Europe’s agriculture: how to make food affordable, healthy and ‘green’

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Article Published 16 Dec 2013 Last modified 11 May 2021
4 min read
Photo: © G. Karadeniz/EEA
To produce food in sufficient quantities, Europe relies on intensive agriculture, which impacts the environment and our health. Can Europe find a more environment-friendly way to produce food? We asked this question to Ybele Hoogeveen who is leading a group at the European Environment Agency working on the impact of resource use on the environment and human well-being.

In the recently published EEA indicator report, food is identified as one of the main systems that has an impact on the environment. What is a food system? How does it affect us?

The term ‘food system’ covers all the processes and the infrastructure we have established to produce and consume food. It includes agriculture, trade, retail, transport and consumption. Food is a basic human need. In addition to being available, our food needs to be of high quality and accessible, in other words, not contaminated and affordable.

There is a strong link between our health and well-being and food. Both malnutrition and obesity are health problems directly linked to food. Agriculture also contributes to climate change and air and water pollution, all of which may affect human health and well-being indirectly.

When we take a closer look, we also see that agriculture has a very important socio-economic role. In many rural communities, it constitutes the backbone of local economy, represents a way of life and an interaction with nature that provides us a cultural and recreational value. The way we produce our food affects the attractiveness of the landscape we live in.

Are there any characteristics and trends we can see in Europe with regards to food production and consumption?

In general, Europe has modern agricultural production systems and land suitable to agriculture. Productivity per hectare has gone up considerably, particularly in the second half of the 20th century. Given its diversity of agricultural land and climates, Europe produces a wide range of products. But it also relies on imports, mainly fodder, fresh fruit and vegetables, while exporting mainly processed foods.

On the consumption side, there have been some dietary shifts in recent years. For example, red meat consumption increased considerably in the last five decades. But compared to the 1995 levels, we see a 10% decline in beef consumption per person. On the other hand, Europeans are eating more poultry, fish and seafood, fruits and vegetables.

What are the challenges Europe’s food systems will face in coming decades?

There are two main issues of concern in Europe. The first one is socio-economic.  Urbanisation and associated life-style changes show that agriculture is getting less attractive as an economic activity. The number of farmers in Europe is declining and their average age is going up. Maintaining agricultural activities, particularly in low-productive areas, becomes difficult. Some agricultural land is being abandoned and this could have consequences beyond the local economy for areas where farming activities actually help preserve nature.

The second is intensification. We are talking about higher yields per hectare through upscaling, mechanisation, drainage, irrigation, and application of fertilisers and pesticides. This increases profitability and means that we need less land for farming. On the other hand, it reduces the biodiversity of farmland and increases pollution of soils, rivers and lakes.

Climate change will also affect agricultural productivity across Europe. Many regions might need to adapt to changes in growth seasons and rainfall.

Can Europe switch from intensive to extensive agriculture?

A switch to low-productive systems would be unrealistic and counterproductive. We can’t afford farming to be inefficient, economically nor environmentally.  At the same time, we need to reduce the pollution from agriculture. This poses a dilemma.  Organic farming (without pesticides and fertilisers) can also be intensive, but is estimated to yield roughly 20 % less than intensive agriculture. To continue producing the same amount of food, we would then need to allocate more land to agriculture.

Such a switch would also have global effects. As the EU is one of the biggest food producers and exporters, any significant reduction in its output would also affect global production and consequently food prices. Increases in food prices hit all segments of the society, low-income families in particular. This would go against the objective of accessible and affordable food.

What would an ideal scenario look like?

Agriculture will always be one of the main human activities impacting the environment. However, these impacts can be reduced in several ways. A transition towards innovative low-input systems (for example employing organic and precision farming techniques) appears on balance the best way forward.

Improving the production side would probably not be sufficient in view of growing global demand for food, fibre and energy. We need additional efficiency gains in other parts of the food system, such as transport, retail and consumption.

Large areas of land are used to produce fodder, to feed the cattle to produce meat. A dietary shift from less meat towards more vegetables would certainly ease the pressure on global land use. Or take the example of food waste. Between 30 and 40% of the food produced is wasted in Europe.  Food waste starts on the field, continues in transport, in retail and ends in our homes. At every step, we are wasting the land, the water and the energy used for the food we are not even consuming.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy plays a key role here. Recent reforms broke to a large extent the link between the payments to farmers and their outputs. Compliance with environmental legislation is required to qualify for financial support, and some greening measures are mandatory. While this has helped to prevent overproduction and may ease environmental pressures, more can be done, for example to reduce the dependence on mineral fertilisers and pesticides.

Farming also competes for land with energy (biofuels), housing and urban areas. Better spatial planning —where to have intensive agriculture, where to maintain extensive, low-input agriculture—would also help to use the land more efficiently and reduce human exposure to environmental pressures.

Overall, the ideal scenario foresees a more efficient use of the resources we have at hand, land and water in particular. Our recent Indicator Report takes a broader look at resource use and connects the food system with the other main systems: energy, households and materials.

Ybele Hoogeveen

Interview published in the issue no.2013/2 of the EEA newsletter, December 2013.


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