote, at the national, European and international level, the development, support and facilitation of research activities on biodiversity. Recognising that research on biodiversity can not only be conducted in scientific spheres, it seeks to mobilise the knowledge of stakeholders in civic society in order to co-build projects at the interface of science and society. ACTA represents the network of technical institutes on the FRB Strategic Policy Board and the IPBES national committee (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services). Participating in FRB activities makes it possible to become acquainted with the different actors interested in biodiversity issues, to ensure the interests of ATIs are taken into consideration in discussions and research programmes, and to publicise the work of the ATIs both in France and internationally.

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Participating in projects on innovative and transversal themes with new partners: the CASDAR Tel-IAE project

This project is aiming to assess the feasibility of a tool designed for actors in research, development and public authorities which uses remote sensing for the identification and characterisation of agroecological infrastructure (known by its French initials IAE). This interdisciplinary project brings together agronomists, ecologists, GIS specialists and IT experts.


Sustainable management of biogeochemical cycles and soil fertility

Since 2007, ACTA has co-hosted the fertilisation and environment mixed technology network (known by its since French initials, RMT F&E), and in 2013 coordinated the drafting of the activity report for the period 2007 to 2013, and the launch of a new project covering the period 2014- 2018 involving new partners, new themes and new lines of work.

ACTA also edited a book addressing ‘fertilisation and the environment: what avenues for decision support?’ stemming from the prospective work led by the RMT F&E over previous years. It was co-published by ACTA and QUAE in February 2014.

ACTA also helps put together, coordinate, monitor and/or implement projects created or supported by the RMT (livestock effluents, Network PRO, N’EDU, N-Pérennes, decision support systems for nitrogen fertilisation (AzoFert®) and environmental impact assessment  (Syst'N®)).

“Positive outcomes to be continued”

ACTA is working in partnership with COMIFER (France’s committee for the development of sustainable fertilisation) in its work and with its working groups (PRO, N et S, PKMg). It is also involved in dialogue with stakeholders on the themes of fertilisation and the sustainable management of biogeochemical cycles (MAAF, MEDDE, ADEME, NPC Committee, GT Meilleure valorisation de l’azote organique (concerned with organic nitrogen), GT Nitrates), and participates with COMIFER in supporting public policies, particularly within the national group for supporting GREN (regional nitrate expertise groups).



The RMT (mixed technology network) addressing fertilisation and environment targeted, between 2007 and 2013, four general objectives concerning the management of biogeochemical cycles of minerals in agriculture and sustainable agricultural fertilisation:


  • Conducting a diagnosis on both major agricultural issues and the needs for diagnostic tools and advice, and strategic thinking on courses of action in the management of soil fertility.
  • The collective design and building of operational tools for diagnostics and decision support, reconciling production targets, reduced costs, product quality and environmental preservation.
  • Encouraging and supporting their use by economic or institutional stakeholders, developing educational versions specifically designed for teaching and developing training modules.
  • Sharing knowledge and references, and ensuring the dissemination and exploitation of the results of network activities, providing scientific and technical support to projects led by RMT partners and decision makers.


The RMT has made it possible to create and refine the AzoFert® and SYST'N® software, and the co-construction of eight projects, all with CASDAR and/or ADEME funding.

Initially comprised of 15 founding members, by December 2013 the RMT F&E was made up of 26 partners, including ACTA and eight agricultural technical institutes (ARVALIS-Institut du végétal, CETIOM, ITB, IFV, CTIFL, Institut de l’Élevage, IFIP Institut du porc and ITAVI). ITAB has also joined the consortium.

Fertilisation and the environment: what options for decision support?

The fertilisation and environment mixed technology network (RMT F&E), co-hosted by ACTA, organised several seminars between 2009 and 2011 exploring the changing context for fertilisation over the coming decade and future needs in terms of knowledge, references, methods and tools for the management of biogeochemical cycles and sustainable fertilisation. This study, conducted by the best specialists in the field, has provided insights for better sustainable management of biogeochemical cycles and for expanding the time and space scales taken into account in decision support systems for fertilisation, taking into account environmental concerns.

This work led to the drafting of a collective work, which was completed in 2013. The book was co-published by ACTA and QUAE in February 2014 and addresses the topic ‘fertilisation and the environment: what avenues for decision support?’ 

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Re-coupling animal and crop production

The theme of polyculture production systems (mixed farming combining animal and crop production and known by its French initials SPCE) is currently receiving renewed interest. It covers, in fact, production systems which are today considered as a way of achieving the sustainable development of agriculture, but little is known about them in terms of their diversity and they are poorly evaluated. Paradoxically, in practice the number of these systems is in decline.

ACTA and INRA co-organised two days of talks with an operational focus on SPCE on June 4 and 5, 2013, in Toulouse, with the following objectives:

  • To initiate a collective dynamic
  • To involve stakeholders
  • To draw on past and ongoing work to understand the specificities of SPCE and identify themes to be developed
  • To develop a plan of collaborative actions between research, training and development linked in particular to the new challenges relating to sustainability at different scales, from the farm to the territory

This work has been made concrete with the creating of a mixed farming systems mixed technology unit (in French, RMT Systèmes de polyculture-élevage) which began work in January 2014 under the coordination of the Institut de l’Élevage (livestock institute).

The RMT is structured around four axes:

  • The diversity of the forms of combining crops and livestock at the farm level, the characterisation of their social, economic and environmental efficiency and their contribution to the resilience of farms.
  • The promotion of the complementarities between crops and livestock at the territorial scale.
  • Seeking original experiences of these systems both in France and abroad,
  • Transfer: training, dissemination, communication, providing support to public policy making. 

“Rethinking the relationship between plant and animal production for greater sustainability” 

This network will build on the knowledge gained from the exploratory work conducted by ACTA, which made it possible to capitalise on R&D projects and publications relating to SPCE, strengthen the directory of resource persons on the topic and explore concepts such as industrial ecology.

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Evaluating the sustainability of production systems and territories

The study of systems leads R&D experts to continuously evaluate performance in terms of sustainability either on the farm, in controlled conditions in an experimental setting or in computer simulations. For this, they use tools to describe and follow changes in agricultural practices and characterise them using performance indicators. The amount and diversity of information to be collected for this work is colossal and complicated to organise. In general, existing information systems only partially meet the needs of operators in terms of the issues, the sectors covered, the scale of the study, the references used to calculated indicators etc. The Ecophyto plan, particularly in the context of DEPHY (axis 2), highlighted this difficulty. The ATIs and their partners, who have in their possession both agricultural references and systems management tools, taking on board this challenge, have shown their desire to better structure their approach and create a dialogue. The CASDAR Apiagro project, selected as part of the 2013 RFI call for projects, is therefore seeking to co-construct in two years an IT platform (API or Application Programming Interfaces) to facilitate access to agricultural references for those working in the field of system evaluation.  

“Facilitating access to agricultural references”


Modelling for agricultural development 

A modelling and agriculture mixed technological network (known by its French name RMT Modélisation et Agriculture), co-hosted by ACTA, INRA and ARVALIS-Institut du vegetal, is seeking to organise interaction (seminars and training) and joint work, mainly between ATIs and INRA, to improve the design and use of models for agricultural development. It has become a reference point for this community.

“The RMT Modélisation et Agriculture: a reference point for this active community”

In 2013, a review of six years of operations was conducted. A consultation exercise with all the participants revealed high levels of satisfaction. The main benefits cited were:


  • Access to information on methods (73%) or more generally on modelling (71%)
  • Sharing experiences (41%)
  • Providing new ideas for their work (33%) and new skills (22%)
  • New collaborations (16%) and answers to specific questions (10%)
  • The promotion of participants’ work (8%)

An evaluation of this appraisal by the ACTA and APCA scientific committees highlighted the quality of the RMT’s work, with its operation judged to be remarkable with many outputs. 


For the ATIs in the network, the RMT Modélisation et Agriculture for the 2007-2013 period:


  • Has seen a significant participation of engineers from 14 agricultural technical institutes to the various network activities: ACTA, ARVALIS-Institut du végétal, ASTREDHOR Institut technique de l’horticulture, CETIOM, CTIFL, Institut de l’Élevage, IFIP - Institut du porc, IFP C IFV, ITAB, ITAVI, ITB and UNIP.
  • Around 40 engineers have been trained through the seven training sessions offered. The skills learned are now being used in some ATI projects.
  • Has been a source of methodological support for projects on various themes conducted by the ATIs. 


A project focused on combining a level of incertitude with predictions from mathematical models for agriculture and livestock production was completed in mid-2013. This project helped to establish a general approach to combining a level of uncertainty in predictions, and was implemented in 10 case studies representing the diversity of cases where models are used (prediction, decision support and diagnostics). The project results are available to the community using models for agriculture in order to promote their use and their application in other modelling projects, including through articles, a book and training sessions.

Finally, a new training session for mathematical and statistical methods in modelling, held in Rennes (September, 2013), was attended by 28 people, with new demonstrations of the use of modelling in livestock production. Several seminars were organised, including the use of meta-analysis to better exploit existing data (June 13, 2013) and, on a particularly hot topic, a seminar examining the status and perspectives on open data in agriculture (November 12, 2013) in Paris.

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Publication of a book offering support for training in mathematical and statistical methods for models

Dynamic models are used in agricultural and environmental research to analyse the impact of agricultural practices on production and the environment, to evaluate and design innovative practices, as a tool for decision support or for help planning experiments.

Modelling work requires knowledge of how the system under considered operates, but also methodological skills from the fields of mathematics and statistics (setting parameters, analysing uncertainty and sensitivity, evaluation etc.).

A book was published in late 2013 and is intended for engineers and researchers working with models. It clearly explains the practical application of the main methods organised by family, including simple and functional examples using the popular R programming language.  Daniel Wallach, David Makowski, James W. Jones and François Brun (2013). Working with Dynamic Crop Models. Methods, Tools and Templates for Agriculture and Environment. Academic Press.

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Seminar on using meta-analysis for agriculture and livestock production and the better use of existing data, June 13 in Paris

Meta-analysis has been used for several decades in the medical field where it has become an essential technique for estimating and comparing the effects of medical treatments. Meta-analysis is increasingly being used in other disciplines, too, notably in agriculture and livestock production, giving rise to a growing number of scientific publications. Now it is also playing an important role in the analysis of health risks.

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