Development of a Sustainably-Competitive Agriculture

  • Gordon PurvisEmail author
  • Liam Downey
  • David Beever
  • Michael L. Doherty
  • Frank J. Monahan
  • Helen Sheridan
  • Barry J. McMahon
Part of the Sustainable Agriculture Reviews book series (SARV, volume 8)


The need for both Competitiveness and Sustainability, the two primary overarching goals of EU policy, present the agri-food sector with a unique set of formidable challenges and uncertainties. These point to the need for development of new, quality-focused models for agriculture and food production that are sustainably-competitive. The design criteria for the concept are outlined and developed within the context of an agronomic model for multifunctional, grass-based cattle production systems. This model highlights the importance of harnessing the benefits of functional biodiversity within two key epicenters of the system in order to realise both agronomic and environmental – and hence economic – advantage. Whilst much of the knowledge needed to implement the described model already exists, the functionality of biologically complex rumen and pasture processes within the two key system epicenters, represent the two main pillars of an innovation-driven research programme that is needed to provide fundamental new knowledge necessary to underpin practical development of the model.

Optimisation of rumen function is a primary determinant of feed conversion efficiency, animal health and performance, and product quality (milk and meat), and can contribute to minimisation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These strategic goals may be achievable through development of low-input, multi-species pastures to provide the optimum level of digestible fibre required by the grazing animal with minimised reliance on external nutrient inputs. In addition to resolving significant animal health and performance issues, such a shift in pasture management strategy is likely to offer a wide range of other important ecological advantages that result from functionally important niche complementarity between sward species in biodiverse grasslands. These advantages include: (i) more efficient utilisation of reduced nutrient availability and improved biomass production throughout the growing season, (ii) consequential reduction in nutrient losses to the environment, (iii) greater resilience of the pasture to environmental variability, including climate variation and weed invasion, (iv) improved soil quality and carbon sequestration potential, and (v) enhanced biodiversity within the farmed landscape.

The development of sustainably-competitive models will require a more systematic approach to research and innovation in the agri-food sector involving in particular, the engagement of all necessary participants in a “value-added” food chain strategy, ranging from governments and national funding agencies to research and business organisations, producers and crucially, marketing, retailer and consumer interests. The fundamental requirement in achieving this aim is a dedicated public good funding system designed to support the transition of agriculture from the predominantly production/output orientation of the former EU Common Agricultural Policy, to development of consumer/society-orientated models that will be necessary for Europe to meet the considerable challenges facing its rural economies and food security. The key to achieving this goal will be the deployment of an appropriate proportion of the Common Agricultural Budget to ensure the development and widespread adoption of the value-adding concept of Sustainably-Competitive Regional Agri-Food Systems.


Multifunctional agriculture Ruminant production systems Functional biodiversity Feed conversion efficiency Animal health and welfare Greenhouse gas emissions Grassland ecology Pasture management Nutrient management Value-added food production systems Research policy 



We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of multiple colleagues who read and commented on earlier drafts of our manuscript, in particular, Dr. Owen Carton, Dr. David Stead, Dr. Olaf Schmidt and Mr. Martin Kavanagh who provided especially constructive inputs.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gordon Purvis
    • 1
    Email author
  • Liam Downey
    • 2
  • David Beever
    • 3
  • Michael L. Doherty
    • 1
  • Frank J. Monahan
    • 1
  • Helen Sheridan
    • 1
  • Barry J. McMahon
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Agriculture, Food Science & Veterinary MedicineUniversity College DublinDublin 4Ireland
  2. 2.University College DublinDublin 4Ireland
  3. 3.The University of ReadingReadingUK

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