Potocnik: Farmers and consumers ‘equally responsible’ for agricultural transformation

Janez Potocnik [European Commission]

This article is part of our special report Sustainable farming.

Every food producer should help make agriculture sustainable, Janez Potočnik told euractiv.com

Janez Potočnik served as European Commissioner for Environment from February 2010 to November 2014. He is currently chairman of the Rural Investment Support for Europe (RISE), an independent foundation whose main objective is to support a sustainable and internationally competitive rural economy across Europe.

Potočnik spoke to euractiv.com’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals specifically highlight the need to develop a more sustainable agriculture system. Why do you think change in agriculture is being marked out as essential for achieving them?  

Our current agricultural system is clearly unsustainable. Soil erosion, the over usage of scarce water resources, reliance on finite fossil fuel and mineral resources and the rapid destruction of ecosystems are just some of the characteristics of the way we produce our food today.

If we continue to produce in this way, it will not only affect our ability to produce in the future but also our resilience to produce in the face of the changes that will inevitably come on the back of our changing climate; all of this in a world where demand due to population growth and change in diet is growing faster than in any moment in our history.

If we do not work, right now, to make our agriculture more sustainable, we will fall seriously behind in our attempt to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, and will have to face up to dire consequences of that failure.

It is important to remember that food and environmental security are interlinked. These goals go together, and without the long term responsible care of our ecosystems, we cannot produce the food we need to feed our growing population.

You have always been a strong advocate of the circular economy concept. How can this help us achieve the SDGs?

I firmly believe that the fundamental answer to these challenges is in addressing the way we produce and consume. Our current economic model is wasteful; we take, consume and dispose of resources, and repeat.

The essence of the circular economic model it trying to keep resources, be they water, soil, nutrients or other raw materials, within the system as long as possible by improving resource use efficiency, reducing waste and recycling. A circular economy approach can make significant inroads into reducing our reliance on non-renewable resources, and reduce GHG emissions and the pollution of our environment.

We need to integrate the ideas of the circular economy into every aspect of our land management systems. An important example of how this can be applied to agriculture can be seen in the latest RISE report on Nutrient Recovery and Reuse. The report focuses on two of the essential nutrients for crop growth, nitrogen and phosphorus and how by recovering these nutrients from waste streams, such as manure, waste water and food waste, we can reuse them as fertilisers on crops. In doing so, we not only create an intelligent diversification of nutrient sources, but also make a significant contribution to reducing the amount of nutrients leaking into and damaging the environment.

Clearly, if the SDGs are to be realised by 2030, significant change is going to be required across all sectors. What needs to be done to drive this change?

First of all, I think it is important to point out that greatest impact of agriculture on our environment has occurred in the last 150 years due to a complete global system change in production that is unprecedented in any other industry. This shows that fundamental systems change is entirely possible. However, this time we do not have 150 years, but rather the agricultural system will be required to transform itself in a period of decades.

Secondly, it is also important to highlight that the responsibility to change our agricultural system does not fall solely at the feet of the farmer. Decisions about how we farm are not made in a vacuum, but come about as a result of a series of inter-related influences such as regulatory forces, economic and market forces and available products. Therefore it is important to highlight that change in our agricultural context will only come about by engaging the whole food system, and that consumers will have as much a responsibility in change as the farmer.

But farmers need to be paid for, compensated and enabled to manage the very ecological assets that underpin our food production system. Our current system does not recognise the true costs of producing food and the costs to our environment of our food production need to be internalised and spread throughout the food chain.

And whilst it is true that a major role in supporting change will be the development of enabling regulatory and policy frameworks (of which the Commission’s package of the Circular Economy is a major step forward), small and large businesses will have a major part to play in driving research and innovation. And, finally, we as consumers can encourage change through our food choices, diet and attitudes to food waste.

How can European policy specifically support reaching the SDGs?

Whilst the Sustainable Development Goals are designed to benefit the entire world, all countries have the responsibility to make the plan a reality and their achievement should be at the very heart of European policy development.

The Common Agricultural Policy, EU policy fully funded from Brussels, can provide an excellent opportunity to contribute to reaching the SDGs. Whilst the latest reform and the inclusion of the greening payments may go some way towards greater agricultural sustainability, there is still a long way to go. The SDGs are solid pillars upon which future reforms can be based. If we base our reforms on the SDGs, it will not only allow Europe to step up to its responsibilities in playing its part in achieving them, but could also provide an example for other countries in the development of their own national policies.

In this context, the European Union should also make full use in its research programmes of all opportunities to tackle the collective world problems addressed by the SDGs and foster the relevant knowledge.

What is the key message that you want readers to take forward from this interview?

I feel that the most important message to highlight here is that change does not necessarily have to be negative. We will have no choice but to change the way we produce and consume, so let us take this opportunity now to change it for the better and make real progress towards achieving the SDGs. The transformation of our current economic model can bring great opportunities both for our economies and for our quality of life.

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