Smaller farms needed to ‘restore the balance’ in EU agriculture, expert says

Soils [Unsplash] [Unsplash]

This article is part of our special report Climate change prevention measures in the new CAP.

The degradation and loss of soils in Europe demonstrate the problems and shortcomings of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The future of agriculture in the EU depends on their solution.

The current CAP is not without blame in the context of the worsening situation of soils in Europe, professor Józef Chojnicki from the Faculty of Agriculture and Biology at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (SGGW) told EURACTIV Poland in an interview.

Chojnicki stressed that Europe has the most intensive agriculture, which is a leading cause of soil degradation.

“Soils are a very important element of ecosystems, ensuring the growth and development of living organisms and their biodiversity. Moreover, they have great landscape values and contribute to climate regulation”, said the scientist. 

“Soils are essential for the production of food, animal feed and raw materials for the processing industry. Deterioration of the state of the world’s soils will have a negative impact on human welfare and the balance of ecosystems on the planet,” he emphasised.

However, every year, due to water erosion alone, an area corresponding to the total size of Warsaw and Gdańsk disappears from the surface of the EU. Soil is being rapidly degraded due to intensive food production practises and urbanisation, which is causing irreversible damage. 

European leaders urged to act on soil sustainability

Soils play a key role in regulating the earth’s climate, sustaining agriculture and preserving biodiversity. Yet they have fallen down the EU policy agenda even though tools exist to reverse that trend, according to a new report published today (26 September).

Between theory and practice

Experts consider pressure on production to be one of the main negative factors of the CAP. “Reducing unit costs has an impact on the environment,” said professor Chojnicki.

For instance, although pesticides can offer some benefits to productivity, they are harmful to the environment when used in excessive quantities.

It is unclear how many pesticides end up in Europe’s fields. Figures for 2015 show 391,000 tonnes of active ingredients; however, this figure is increasing. Industrial monocultures further exacerbate the problem by reducing soil fertility, which in turn forces the use of more pesticides.

“As a first step, the rational use of fertilisers and pesticides should be pursued in the EU and soil erosion and organic matter reduction should be prevented,” said Chojnicki. “A return to crop rotation is also advisable, as monocultures and simplified crop rotation reduce soil fertility and biodiversity”.

However, there are also some examples of ways in which the CAP is working to support the sustainable use of soils. For instance, in 2015, a major reform of the CAP introduced a provision requiring at least two plant species to be cultivated on agricultural land of more than 10 ha and at least three on land of more than 30 ha.

Furthermore, existing instruments to promote sustainable soil use are to be complemented by other instruments, such as those linking direct payments even more closely to environmentally friendly farming practices, which ensures environmental and climate standards while also food safety, health and animal welfare.

Examples of ways of encouraging farmers will also include eco-programmes for those who go beyond mandatory environmental protection requirements.

Soil ‘completely underestimated’ in EU climate strategy

While climate change takes a toll on agriculture and land use contributes to warming the planet, soils still find little attention from policymakers in their climate strategies.

Save smaller farms

Another major problem in EU agriculture, along with the large-scale use of chemicals by farmers, is the concentration of land ownership.

So far, the CAP has contributed to the takeover of land from small and medium-sized farms to larger ones and it is estimated that more than 80% of CAP direct payments go to the biggest 20% of farms.

In 2013, more than half of Europe’s agricultural land was owned by 3.1% of the owners, while three-quarters of farms only occupied 11% of the agricultural area. Furthermore, the number of large farms (more than 100 hectares) doubled between 1990 and 2013 in some Western European countries and increased by up to five times in others.

This is, at least in part, due to the fact that CAP subsidies are linked with hectarage. As a result, smaller farms are being combined into larger ones.

Large farms are the equivalent of industrial enterprises. Instead of producing various types of vegetables or animal husbandry, they prefer, for reasons of convenience and profit, to specialize in the production of, for example, one cereal or to build a huge farm.

This means that larger farms contribute more to the degradation of soil in the EU.

Professor Chojnicki, therefore, recommends EU support for smaller and medium-sized farms in order to “restore the balance in European agriculture”.

The change in the conversion of CAP vectors takes time, but the new CAP proposes instruments designed to support small and medium farms while encouraging young people to take up employment in agriculture.

“Without them, it will be difficult to take care of biodiversity,” concluded Chojnicki.

Carbon-capture crops need incentives through CAP, EU ministers said

Soil carbon sequestration and other measures intended to reduce net greenhouse emissions in farming require proper funding and a degree of flexibility, EU agriculture ministers agreed at an informal meeting hosted by the Finnish Council presidency.

[Edited by Natasha Foote/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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