INCREASE: Intelligent Collections of Food-Legume Genetic Resources for European Agrofood Systems INCREASE Citizen Science Experiment (CSE)

Kerstin Neumann (DE), Roberto Papa (IT)

The idea behind INCREASE is to make available Plant Genetic Resources (PGR), currently preserved only in genebanks, to a large number of citizens and stakeholders, developing a decentralized conservation system that involves citizens in a Citizen Science Experiment (CSE).  

The INCREASE CSE focuses on two highly relevant topics, listed in SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) and Green Deal: agrobiodiversity conservation and food legumes cultivation/consumption, which is of pivotal importance for the transition towards a plant-based diet, a key element to contrast and mitigate the climate change crisis. 

The INCREASE CSE explores thousands of different beans PGR thanks to the help of citizens who contribute to data collection on an unprecedented number of different locations, helping to better understand, not only many phenotypic traits, but also the adaptation of common beans in different environments. The huge pool of images stored in the INCREASE CSE App is the basis for detailed image analysis using artificial intelligence and deep learning, involving citizens to develop image recognition, and enabling the identification and correction of potential errors during the decentralized conservation steps. 

Citizens are invited to continue after their first participation by exchanging CSE varieties via the App with others, forming a decentralized PGR conservation community.  

A high innovation of INCREASE CSE is based on the use of digital tools. For the first time, CS, done with PGR and crop growth, is assessed at home via an App (INCREASE CSA). Moreover, for the first time ever, the SMTA can be accepted via an App. All texts, including INCREASE website’s contents and the App, are accessible in different languages to reach participants from as many countries as possible. A dedicated team of the CSE email account is in constant contact with citizens in their native languages, which seeks constantly to improve the CSE experience through the feedback of participants, interacting directly with them, and providing support through social media. In these spaces, there is also an exchange of knowledge among the participants, especially mutual advice. 

We consider communication and information crucial. Therefore, we believe in the importance of public restitution, communicating the outcomes of the research in which they contributed. Our commitment is based on communication through a simplified language. Participants must be aware of the importance of their contribution.  

The pedagogical aspect in our project is not of secondary importance: we are strengthening the collaboration with schools and school garden associations in different countries through specific projects involving children and families.  

By establishing a collaborative relationship, the experiment also contributes to bringing citizens closer to science, giving the opportunity to familiarize themselves with previously unfamiliar issues. For instance, the engagement of students tends to lead to the involvement of the whole family, introducing science in daily interactions. The experiential aspect of individuals demonstrates the potential of Citizen Science not only as a contribution to science, but also as a source of personal enrichment. We can say that our project contributes both to the production of knowledge and awareness. 

The INCREASE project is also committed to raising awareness on issues related to nutrition and sustainability, and events with experts on the importance of legumes in our diet are held. This awareness is a stimulus to develop new healthy food habits and encourages self-production. For these reasons, INCREASE CSE can have a great social impact in several aspects. 

Open Science & FAIR data sharing were adopted from the start. Altogether, our project showcases that it is possible to bring together European citizens, relevant associations, researchers, and policymakers along with NGOs under a common goal of improving agrobiodiversity, despite the resurgence of nationalism in Europe.

INCREASE Consortium – INCREASE project has received funding from the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, under grant agreement no. 862862

Dr. Kerstin Neumann (DE) is a biologist, leading the group “Automated Plant Phenotyping” at IPK since 2021. She has long-standing expertise in non-invasive high throughput phenotyping systems and their application to evaluate diverse cereal collections for abiotic stress tolerance (drought and heat), contributing to elucidate trait genetic architecture, trait relationships and trade-offs, to improve crops’ performances under stresses. She is also involved in the establishment and use of seed-proof genebank of cereals and legumes genetic resources. This resulted in leading Work Package 6 in INCREASE and as such being coordinator of the INCREASE CSE, together with Prof Papa.


Prof. Roberto Papa (IT) is Full Professor of Agricultural Genetics, head of the AGROBIODIVERSITY Lab, at the Polytechnic University of Marche. His research focuses on the conservation and utilization of agrobiodiversity and plant genetic resources. By applying genomics approaches and pioneering the use of “molecular phenotyping”, he contributed new knowledge on crop germplasm genetic diversity, on crop domestication and adaptation to different environments, and on evolutionary history of crop species (legumes and cereals). He coordinated several national and international projects on crop genetic resources, and he is currently leading the H2020 *INCREASE* project;  he developed the concept of decentralized conservation of crop genetic resources and designed the INCREASE CSE, coordinating it together with Dr Kerstin Neumann.

The Grand Prize winner this year is the INCREASE project. Its main goals include generating phenotypic data for over 1,000 bean plant genetic resources (PGR) lines in different European environments where citizen scientists help decentralized conservation and enhance agrobiodiversity. This project demonstrates outstanding work on genetic diversity and adaptation within common bean cultivars by integrating DNA sequencing with the analysis of phenotypic data. 

With its strong scientific foundation, this project exemplifies excellence in research that embraces Citizen Science. To achieve its goals, it will engage many citizens through a dedicated application for data collection and seed exchange—5,000 participants of different backgrounds, ages, and genders all across Europe are participating in the 2024 campaign. 

The INCREASE project raises awareness of agrobiodiversity and nutrition. It educates participants and policymakers on sustainable agri-food production and consumption. Legumes play a crucial role in issues such as soil health and climate resilience in the face of food security and scarcity concerns.      

The project has implemented a participatory research model with various levels of engagement tailored to accommodate participants' diverse levels of expertise. This approach enables feedback collection, support provision, and information dissemination to ensure sustainable citizen engagement. The inclusion of artificial intelligence for image analysis and the implementation of the Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA) allows the compliance of international regulations for testing this innovative decentralized conservation approach. Its extensive cooperation across countries, the involvement of citizens from different regions, and engagement with regional platforms emphasize its European dimension and importance. Looking ahead, the jury expects this award to support the further development and innovation of the project, which subscribes to the ethos of empowering communities through decentralized seed storage, enabling them to regain control of their agricultural heritage. By democratizing access to seeds and knowledge, INCREASE challenges the dominance of large agrochemical corporations and promotes agricultural resilience, sustainability, and food sovereignty.  

Finally, the project's collaboration between citizens and major research centers is outstanding, and it exemplifies how top-tier centers are opening up their research processes for scientific excellence and social inclusion. In particular, members from local rural communities, including farmers who usually perceive themselves as outside the formal research process, contribute in a direct, meaningful and accessible way. Their traditional knowledge, passed down through generations, is a valuable agricultural research and development resource.