Page Last modified 20 Apr 2016
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Agriculture is essentially a manipulation of ecosystems to produce or raise organic matter (crop plants or livestock) from the use of land. By employing various technologies and techniques, production can be maximised (use of fertilisers, genetic developments, irrigation, mechanisation), while other methods are used to minimise loss of crops through pests and weeds (including mechanical weeding, biological control, use of pesticides such as insecticides, fungicides, herbicides).

The purpose of agriculture has traditionally and primarily been to meet the demand for agricultural products, mainly food, but also raw materials for fibre manufacture. Although the underlying purpose of agriculture has not changed, the nature, structure and ways in which these demands have been met have all changed greatly over the last few decades, and will continue to do so.

Changes have resulted from a variety of factors. These include: patterns of consumption of agricultural products; food distribution and processing; genetic development of agricultural production and other technological developments; the progressive globalisation of agricultural markets; and the influence of national and international agricultural policies.

The failure of European agriculture to meet demand during World War 2 and shortly after, made security of food production the main objective of agricultural policy from the late 1940s. Every country in Europe has encouraged its farmers to produce more food through a variety of mechanisms, including price support, other subsidies, and support for research and development. As a result, European agriculture has been able, on the whole, to meet the needs of a population of about 680 million people in Europe ever more abundantly, and with increasing cost efficiency.

The success achieved in agricultural production has, however, entailed increased impacts on the environment, ranging from pollution of groundwater to loss of habitats for plants and animals. The natural vegetation of Europe, which once consisted predominantly of woodlands, with a relatively small number of animal and plant species (see Chapters 8 and 9), has been greatly modified as a result of agricultural activities, and many habitats as well as landscapes are reliant on extensive agriculture. During the last three decades the introduction of modern, more intensive, agricultural techniques has accelerated these changes.

European agriculture is an extremely diverse and heterogeneous economic sector in terms of the products generated, the nature and structure of production units, and the variability of potential impacts on the environment, and it is difficult to make meaningful generalisations. Nevertheless, using the available data (see Box 22A), this chapter aims to show the trends in agricultural structure and practice which have evolved to meet demands, and to indicate the associated potential impacts of agriculture on the environment.

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