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The agricultural sector is one of the main land users in Europe and thus shapes landscapes in rural areas. It has various direct and indirect impacts on the environment and is itself dependent on natural resources.


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Agricultural land plays an important role in land use patterns across the EU. Grassland and cropland together make up 39 % of Europe's land cover (EEA, 2017a). The agricultural sector is a major user of natural resources and has a complex relationship with the environment (OECD, 2017). The following data reflect the performance and impacts of the agricultural sector in the EU:

  • Around 94 % of ammonia emissions in Europe stemmed from agriculture in 2015, mainly from activities such as manure storage, slurry spreading and the use of inorganic nitrogen fertilisers.
  • CO2 emissions from peat soil that is drained for agriculture make up 100.5 Mt CO2 per year, while for forestry the figure is 67.6 Mt CO2. With a total of 173 Mt CO2 emissions from drained soils, the EU is the second largest hotspot for peatland CO2 emissions (after Indonesia) (Berge et al., 2017).
  • Through irrigation, agriculture exerts major pressure on renewable water resources. Seasonally, the sector consumes more than 50 % of the water used in Europe.
  • Agriculture is one of the main sources of nitrates in surface and ground waters. In several regions across Europe, often those with intensive agriculture, nitrate concentrations are still too high.
  • Around 9 % of agricultural land is part of Natura 2000 sites — an EU-wide network of nature protection areas.
  • Agriculture contributes 25 million tonnes of oil equivalent (12.3 %) to renewable energy production (2015), which is an increase of  15 % from 2013 to 2015 (DG AGRI, 2017).
  • Agriculture is an inherent part of food systems and the range of food produced in the EU is diverse.
  • The EU is broadly self-sufficient in most agricultural primary commodities. It is also the single largest exporter of agri-food products, which include processed food (EC, 2016a).

Two of the main challenges confronting agriculture in Europe are climate change (EEA, 2017c) and land take, i.e. the conversion of land to, for example, settlements and infrastructure (EEA, 2017a). Climate change requires the adaptation of crop varieties and causes extreme weather events (for further information on climate adaptation, see the EEA’s work in this field or the Climate-ADAPT Platform) and thus it demands profound risk management. Land take leads to a reduction in agricultural land in many regions.

Key trends

Despite the development of the agricultural sector depending on many factors and regional variations in the sector, some key trends at the European level can be observed. The proportion of total land accounted for by agricultural land is shrinking and the sector is affected by land take, i.e. transformation to artificial land. Independently of this, the number of farms is decreasing and the average farm size increasing.

All three factors — land-take, intensification and extensification — lead to loss of High Nature Value Farmland and a decline in populations of farmland birds.

In recent years, the agricultural sector has been increasingly affected by extreme weather events. Hail, heavy rainfall, floods and droughts, brought about by climate change, have led to reduced yields (EEA, 2017c).

Policy context

The development of the agricultural sector is strongly influenced by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) (see Köster, 2010). Ever since its creation in the mid-20th century, EU agricultural policy has had a strong economic dimension. Yet, over the last 50 years there has been a shift in the type of subsidies provided and a move from a primarily sector-oriented policy to a more integrated rural development policy with structural and agri-environmental measures. Currently the CAP features two main pillars:

  • Pillar 1, under which direct payments to farmers and market interventions are covered, and
  • Pillar 2, under which rural development programmes are supported.

For the period 2010-2014, the average share of EU subsidies in agricultural factor income[1] was more than 35 %, and that of direct payments to farmers was 28 %. These figures ranged  from more than 90 % (total subsidies) and around 45 % (direct payments) in Slovakia  to around 15 % and 12 % in the Netherlands (EPRS, 2017). The European Commission’s legal proposal for the CAP post 2020 was published in June 2018. It strives for greater performance orientation as it regards the contribution to environmental and climate targets and ambitions.

Agricultural production is also framed by other EU and international policies, some of which, e.g. the Nitrates Directive and the Water Framework Directive, are already reflected in the architecture of the CAP. Moreover, energy and climate policies, for example, have also driven the increase in energy crop production over the last decade (OECD/FAO, 2017).

Furthermore, the sector plays an important role in achieving the objectives of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

EEA Activities

The EEA collaborates with other EU organisations, for instance in the compilation of the common set of agri-environmental indicators (AEIs). EEA data are used within the monitoring and evaluation of the CAP, e.g. as input for the compilation of certain so-called context indicators. With its stake in the Copernicus Land Monitoring Service, the EEA explores opportunities to increasingly use Copernicus data for agri-environmental assessments. It also tries to meet the needs of the agricultural sector for Earth observation data and products, e.g. for the application of precision agriculture technologies.

Apart from collaborating closely with the other EU organisations, the EEA works together with the National Reference Centres in the field of Environment and Agriculture. These centres form an inherent part of the EEA’s European Environment Information and Observation Network (Eionet), in which the 38 EEA countries are represented. Synergies with the work of other international organisations, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), take place. The EEA also collaborates with the research community and expert panels, e.g. with project teams supported under the Horizon2020 programme.

Recent publications

The recent EEA Report 'Food in a green light' discusses food production and consumption, taking a food system perspective.


[1] Agricultural factor income measures the remuneration of all factors of production (land, capital, labour), regardless of whether they are owned by the holding or not. It represents the total value generated by an agricultural holding engaged in a production activity and is defined as the value of production minus variable costs, depreciation and taxes on production, plus subsidies on production. (Based on DG AGRI, 2017) > Back

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Use of freshwater resources Despite renewable water is abundant in Europe, signals from long-term climate and hydrological assessments, including on population dynamics, indicate that there was 24% decrease in renewable water resources per capita across Europe between 1960 and 2010, particularly in southern Europe. The densely populated river basinsin different parts of Europe, which correspond to 11 % of the total area of Europe, continue to be hotspots for water stress conditions, and, in the summer of 2014, there were 86 million inhabitants in these areas. Around 40 % of the inhabitants in the Mediterranean region lived under water stress conditions in the summer of 2014. Groundwater resources and rivers continue to be affected by overexploitation in many parts of Europe, especially in the western and eastern European basins. A positive development is that water abstraction decreased by around 7 % between 2002 and 2014. Agriculture is still the main pressure on renewable water resources. In the spring of 2014, this sector used 66 % of the total water used in Europe. Around 80 % of total water abstraction for agriculture occurred in the Mediterranean region.  The total irrigated area in southern Europe increased by 12 % between 2002 and 2014, but the total harvested agricultural production decreased by 36 % in the same period in this region. On average, water supply for households per capita is around 102 L/person per day in Europe, which means that there is 'no water stress'. However, water scarcity conditions created by population growth and urbanisation, including tourism, have particularly affected small Mediterranean islands and highly populated areas in recent years. Because of the huge volumes of water abstracted for hydropower and cooling, the hydromorphology and natural hydrological regimes of rivers and lakes continue to be altered. The targets set in the water scarcity roadmap, as well as the key objectives of the Seventh Environment Action Programme in the context of water quantity, were not achieved in Europe for the years 2002–2014.

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