Europe is on the right path for sustainable agriculture - but there's room for improvement

Europe is on the right path for sustainable agriculture, but it needs a more coherent framework, says Ulrike Müller.

Ulrike Müller | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Ulrike Müller MEP

Ulrike Müller (DE, RE) is a member of Parliament’s Agriculture and Rural Development (AGRI) Committee

31 May 2017

Sustainability is something of an overused concept, yet it affects all of us. After all, the question of how we shape sustainability has a direct influence on our current day-to-day lives as well as for the future of generations to come. This makes it all the more important to select an approach, and pursue an overall concept, that shapes specific plans around this concept.

At the 70th UN general assembly in September 2015, world leaders adopted a new global sustainable development framework: the 2030 agenda.

This aims to eradicate poverty and bring about sustainable development in all its dimensions. It defines 17 detailed sustainability goals based on three fundamental pillars: economic, environmental and social. This is the heart of the matter: sustainability is an interdisciplinary issue that covers numerous areas and industry sectors. The agricultural sector is one of these.


According to studies carried out by the UN, the world population will exceed nine billion by 2050. This poses enormous challenges for agriculture as well as presenting a paradox: On the one hand, agriculture has to be sufficiently productive in order to produce sufficient food; on the other hand, it should not contribute to the scarcity of exhaustible resources. 

Growing population figures represent an enormous challenge, not only for food and food supplies but also housing, infrastructure, and the related space requirements.

Thus, the idea of 'sustainable agriculture' has become increasingly important in recent years. Not only is the agricultural sector crucial in supplying of healthy and high quality food but it is also extremely important for the labour market. European agriculture is a guarantee of millions of jobs in rural areas and thus contributes to the attractiveness of rural areas as living, economic and recreation areas.

As a whole, sustainable Agriculture should aim to be socially and environmentally responsible as well as economically sustainable. It should be designed to preserve resources, land and water for future generations while also being sufficiently productive to successfully hand farms over to subsequent generations.

The approach defined by the 2030 agenda based on the three pillars is therefore correct - particularly given the rising population. We cannot solve the social of food production without the economic dimension and we cannot pursue the economic side without taking into account the environmental. The greatest challenge - and overriding objective - is to unite these three pillars.

A great deal has happened in the area of agricultural policy, or at least we are moving in the right direction. Agriculture is already making a significant contribution to sustainability thanks to the EU's common agricultural policy (CAP) and its related environmental requirements, and cross compliance.

Biogas plants and biorefineries also contribute to greater efficiency in using resources derived from agricultural waste and manure. This reduces the environmental impact of agriculture from greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants into the air, soil and water.

Progress has also been made in livestock farming, reducing its ecological footprint caused by CO2, ammonia and nitrate emissions through active nutrient management.

Likewise, forest management is helping to achieve biodiversity, climate and environmental objectives. It should also be noted that picking mushrooms and berries, geocaching and other outdoor activities in the forest do their fair share for the common good.

Even although numerous measures have already been initiated, there is still room for improvement and untapped potential in other areas.

Optimisation is achieved through innovation. For example, further progress is needed in precision farming, to make it possible to take account of differences in soil and yield capacity within a field and manage them accordingly. 

This contributes significantly to greater efficiency and a reduction in required space. It can lead to outstanding progress for more sustainable agriculture. Therefore it is essential that we promote innovation and research projects in a targeted manner.

Interdisciplinary action, as well as European and international cooperation, is vital. Much is already being done with these two pillars - greater expenditure in agricultural, nutritional, environmental and climatic research plus increased international and cross-sector cooperation. Europe's response to the challenges of sustainability needs to be multifaceted; sustainability goals should not only have an impact on all policy areas but should also be incorporated in different EU initiatives.

However, the perception and involvement of society are also important. This includes the increased focus on family-owned farms and their positive influence on the region and labour market. The same applies to advantages arising from regionally produced and regionally processed food products.

Nowadays, agriculture needs to be both environmentally friendly and economical as well as complying with social demands. We are already on the right path. In order to achieve even greater sustainability, we need a coherent European legal framework, more funding for innovation, and a clear socio-political message. Whether a citizen, a company, a family-run farm, an association or in politics - we can all help.