EU urged to push for 'sustainable intensification' of European agriculture

Europe must push for a more sustainable agriculture policy that combines intensive food production with environmental performance, write Franz Fischler and Corrado Pirzio-Biroli

On 24 June, The RISE Foundation publishes its report arguing that the concept of sustainable intensification (SI) should guide future EU agricultural policymaking. Maintaining Europe’s current levels of food production while reducing environmental damage associated with certain agricultural inputs and practices, and increasing the production of ecosystem services, must be priorities for the incoming commission and parliament. SI is the way to achieve it.

The United Nations’ population division projects the global human population to exceed nine billion by 2050. Economic growth in many countries will further stimulate dietary change and further demand for food. The production increases necessary to meet expanding food and energy demand in developing and transition economies could be countered by stronger action on food waste and unhealthy over-consumption. However, for the coming decades these actions are unlikely to reverse the requirement for more agricultural output. At the same time, it would be unacceptably damaging for the Earth’s climate and biodiversity to base this increase on conversion of more forests, natural grasslands and wetlands. The next increase in global food production must therefore come from continued intensification of existing agricultural land – but it must go hand in hand with a steep reduction in the negative environmental impacts of agriculture. This sets the stage for SI.

"European farmers must radically improve their resource efficiency while responding to European citizens’ demands for high standards of biodiversity, climate, soil, water, and cultural landscape protection"

The EU’s role in greening the world’s agriculture should be to show how intensive agriculture can be combined with high standards of environmental performance. To do this, European farmers must radically improve their resource efficiency while responding to European citizens’ demands for high standards of biodiversity, climate, soil, water, and cultural landscape protection. In short, in Europe, the sustainable intensification of agriculture must focus on the first of the two words; sustainable.

We define SI as simultaneously improving the productivity and environmental management of agricultural land. Two important points to draw from this definition are, first, that SI does not point to a specific type of agricultural system or farm. Moving towards SI will depend on local conditions, particularly the current productivity and environmental performance of the farm or system in question. Second, SI can mean increasing either the agricultural or environmental output per hectare, not only the former.

The integration of environmental management into the common agricultural policy (CAP) has been underway for almost a quarter of a century, yet we are far from where we need to be. We therefore suggest a number of tasks for the incoming European commission and parliament, two of which are: intensification of knowledge and focus on measuring farm environmental performance. We also believe that moving to a path of SI is in the self interest of the private sector, and suggest how they can act too.

The one agricultural input which has to intensify everywhere is knowledge per hectare. This means knowledge in managing delicate ecosystems, ensuring pollinator populations thrive and water management to minimise floods as well as knowledge to coax more food output per hectare. Achieving a sustainable EU agricultural sector depends on the active participation of its farmers. The need to strengthen advisory services and support innovative approaches is well recognised and is an important dimension of the new rural development programmes. In particular the European innovation partnership (EIP) for agriculture, entitled ‘Agricultural productivity and sustainability’, seeks to be doubly innovative in the bottom-up approach to the identification and auctioning of projects, and in recognising that innovative projects will include a variety of approaches. It is vital that this Commission initiative receives the active backing of stakeholders.

Data on the environmental performance at the farm level and the links between farming practices and environmental outcomes are still deficient. While wider rural development and agri-environmental policy have steadily grown in importance in the CAP, there has not been a parallel development of the farm-level environmental performance data base to support these policies. This has already been a handicap in providing the evidence base for policy change. More effort must be devoted to collecting this data and providing benchmarks for farmers. This project also found an unhelpful proliferation of ways of measuring the sustainability of farming systems. It would be strongly preferable to build on the EU-wide set of indicators already developed, for example based on the joint research centre’s IRENA indicators. The incoming commission should take action to fill this evidence gap.

"In addition to the better enforcement of existing environmental regulations, and using policy measures under the CAP to induce changes in farming practices, change must also come from farmers and private actors themselves"

In addition to the better enforcement of existing environmental regulations, and using policy measures under the CAP to induce changes in farming practices, change must also come from farmers and private actors themselves. The sustainability of their businesses is in the interests of farmers and those who supply them and process their products. Many companies that are up- and down-stream of farming already operate sustainability schemes, some of which are reviewed in our report. These could be strengthened and broadened, with more effort to monitor and demonstrate their impacts. The report also lists the many actions farmers can adopt to move to a path of SI. These can involve wholesale change in farming systems, but for most farmers it means less dramatic change to a much more conscious management of environment as well as sheer output of milk and wheat. Given the fragmented nature of much EU agriculture, farmers have long seen the need for, and benefits of, cooperation. In future this should also extend to environmental management of agricultural land.

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