For sustainable agriculture, big is beautiful

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.



The EU should ‘think big’ and face tomorrow’s challenge to feed the world sustainably, argue the presidents of the Dutch and Danish farm organisations. To do so, an EU business policy for the agro-food sector and common European standards for sustainable foods are very much needed, they write.

By Albert Jan Maat, President of the Dutch Federation of Agriculture and Horticulture, LTO Nederland, and Martin Merrild, President of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council, Landbrug & Fødevarer.

In 1969, when Neil Armstrong took one small step for man and a big step for mankind on the surface of the moon, the image that stuck to our minds was that of ‘Earth rise’ above the lunar surface. We were young back then and amongst some 3.6 billion fellow earthlings on this beautiful blue planet that Armstrong turned his camera on to picture for the first time. Today our families have grown and the world population risen above 7.1 billion people. That is a wonderful thing – big is beautiful.

Yet with the increased size of the world population – every day we are 140,000 more – our challenges have increased as well. Fortunately, in most countries of the world, farmers have caught up with the demand for more food until now, and farmer’s cooperatives have delivered agricultural products to consumers of ever higher quality and consistency, whilst improving animal welfare and reducing the environmental impacts per unit of production.

The need to produce more on less land

Huge investments in modern agriculture have rendered this positive development possible, and every day, we continue to strive for enhanced resource efficiency. In doing so, pace is still a choice, yet, the direction towards an ever more sustainable and intensive agricultural production is a necessity; Earth’s supply of resources is challenged.

In particular, the increased world population generates an expansion of cities and infrastructure networks in the country side that puts a strain on the availability of fertile land. With climate change, land scarcity is set to be exacerbated as major areas will experience a decline in productivity due to extreme weather events such as draught or flooding.

Hence it becomes a moral imperative to increase production on remaining arable land in order to cater to the demand for ever more and better food, which is sought by an ever richer world population – each minute some 100 people (97 to be precise or 340,000 a day) are lifted out of poverty to join the new middle class, essentially in emerging countries in Asia and Africa. They demand a better diet, and it would be immoral to deny them proteins previously more exclusively consumed in the west.

Sustainable intensification of agricultural production

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has promoted the notion of sustainable intensive production. Every day, we strive to deliver just that. In doing so successfully we have modernised and innovated production lines, enhancing efficiencies and decoupling environmental impacts from production; meanwhile, and partly as a means to cope with these challenges, we have grown bigger.

Ammonia emissions reductions in the Netherlands and in Denmark are one such example of successful sustainable intensive production; since the mid-1990s and in spite of production increases, R&I and a ban on broad spreading of manure has effectively reduced ammonia emissions in both countries. Today emissions per livestock unit – 14 and 12 kg for the Netherlands and Denmark respectively – are significantly lower than the 25 kg EU average, which has led the European Commission’s directorate for the environment to notice our experience as best practice examples.    

Unity makes strong, and in joining forces throughout the food supply chain and within agricultural cooperatives, we have freed resources to invest in R&D, refine best-practices and fine tune synergies.

Historically, farms were small, and cooperatives tiny. Faced with a volatile market, farmers were at the mercy of forces beyond their control. So coming together was a protective measure, which turned out to become both more profitable and more resource efficient.

Indeed, when taking on the immense environmental challenges of the 21st century, our model farms and production facilities should look towards the future, not the past.

Those who look back for answers to tomorrow’s environmental  challenges in a bygone and largely imaginative golden age of local community agriculture will be deceived and find that past production methods do not provide sustainable solutions that match tomorrow’s scarce resources and the demand of some 9 billion people by 2050.

This is not to say that small agricultural units are unsustainable – indeed they too are a great source of innovation and social cohesion in rural areas. However, such farms need to be integrated into larger communities, which today more than ever are the strength of the cooperative model, complete with its local agricultural community partnerships that finance joint research and facilitate uptake of state of the art cultivating methods – a cornerstone in the timely European Innovation Partnership (EIP) initiative.

An EU business policy for the agro-food sector

Beside small scale production, big is beautiful. And big agriculture goes beyond national boundaries. Our production lines and distribution networks are European and global, so our interaction with distributers and consumers along the food chain is a polyglot discourse.

Hence our call for an EU industrial policy for the agro-food sector, which matches the continental and global scale of our everyday activities that constitute a major source of EU growth and exports on world markets. Such a policy is needed to further encourage innovation, knowledge transfer, training and investment in a sector, which employs 4.25 million people in the EU, whilst also of strategic importance for the Union in terms of food security in a vulnerable world. This business policy must be European not only in scope but also in mind-set; the sum is more than the total of its parts, and in agriculture, too, big is beautiful and able to undertake the intensification of production which is needed if our demonstrated record of decoupling production increase from environmental impacts is to serve as guideline for sustainable food production in the EU for years to come.

European standards for environmental impacts of products

Moreover, we need to challenge a popular myth in the public mindset, which perceives distance as a major source of pollution. Indeed, transport costs exist when a product is produced in one or more countries, and consumed in others. Therefore, it is important to quantify such costs and understand – as several analyses have shown – that these costs are comparatively small when undertaking a life cycle analysis of the environmental impact of a product. Volume, efficiency, innovation and high standards are what really matters, so local production is not environmentally friendly per se. Therefore we push for the further refinement of life cycle analysis methodology, and the establishment of common European standards for environmental impacts of products.

In May, Europeans will head to the pools and elect a new European Parliament. In the coming months we will see the installment of the next European Commission. Alongside the national ministers in the Council, our policy makers will be responsible for putting the EU on a sustainable track towards the future; they will fail if they get it wrong on agriculture and food production. So we urge them to be ambitious and move ahead with a new business policy for the agro-food sector, which will help us generate ever more jobs and exports, at the benefit of sustainability and European competitiveness.  

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