Sustainable Intensification of European Agriculture

IEEP recently completed a project on Sustainable Intensification of European Agriculture with researchers from the University of Natural Resources and life Sciences Vienna, and the Technical University Munich. The project was sponsored by the RISE Foundation founded by former Agricultural Commissioner Franz Fischler.

The initial purpose of the project was to explore the meaning of the concept of sustainable intensification specifically in the context of EU agriculture. It was explained how the most recent upsurge in the use of the phrase emerged from the active discussions about global food security since the agricultural commodity price spikes from 2007-12. The essential idea of sustainable intensification is that it will be less environmentally damaging if the increase in agricultural production worldwide, stimulated by continued population and income growth and accompanying dietary change, comes from intensified use of the existing land under cultivation than if further forests, natural grasslands or wetlands were brought into agriculture. However, in view of the considerable environmental damage already brought about by the agricultural intensification of the 20th Century, it is essential that ways are found to reduce significantly reduce the negative impacts of any further intensification.

The definition adopted was that Sustainable Intensification means simultaneously improving the productivity and environmental management of agricultural land. It was overtly acknowledged that measures to deal with global food security cannot focus on production alone. They must focus also on containing the growth of consumption of agricultural products – for food, feed and energy, particularly by reducing waste and avoiding the public health costs of over-consumption, and dealing with problems of uneven access to food. However this study chose to concentrate on agricultural production, and the geographical focus was the EU.

The report examines five considerations which led to the conclusion that sustainable intensification of EU agriculture must place most emphasis on the first word of the couplet - sustainability. This means finding ways to continue the process of technical change in food production to radically improve the resource efficiency of European agriculture and at the same time showing land managers how to meet European citizens’ ambitions for high standards of biodiversity, climate, soil, water and cultural landscape protection. Much space is devoted to deconstructing and clarifying the component words of sustainable intensification. This partly amounts to destigmatising intensification and showing the wide range of interpretations of the word sustainable. In the context of agriculture, intensity is well defined as a ratio of inputs or output per hectare. It is relatively easily measured but it is generally denigrated! In contrast, sustainability is not at all well defined, or measured; yet it is universally supported!

The key conclusions drawn from the review of the concepts behind sustainable intensification are:

  • Input intensification per se is not the goal, but may well be a consequence of achieving these goals. An input which should be intensified everywhere is knowledge per hectare.
  • The prime goals of sustainable intensification are a resource efficient agriculture with significantly higher environmental performance. Ecosystem degradation is itself reducing agricultural productivity.
  • Sustainable intensification means improving productivity of crops and animals whilst reducing: the leakages of nutrients, crop protection chemicals and greenhouse gases; soil erosion and biodiversity, habitat and species loss; and expanding conservation outputs of agriculture.
  • Because intensity and sustainability of agricultural systems vary enormously and from site to site, sustainable intensification development paths will differ widely between locations, farming systems and individual farms.
  • Sustainable intensification will mean increasing agricultural outputs in some cases and conservation outputs in others, and in some situations both.
  • It would be helpful if academic and commercial attempts to measure sustainability in agricultural systems were to build on the basis of the official indicator sets.
  • More effort should be expended to examine the evidence on environmental thresholds relevant to EU agriculture, particularly those related to climate.
  • In the absence of evidence on thresholds, then it would be more scientifically defensible to talk about environmental, economic and social performance rather than sustainability. This would better match the use of legislative standards as proxies for thresholds, as performance below such standards is unacceptable.
  • Sustainable intensification can be seen as the latest phrase to convey the idea that farmers have the twin roles of producing food and environmental services.

The report examines the wide array of public policies and land manager and agribusiness actions that could lead to development paths fitting the description of sustainable intensification. It concludes with the following final remarks.

The collective actions required to define and measure the environmental performance of EU agriculture are well advanced, although not complete. Equally, the suite of policies to protect the farmed environment through environmental legislation and agricultural policy instruments is well developed. In short, in Europe, broadly we know what the problems are and where they are, and we have policy measures which could contribute to dealing with them, so why is progress to reduce these problems insufficient?

One answer is a misguided concern of the contribution of European agricultural production to global food security. The worry is that by taking measures to improve environmental performance in Europe this will reduce production potential in a world of still growing population and food demand. These fears may be overstated. Europe is a relatively high cost production area and its agricultural exports are of more processed high quality foods and highly developed plant and animal genetics. It is therefore not generally a source of low cost calories for poorest countries. Second, there is a continuing long-term trend in underlying productivity growth which also responds positively to R&D effort. In this context the potential output loss from the further withdrawal of a few percentage points of land to provide biodiversity and water protection could be replaced by a relatively few year’s productivity growth. Third, such is the size of food waste in the EU, that the private and public efforts to reduce this could also ‘replace’ output forgone from some production areas where actions are taken to reduce negative environmental effects of intensive production.

Another answer lies perhaps with the perceptions and motivations of farmers. It is not at all clear that they appreciate the extent of the environmental degradation that has accumulated over the last century, or the potential threat this poses for continued future production. This underlines the importance of continuing the efforts to provide the evidence of this damage, and to put more effort to investigate the extent of environmental change and to improve our understanding of the timescale in which environmental thresholds may be reached.

The two most important lessons of applying the idea of sustainable intensification to European agriculture are that farmers and the public should learn to take a more holistic view of the agricultural and environmental outputs from agricultural land management, and that the key input to be intensified is knowledge.

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PUBLICATION DATE

28 Jul 2014

AUTHOR

Allan Buckwell