This article is part of our special report Sustainable and healthy food.
SPECIAL REPORT / With the world's population expected to rise to nine billion by 2050, European regulators are pushing for a gradually greener approach to food sustainability, warning that demand for food could cause a number of related crises, such as runaway carbon emissions, waste and obesity.
Historically, Europe has largely responded to rising domestic food demand by increasing agricultural intensification, with large, heavily-mechanised farms, and pushes to gain more yield from crops and livestock through a mixture of pesticides and herbicides.
Even though the continent's population is expected to fall from 740 million in 2012 to 628 million by 2050, European Commission experts predict that if the EU economy declines and policymakers take reactionary protectionist measures the continent may be hit by food shortages due to demand in other markets, particularly the emerging economies.
In the recent reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, the European commissioner for agriculture and rural development, Dacian Ciolo?, pushed for a "greener" approach to EU farming, backing more organic cultures, and measures to protect cropland and rural biodiversity.
A 21 June report by the European Academies Science Advisory Council, said that producing enough food sustainably “requires crops that make better use of limited resources, including land, water and fertiliser”.
The EU’s chief scientific advisor, Anne Glover recently defended the EASC report calling it "authoritative" on agriculture science. She also expressed support for the so-called “sustainable intensification” of food production, including genetic modifications of crops (GMOs).
The report said that Europe's policy against GMOs was having “grave scientific, economic and social consequences”.
European farmers are wary of ramping up agricultural intensification, saying that without the approval of EU regulators, these practices may create further distortions in the global market, as countries using such technologies would be able to lower their prices.
In an interview with EURACTIV, Pekka Pesonen, the secretary-general of Copa-Cogeca, the association of European farmers and agri-cooperatives, issued a warning to regulators negotiating free trade talks with the United States about the acceptance of US foods produced via intensification, such as hormone treatments or GMOs.
“Beef is a very good example for the hormone use but now we have also had ractopamine, which is a specific product for the pig meat industry … if that was allowed in the European Union market, we would have had a major problem with it, because it is very clear that it is a competitive advantage that they would get from these products,” he said.
Pesonen added that European regulators were unlikely to advocate an agricultural 'arms race' with the United States. "Our feeling is that the European Union decision makers wouldn’t accept that European own production would produce growth promoters to the same extent that the Americans [do]”.
The European farming leader made a similar point about the potential “presence of advantageous GMOs, especially in the instance of feedstocks [for livestock]”.
Europe's reluctance to promote intensified practices stems largely from the public opposition to some biotechnology. A 2005 Eurobarometer survey said that the majority of Europeans believe that GM food should not be encouraged. "GM food is seen by them as not being useful, as morally unacceptable and as a risk for society," the survey said.
But Europeans were more open to other innovations, such as nanotechnology.
The EU CAP reform has offered more incentives for small-holder farmers using “green” methods to grow food. These methods include more organic cultures, fallow land, set-asides to promote biodiversity, and crop diversity and rotation.
The European Commission will also attempt to promote “quality” European products, such as organic regional olive oil, wines, and cheeses.
Pesonen believes that these products may even help secure the EU’s place in the world market.
“Well, we’re confident in Copa-Cogeca in saying that products like French cheese and wine are very competitive. So we have to be optimistic and we are optimistic, in the sense that we know that the American consumers would be interested in these high-quality products, including GIs [geographical indicators for products],” he said.
NGOs are attempting to push regulators towards ever greener practices.
The Livewell campaign, a partnership between the Commission, the WWF conservation group and Friends of Europe, a think tank, aims to get consumers to switch to a diet that takes better account of its impacts on the environment, society and the economy.
“Food is one of the big drivers for energy and for climate change,” said Tony Long, the director of the WWF’s European policy office. “17 to 18% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector. If you then add the agri-food processing and the transport, that goes up to 27-28%. I mean that’s huge … and that’s where we came in on Livewell,” he said.