Feeding the world: A green headache for policymakers

Commissioner Georgieva in action. [European Commission]

This article is part of our special report Agriculture.

With upwards of two billion extra mouths to feed in the coming decades, food security has become a mantra in debates about Europe’s farm-support programme and the UN’s sustainable development agenda.

The UN estimates one-in-seven people do not have enough food to eat today, and analysts say nourishing the anticipated 9 billion earthlings by mid-century poses a clear challenge – especially for finding a balance between production and the ecology.

The solution is “beyond individual companies, it’s probably even beyond individual countries,” said Joachim Lammel, a lead researcher for the Norwegian-based Yara fertiliser company.

The UN estimates one-in-seven people do not have enough food to eat today, and analysts say nourishing the anticipated 9 billion earthlings by mid-century poses a clear challenge – especially for finding a balance between production and the ecology.

The solution is “beyond individual companies, it’s probably even beyond individual countries,” said Joachim Lammel, a lead researcher for the Norwegian-based Yara fertiliser company.

“It’s not a question of lack of technical knowledge, it’s absolutely doable. But it requires that more focus and attention is put behind this challenge,” Lammel said in an interview with EURACTIV.

Machinery, nutrients, pesticides and irrigation technology helped feed the post-war baby boom, and continuing advances could lift yields in parts of the world expecting the biggest population growth in this century, namely Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

But such farming has consequences for the environment.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization forecasts a 70% rise in global agricultural demand by 2050 – and a doubling of need in low- and middle-income countries – while warning that climate change, unsustainable water use and deteriorating soil quality threaten future food production. In another warning about looming resource threats, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development says in a new report that intensified farming to feed a more crowded planet will threaten freshwater supplies.

Wary Europeans

Such concerns resonate among the public and policymakers in Europe.

A Eurobarometer poll released last week showed that 90% of those surveyed believed agricultural pesticides and fertilisers have a large or moderate impact on water quality, and 77% believe overuse of water on farms has an impact on supplies.

The survey shows that concern about agricultural chemicals is nearly universal in Greece, France and Slovenia.

The evolving debate over the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) centres in part on how to balance environmental protection and future food needs.

The European Commission has proposed CAP reforms beginning in 2014 that would encourage farmers to take 7% of their land out of production and reserve it for conservation purposes – so-called ecological focus areas.

Yet some farmers’ advocates say any policy that would cut cultivatable land does not make sense given the coming spike in global demand.

“If we are to respond to world food security in general, or European food security, and produce more or less the same amount of food that we have produced so far, we would have to increase our productivity by that same percentage in order to meet the same volumes or volume quality,” said Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of the Copa-Cogeca organisation of farmers and agricultural cooperatives.

“This is not possible in the short run, and especially when we see a fairly difficult political climate in Europe against productivity improvements.”

An organic solution?

Proposed incentives to encourage farmers to switch from single crops and large-scale production to crop rotation and diversification – techniques already used by organic farmers – also raise questions about the impact on production.

A study by researchers at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands shows that organic farming produces significantly lower yields – on average 20% lower – than crops grown with conventional methods.

While the report highlights greater environmental benefits of organics, it points out that it would require  larger amounts of land devoted to farming to yield the same amounts as conventional farming.

Organic farmers manage some 9.3 million hectares in the EU, or 5% of farmland, according to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Frick, Switzerland.

Lammel, head of product and application research and development for Yara, sees benefits in the EU executive’s efforts to encourage the ecological focus areas in conventional farming.

Better land management, crop care and waste reduction can help address future demands and reduce the need to clear more land for farms, Lammel said, adding that European farm technology and knowledge can help developing regions with the highest population growth.

“We see a huge potential in the world outside Europe because there are so many farmers who do not employ current knowledge and technology,” the researcher said.

“Very often you find in Africa, there is a lot of land which is used very inefficiently and if the people would get access to knowledge and technology, they could double, triple or quadruple their yields very easily,” Lammel said. “Research and innovation [can help] develop further from the current yield level.”

“Nature is very nice but you have to decide what is more important – feeding people or having a pretty landscape,” Suzanne Ruesink, a livestock farmer in the Netherlands, said at a gathering of the European Economic and Social Committee on 21 March to mark the 50th anniversary of the CAP.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on 22 March – World Water Day – that producing enough food to feed the world's rapidly growing population will require the international community to ensure the sustainable use of the world's "most critical finite resource," water.

"Unless we increase our capacity to use water wisely in agriculture, we will fail to end hunger and we will open the door to a range of other ills, including drought, famine and political instability," Ban said.

In many parts of the world, water scarcity is increasing and rates of growth in agricultural production have been slowing, he noted. At the same time, climate change is elevating the risk for farmers, "especially for poor farmers in low-income countries who are the most vulnerable and the least able to adapt."

Europe’s market for imports also contributes to potentially harmful practices abroad.

In the European Parliament, the Greens/European Free Alliance group contends that cheap imports of protein plants such as soybeans have undermined European markets and that domestic production has tumbled because duty-free imports allowed under international and regional trade obligations mean that European farmers can no longer compete with cheaper imports.

Some 40 tonnes of protein plants are imported into the EU annually, accounting for 80% of the market, says a study released by the Greens/EFA. Europe also relies on imports of soy, palm and other plant oils for its growing biodiesel demand.

“We cannot pretend to have a sustainable model of agriculture in Europe if we are importing soya bean from Brazil that is grown on land cleared from the Amazon forest,” Pedro Narro, a member of the EU’s Sustainable Development Observatory, said at a recent discussion on ecology and Europe’s role at the upcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

How much will Europeans spend on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the 2014-2020 period? Even as the European Parliament debates greening and other farm proposals, it has no idea how much will be available to spend – and may not know for months.

The Commission has suggested a €435.5 billion budget – some €45 billion more than the last funding period. Other options, according to MEPs, vary from a freeze at current spending to a 5% increase – plus annual inflation. Based on today’s spending, that would lift the next budget to around €420 billion.

“These are going to be tough negotiations,” budget committee member Reiner Boege (European People’s Party, Germany) told members of the agricultural committee on 20 March, citing pressure from national governments for belt-tightening.

The CAP is the EU’s single biggest programme and its main example of federal responsibility. For the first time in the 50-year history of the programme, MEPs have a direct say in CAP policies and spending – a responsibility gained in the Lisbon Treaty of 2009.

  • 14-15 May: Meeting of the Agricultural and Fisheries Council in Copenhagen
  • 20-22 June: UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • 2014-2020: Next phase of CAP policies and spending

Subscribe to our newsletters