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Sound and independent information
on the environment

6. Agriculture


6. Agriculture


indicator policy issue DPSIR assessment
eco-efficiency in agriculture has the sector made progress? pressure
livestock numbers what have been the developments in environmental aspects of agriculture: ... with regard to eutrophication? driving force
fertiliser consumption per hectare - " - driving force
irrigated land ... with regard to water stress? driving force
pesticide consumption per hectare ... with regard to water quality? driving force
area with organic farming ... with regard to less environment-burdening farming systems? response

Agriculture has become more environmentally efficient overall, but pressures seem to remain at the same level, notwithstanding wide regional disparities. This is mainly due to continuing intensification — and the resultant use of large and environmentally-critical amounts of pesticide and fertiliser. On the other hand, the area of agricultural land under management contracts or farmed organically has increased.


The agriculture sector, which represents 2.3 % of EU gross domestic product and 5.3 % of employment, is clearly subject to structural changes under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and its subsequent reforms. The size and diversity of agriculture have also been substantially influenced, and will remain so, by changing consumer demands, changing rural patterns, technological advances and globalisation of the economy. These trends are seen as having positive as well as negative effects on the sector's performance with regard to environmental quality and nature conservation.

The concept of the `multifunctionality' of agriculture, as underlined by Agenda 2000, tries to capture the various challenges for the sector: to produce food, fibres and energy sources; to preserve the rural environment and landscape; and to contribute to the viability of rural areas and a balanced regional development. From an environmental point of view, balancing these various aims is equal to improving eco-efficiency, i.e. reducing the burden on the environment while maintaining a certain level of output. Eco-efficiency in agriculture is tentatively expressed in this report by comparing methane emissions and selected inputs with developments in the gross value added (which is approximately total income) of agriculture (Figure 6.1).


6.1. Some eco-efficiency aspects in agriculture

Figure 6.1. Eco-efficiency in agriculture in EU Member States

Source: EMEP, IPCC, ECPA, OECD, FAO and Eurostat

Overall, eco-efficiency in agriculture has improved only slightly since 1990.

Since 1980, gross value added in agriculture has increased by about 25 % — a slower rate of growth than in other sectors. Part of the increase is due to productivity gains and part due to increasing consumer demand for luxury products with a high added value. At the same time, fertiliser use has fallen and stabilised (Figure 6.3) without affecting yield. Yields have been boosted by plant technologies that increase the weight of the edible part of the crop compared with the non-edible part. In addition, more use has been made of organic manure. The fall in methane emissions is associated with improved utilisation of animal feeds in intensive livestock production and with the decline in cattle (Figure 6.2).

These changes suggest that improvements in the eco-efficiency of the agricultural sector are largely due to independent developments in production efficiency as a result of agricultural research and farmers' behaviour.

However, while efficiency has improved in economic terms, the quantity of inputs per hectare has either stayed constant or increased in recent years (Figure 6.3 and Figure 6.5). This is due to two trends: a steady decrease in the area of agricultural land and more intensive production (with more value added per hectare). Such a development is fully in line with the CAP. At the start of the CAP, the major issue was product price support; since the 1992 and 1999 revisions, most CAP funds have been allocated to support farm incomes and provide compensatory payments, with agri-environmental programmes receiving only a relatively small share of the budget. The protected production regime — with a possibly higher use of non-farm resources than otherwise would be the case — stimulated intensification. In these circumstances, integrating and implementing environmental policies to reduce nitrogen surpluses, pesticide residues and/or water use is a challenge. This may partly explain the slow progress made in integrating environment in the agricultural sector.

The scale on which these developments have occurred and are managed differs significantly within Europe. The pattern and diversity of agriculture reflects Europe's geography and political history. North-west Europe is generally associated with large-scale, highly productive arable or livestock production, while mixed and fragmented patterns of production are typical of southern Germany, France and northern-central Italy (Potter, 1997). Agriculture in southern Europe tends to be less intensive. Nonetheless, parts of northern Europe also have important extensive farming systems, such as upland areas and mountain regions, while southern Europe has some intensive agriculture, such as intensive horticultural crop production.

The net balance between the positive aspects of farming (e.g. maintenance of cultivated landscapes and rural areas, carbon sequestration, water management) and the negative aspects (e.g. poor water quality, overuse of water, air pollution, loss of biodiversity, soil degradation and waste) differs between regions. It depends on a number of factors, ranging from natural ones (soil, water availability, climate) to farm management practices (intensification/extensification, agro-environment measures).


6.2. Trends in agriculture

Over past decades, EU agriculture has become more specialised and concentrated in areas with the lowest production costs. This process, driven largely by technological change and cheaper and faster transport, has been accomplished by increasing intensification on the best land and in key production areas near important markets. For example, 80 % of the EU's intensive production occurs in coastal areas of the North Sea and the English Channel. Higher labour costs and declining prices have also contributed to the reduced viability of farming in marginal areas where afforestation, marginalisation or even complete abandonment occur in some places.

Over the past 20 years, the area of land in productive agriculture fell by 5 % and the amount of arable land increased at the expense of permanent grassland. However, farmers manage 44 % of Europe's land area, a fact that underlines agriculture's key role in society.

Efforts to curb pressures on the environment include the production of Codes of Good Agricultural Practice, giving guidance to farmers and advisors on how to minimise emissions to the environment (MAFF, 1988). Many Member States have introduced measures in response to the Nitrates Directive, but have generally not met its requirements. Some Member States have introduced pesticide and fertiliser taxes, and agro-environment measures following the 1992 CAP reform. Under Agenda 2000, Member States are expected to develop Codes of Good Agricultural Practice embracing the whole range of agriculture inputs of environmental relevance.

6.2.1. Livestock numbers
Apart from cattle, overall numbers of pigs, poultry, sheep and goats have increased (Figure 6.2), but the total agricultural area used by these types of farms has fallen. This reflects the trend towards specialisation and intensification. Recent food scares, concern about farm-animal welfare and the risks associated with feedstuffs fed to farm animals have raised questions about some modern farming systems.

Figure 6.2. Livestock numbers in EEA member countries

Source: FAO
Notes: Chicken numbers are expressed as 10 million heads. Goat numbers not included for Denmark, Ireland, Sweden and the UK. Chicken numbers not included for Liechtenstein.

Livestock numbers in EEA member countries have increased overall. In certain regions, farms have become more concentrated and the efficiency of livestock production has increased.

Figure 6.3. Fertiliser consumption per unit area of agricultural land in EEA member countries

Source: FAO
Note: Liechtenstein not included.

Use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers has decreased overall, but this trend has been reversed since 1992. Despite these reductions, crop yields have continued to increase.

High densities of animal populations are associated with excessive concentrations of manure — and an increased risk of water pollution (see Chapter 13). The contribution of livestock to gaseous emissions is also significant — about 80-90 % of total EU ammonia emissions (from animal housing) and 45 % of total methane emissions arise from animal husbandry (see Figures 10.12 and 8.4).

6.2.2. Fertiliser use
The downward trend in the use of inorganic fertiliser (nitrogen and phosphorus) has recently been reversed (Figure 6.3 and Table 6.1). The use of manure to supplement or replace inorganic fertilisers may explain some of the initial decrease.

Legislation such as the Nitrates Directive and Agri-environment Regulation EEC/2078/92 also seek to limit nutrient losses to freshwater bodies. During the mid-1990s, Norway and Sweden introduced fertiliser taxes — with Sweden aiming to reduce nitrogen consumption by 20 % by 2000 (Pretty, 1998). Opinion is divided as to whether these instruments have had an appreciable effect on reducing fertiliser use.

Agriculture continues to be the main source of nitrate pollution in Europe. The nitrogen surplus in the EU did not fall between 1990 and 1995 (see Figure 13.3), affecting water quality and potentially human health.

6.2.3. Irrigated land
Agriculture is a major consumer of water (30 % of total water use in EEA member countries; see Figure 12.3) compared with other sectors. Between 1980 and 1996, the area of irrigated land expanded significantly (by about 15 %), particularly in southern Europe (Figure 6.4). For example, the irrigated area in France more than tripled from 870 000 hectares to 2.5 million hectares between 1980 and 1995.

The main irrigated crop in terms of area is maize. Irrigation is also used on other annual or permanent crops to boost or stabilise yields as well as to ensure high-quality produce. The expansion of irrigated area has increased the demand and use of non-farm resources, thus exerting other burdens on the environment besides water stress. More efficient ways of irrigating land such as drip irrigation have reduced dosage rates, but this improvement has often been offset by an increase in the irrigated area.

The loss of agricultural habitats associated with the drier, traditionally less intensive farming systems of southern Europe is also of concern.

Figure 6.4. Irrigated land as a percentage of total land area in southern and total EEA member countries

Source: FAO, Eurostat/NewCronos
Note: Data for Iceland, Ireland and Liechtenstein not included in total.
For Denmark and the Netherlands, data shows all areas that can be irrigated (i.e. farms have equipment for irrigation) and no distinction is made between total irrigated areas and actual irrigation.

The area of irrigated land has increased slightly, notably in southern European countries.

6.2.4. Pesticide use
The amount of pesticide (including insecticide, fungicide, herbicide and other plant protection products) used in terms of active ingredient has fallen since the early 1990s, both in absolute amounts and in application rate (Figure 6.5). The 1992 CAP reform may have contributed to a decrease in the average use of pesticide per hectare. Another factor is the simultaneous improvement in pesticides — making them more effective and application-specific, but also more toxic. However, a slight increase in use has occurred since 1995. Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden have set targets to reduce pesticide use. Such an aim is also suggested by the European Commission's fifth environmental action programme. Nevertheless, modern agriculture continues to rely heavily on this non-farm resource.

With a few exceptions such as atrazine, residue concentrations do not appear to be falling despite EU legislation relating to pesticide residues in treated crops, surface drinking waters and groundwater (EEA, 1999).

Figure 6.5. Average pesticide consumption per unit area of agricultural land in EEA member countries

Source: Eurostat; FAO; ECPA; OECD
Note: Weight of active ingredients used.

Despite greater awareness of the harm pesticides cause to the environment and human health, dependence on pesticides has not diminished.

6.2.5. Environment-friendly farming methods
While technical change has driven down costs for most agricultural products, many consumers are now expressing a preference for food produced using more traditional systems and giving priority to farm-animals' welfare. At the same time, the 1992 CAP reform introduced measures to reward farmers for public services such as maintenance of landscapes and to induce farmers to reduce the environmental impact of their activities through measures such as favouring organic production.

The area under organic farming in EEA member countries increased tenfold between 1985 and 1997 (Figure 6.6). This rate of growth continues. However, the total area (2.9 million hectare) remains small at just under 2 % of total agricultural land. The increase in organic farming is unlikely to have had a significant effect yet on the total environmental burden from agriculture.

Organic farming should not be considered the ultimate solution to agriculture’s envi-ronmental problems. Individual organic farms often vary widely, and the environmen-tal benefits of organic farming are dissimilar and diverse. Other forms of farming systems such as Integrated Crop Management also contribute to reducing the environmental burden from agriculture. Nevertheless, the area under organic farming is a useful indicator of progress towards more environment-friendly agriculture.

Figure 6.6: Area under organic farming as a percentage of total agricultural area in EEA member countries

Source: FAO, Eurostat; Lampkin
Note: Accuracy of data varies between countries.

The rate of uptake of organic farming has increased significantly. However, only a small number of Member States have set targets to expand the area under organic farming, and the area of EEA member countries under organic farming remains low at less than 2 %.

Another indicator of environment-friendly developments in agriculture is the area under specific management contracts. Agreements that give more attention to maintaining biodiversity and landscape are now in place covering more than 22 million hectares (20 % of the utilised agricultural area of the EU). This exceeds the target set in the EU’s fifth environmental action programme of 15 % coverage of agricultural land.

While all Member States made use of the opportunities under the agri-environmental Regulation 2078/92, the extent of uptake varies considerably from more than 60 % of farms in Austria, Finland and Sweden to 7 % or less in Belgium, Greece, Spain and Italy. However, area alone gives no indication of the environmental performance of the scheme as many of the programmes lack precision in their protective objectives and have no monitoring provisions (Birdlife International, 1996).

Expenditure on management contracts remains extremely modest relative to the total CAP budget (only 4 % of the European Agriculture Guidance and Guarantee Fund). It is sometimes more profitable for farmers to receive an EU payment for arable set-aside than to enter an environmental scheme. Despite these limitations, the 1992 CAP reform have heightened awareness of the environmental importance of agriculture.

Agricultural footprints

The population of Europe is rising (now nearly 375 million), while the land area used for agriculture in Europe is falling. At the same time, meat consumption per capita has increased by 0.5 kg since 1990. Every kilo of meat produced uses 5- 21 kg of animal feed, which has to be grown somewhere. Many countries rely on imports of animal fodder. The Netherlands is an extreme example, where the agricultural industry uses about 2.5 times the available agricultural land area in the Netherlands for growing fodder, by using land in other countries.

In addition, the 94 kg/year of meat eaten on average by European adults is far in excess of the recommended 12-15 % of calorie intake from protein sources. Overeating is a contributing factor to reported increases in obesity — one of today’s main preventable causes of ill-health.

For the past 25 years, the Dutch institution De Kleine Aarde has been promoting these findings. De Kleine Aarde was set up as an experimental and educational centre for organic agriculture, food and sustainable building. The centre has developed a 10-point sustainable agriculture ‘menu’ and a pie-diagram guide to a healthy diet focusing on non-meat products. The diagram, which illustrates the relative proportions of foodstuffs needed for a balanced diet, is part of the centre’s campaign to halve meat consumption in the Netherlands. It has also been adopted by the official food and health information offices for use in their campaigns.

Source: http://ificinfo.health.org/brochure/pyramid.htm; http://www.pz.nl/dekleineaarde/


6.3. Indicator development

This chapter has a strong focus on agricultural inputs and thus on the negative environmental impacts of agriculture. In future editions, agri-environment indicators (currently under development) — including indicators on farmers’ activities in landscape management — will also show the positive impact of agriculture on landscapes and biodiversity. Similar examples of farmers’ activities, together with indicators on price premiums, could contribute to a better coverage of response indicators. More attention might be given to the spatial diversity in agriculture together with better indicators on intensification and extensification processes.

At the same time, existing indicators will be improved to express their environmental significance more clearly, e.g. irrigated area might include quantity of water and its source, fertiliser use might include nutrient balances, and pesticide use might include toxicity data.

Table 6.1.
Units: kg/ha
  1980 1985 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996
Austria 70.5 72.8 60.4 58.7 54.5 53.6 52.2 52.9 48.6
Belgium + Luxembourg 191.6 188.6 177.9 167.4 155.1 148.3 146.8 145.8 145.8
Denmark 167.0 172.1 173.4 160.9 144.0 138.8 136.4 124.7 125.6
Finland   139.9 126.6 95.5 101.3 111.1 110.9 119.2 117.8
France 123.5 123.2 125.5 125.6 105.0 107.4 111.1 113.9 119.2
Germany     132.9 130.7 128.0 118.1 129.3 125.2 125.4
Greece 126.1 160.4 156.2 148.5 145.0 119.7 120.2 123.9 127.4
Ireland 73.6 78.2 112.1 111.2 111.0 121.9 125.6    
Italy 99.9 98.2 88.1 92.6 90.7        
Netherlands 280.0 287.8 231.4 234.5 230.8 221.6 237.2 229.7 233.8
Portugal   45.3 57.31 51.9 51.2 50.4 50.3 52.1 56.9
Spain 50.6 52.4 59.31 56.6 47.0 54.5 57.8 55.2 57.8
Sweden   132.2 78.77 65.0 77.0 83.3 78.7 85.6 79.3
UK 89.0 110.5 106.65 97.7 89.1 96.0 102.2 100.6 101.2
Iceland 10.18 8.7 7.70 8.0 8.5 7.8 7.2    
Norway 184.4 168.4 149.2 143.4 140.3 137.0 137.6    
EEA 108.2 111.5 104.0 100.9 92.6 93.8 97.2 96.9 96.8
EU 109.3 112.7 105.3 102.1 93.7 94.9 98.5 98.1 98.0
Source: FAO; Eurostat/NewCronos

Notes: Total nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers. Liechtenstein not included. Totals for EU and EEA include estimates for missing years and countries.


6.4. References and further reading

EEA (1999). Groundwater quality and quantity in Europe. Environmental assessment report No 3. European Environment Agency, Copenhagen

Birdlife International (1996). Nature conservation benefits of plans under Agri-environment Regulation 2078/92. Birdlife International, RSPB, The Lodge, Sandy, Beds, SG19 2DL, UK.

MAFF (1998). Code of Good Agricultural Practice for the Protection of Water. MAFF Publications, Admail 6000, London, UK.

Potter, C. (1970). ‘Europe’s changing farmed landscapes’ in Farming and birds in Europe: the Common Agricultural Policy and its implications for bird conservation. Eds: D. J. Pain and M.W. Pienkowski. Academic Press, London.

Pretty, J. (1998). The Living Land. Earthscan Publications Ltd, London.

Isart J. and Llerena J.J. (eds) (1996). Biodiversity and land use: the role of organic farming. Proceedings of 1st ENOF workshop, Bonn, 1995. European Network for Organic Farming, Barcelona, Spain.


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