Research outputs

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Main research question/goal
Agro-ecology in the Flemish bovine sector: deadlock or opportunity?

Why are agro-ecological principles not being applied in the Flemish cattle sector? And can agro-ecological knowledge put cattle farms on a path towards sustainability? ILVO seeks the answer by capturing not only the characteristics of the farm, but also the farmer’s “mental landscape”. This is done with the technique of “Fuzzy Cognitive Mapping”. Agro-ecologists suggest that by better understanding the ecological relationships and processes within the food system, a more sustainable production system can be envisioned. The Flemish bovine sector faces multiple sources of growing uncertainty and societal pressure (Gavilan et al., 2012; Brouwers et al., 2017). While cattle have historically played a central role in the maintenance of soil fertility in Flanders, as they were integrated in more biology-inspired crop-livestock systems, they tend now to be present mostly on farms, which can be characterized as highly specialized, large-scale and input intensive production systems. Yet a diversity of practice still remains, so could it be possible to bend this trend towards a more sustainable future? Through interviews with cattle farmers ILVO investigates why farms have evolved over the years towards or away from agro-ecological practices, and which factors drive them in one direction or the other.

Research approach
For this research we selected a diverse set of case studies, informed by a structural typology of Flemish cattle farms and challenges in the sector. We characterize the relationship between the implementation of agro-ecological principles and farm functioning in general with a mixed method approach. This is done by collecting fuzzy cognitive maps, drawn by the farmers themselves, an interpretative observation of agro-ecological on-farm practices, and a short survey of quantitative measures on farm structure. This complementary evidence on the current state of agro-ecological practices, together with the analysis of the farm’s history shows what limits or sustains agro-ecology at the farm.


This research zooms in on the link between agroecology and the family farm. The study provides the researchers with a deeper insight into the current food system and in the design of more sustainable food systems. We expect that the specific research focus on the individuality of each family business and the Flemish cattle sector can point to context-specific solutions for the application of agroecology in the sector.

Effective start/end date1/11/1631/10/20

ID: 5314608