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Food Production in Europe: Time to Look Ahead

By Francesco Ajena

The past 50 years have seen a revolution in agricultural practices and production and a consequent increasing negative impact on the environment. Europe has been at the centre of these changes and, today, it plays a pivotal role in promoting a shift. The current discussions on the CAP reform have the potential to become a landmark for the construction of a sustainable and coherent food production system. Agroecology is the way forward to achieve food security whilst preserving the global commons and building a healthy and resilient European primary sector.

Post–World War II Europe has been a period of economic expansion, change, and huge concern, not least for the world’s ability to feed itself. In this time, the issues of poverty and hunger were viewed primarily as problems of production.

The need to rebuild Europe and to feed its population was coupled with an extraordinary technological leap forward in agriculture. The widespread adoption of the ‘green revolution’ paradigm led to major increases in food-grain production. The combination of chemical fertilisers, tractors, high yield crop varieties, and pesticides pushed production to unprecedented levels.

In 1960, the population in Europe added up to 406.7 million people; in 1990, it had grown by over 68.5 million (16.8%). In the same period, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation Corporate Statistical Database (FAOSTAT) data, the production of cereals more than doubled.

Europe and the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP)

The main framework of European policy towards agriculture is the well-known CAP, introduced in 1962. The CAP is a regulatory policy that Europe has never dared to put in place in other sectors – an unprecedented example of intervention in the regulation of markets and in the protection of an economic sector. Without a doubt, over the first few decades, the CAP contributed to strengthening the role of European farmers as economic actors. It gave the EU primary sector a chance to rebuild itself after the war, without the intervention of private capital.

Besides this, the CAP has, however, had a pivotal role to play in bolstering a deeply unfair agricultural system. Approximately 38% of the EU budget (equivalent to 0.4% of the Union’s GDP) is currently spent on agriculture. One question immediately comes to mind: who benefits most from all this money?

First of all, farmers in the 15 older EU Member States benefit overall much more from the CAP than the newer members. Large agri-businesses and big landowners receive more from the CAP than Europe’s small farmers. About 80% of farm aid goes to about a quarter of EU farmers; those with better revenues. For good reasons, CAP subsidies have been blamed for perpetuating the current obsolete food production system.

As the CAP’s monetary aids are directly proportional to production, this policy is fostering an overproduction of food in Europe and undermining efforts to address challenges like food security and climate change.

Production bound: the price we pay in global commons

 The growth of CO2 emissions is one of the several downsides of the adoption of a production-focused paradigm. Many more, including the undermining of global commons like water, biodiversity, land, and soil, have arisen.

 From 1961 to 1990, CO2 emissions caused by agriculture in the European Union (EU) had grown by 26.4%. Today, agricultural activities in the EU-28 generate about 10% of the Union’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

The increased consumption of animal products was one of the consequences of regained wellbeing following the war. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), over the past fifty years, world meat production quadrupled between 1961 and 2009, at a high cost. First of all, in terms of cereals, where 7 to 10 kilogramme of cereals are needed to produce one kilogramme of meat. Secondly, in terms of land, where three-quarters of the EU’s agricultural surface today is dedicated to animal feed. Thirdly, in terms of water, where between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of water are needed to produce 1 kilogramme of meat, compared to the much smaller amount (500 to 4,000 litres of water) needed to produce one kilogramme of wheat.

In fact, in a world where 663 million people lack access to safe water, industrial agriculture has largely contributed to worsening the issue. In Europe, 44% of total water extraction is used for agriculture.

In the last 100 years, some 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost, as a consequence of abandoning multiple local varieties in favour of genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties. Today, 75% of the world’s food production is generated from only eight crops and five animal species.

Agriculture is also a major land user. Agricultural land covered 43.5% of the total European land-area in 2012. Due to the clearing of natural habitats for intensive monoculture, Europe loses 970 million tonnes of soil every year. Approximately 11.4% of the EU’s territory is affected by a moderate to high level soil erosion.

Despite all this, some may think that this has been a reasonable price to pay in order to achieve a valuable goal: food security.

Has food security been achieved?

The answer to the question is, unfortunately, no. While malnutrition hits 5% of the European population, in the rest of the world some 795 million people still do not have enough food to lead a healthy and active life. The FAO calculates that around half of the people going hungry around the world are from smallholder farming communities. Today, the most significant cause of global hunger is insufficient revenues for farmers.

Europe bears a lot of responsibility for this. European agricultural policies weaken global small-scale agriculture. In fact, through exporting subsidised products (the EU accounts for 17% of global agricultural export), Europe is dumping its products in third world countries, seriously affecting the revenue of its farmers.

But there is something else to say. When talking about food security, we must keep in mind that food production is actually not the problem anymore. In truth, we are currently producing more than what we need. This looks even more evident when we consider that each year, one third of global food production is lost or wasted. An area greater than China is currently being used to produce food that is ultimately wasted.

While this may be a depressing notion, it should also demonstrate that our current agricultural system is highly unsustainable and obsolete. In 2017, we are still relying on a post–World War II paradigm, in which agriculture is reduced to a single function: production.

Is there an alternative?

Yes, there is. And here we come to the best part. Around the 1970s, while the world was preoccupied with industrialising agriculture, a new way to grow food in a sustainable and predictive way was starting to be defined: agroecology. This term incorporates the notion of a more environmentally and socially-centred approach to agriculture; one that focuses not only on production, but also on the ecological sustainability of the production system.

Agroecology is supported by a wide range of scientists, farmers, and organisations, including the United Nations (UN), the FAO, Friends of the Earth, the International Foundation for Organic Agriculture (IFOAM), Oxfam, and many more. In 2010, Olivier de Schutter – who was, at the time, Special Rapporteur on the right to food for the UN – published a report that identifies agroecology as a primary way to guarantee food security and the preservation of vulnerable environments.

In 2002, Miguel Altieri, the father of modern agroecology, clearly defined the five principles that characterise an agroecological system:

  1. Recycling biomass and balancing nutrient flows and availability;
  2. Securing favourable soil conditions for plant growth by enhancing organic matter;
  3. Minimising losses of solar radiation, water, and nutrients by managing microclimate and soil cover, and practising water harvesting;
  4. Enhancing biological and genetic diversification on cropland;
  5. Enhancing beneficial biological interactions and minimising the use of pesticides.


By implementing these principles, we would, undoubtedly, solve the issues outlined earlier. But there is more.

Agroecology puts a stronger emphasis on supporting local food economies, supporting and building local businesses, creating highly skilled jobs, and local development. More importantly, it involves active citizens and communities, who can take part in decisions about how food is produced and consumed and how natural resources are managed in their region.

In fact, agroecology is not only an agricultural and environmental movement, but also has a deeply social component. It is based on the idea that natural resources, including land, seeds, livestock, water, biodiversity, and knowledge (the global commons) have a shared ownership. Agroecology involves a shift of power from private operators to local communities, to manage the commons in a democratic and efficient way. Managing these resources through collective and democratic control is the way to create a long-term sustainable food system and to avoid an environmental crash caused by agriculture.

While the whole organic area of the EU represents only 6.2% of total utilised agricultural area, the organic sector has been rapidly developing in the past years. During the period 2009 to 2015, it grew by 30% in the EU-28.

Innovative projects seeking to reconnect producers and consumers by promoting an agroecological paradigm can be found in all European countries. These include short supply chains, alternative food networks, local farming systems, urban gardening, and much more.

However, without a clear frame of public policies, these alternatives would remain isolated outbreaks without any chance of becoming a largely adopted paradigm. Currently, at both the national and European level, there is a lack of broad-based political support, regulatory frameworks, and appropriate economic incentives needed to foster a change towards a sustainable food production system.

Waiting for a real reform

The 2013 reform of CAP for the period 2014 – 2020, which entered into force in 2015, was a first step in this direction. A ‘greening’ component of direct payments was included to support environmental measures. According to this new element, priority should be given to actions addressing both climate and environment policy goals. The European Commission’s initial plans were a positive step towards sustainability in farming.

However, the CAP reform turned out to be business as usual, with little real reform. The greening component was ineffective: despite the allocation of 30% of the direct payments budget, the reform has led to very limited additional environmental action or benefit. The ‘greening’ measures were not fully implemented by a majority of subsidised farms.

To date, discussions have already started on a possible reform of the current CAP. Members of the European Parliament will initiate further discussions on the CAP after 2020. The central question in the debate is the future of direct payments (72% of the CAP budget). On 2 February 2017, the European Commissioner for Agriculture, Phil Hogan, officially launched talks on reforming the CAP.

Introducing a clearer and stricter provision that fosters the adoption of an agroecological paradigm would be the way forward for a new, truly ‘green’ CAP. Direct payments have to be linked to the concrete adoption of sustainable practices, rather than production. A strict and consistent follow-up must be set by the European Commission in order to monitor the evolution of a transition towards sustainable production.

But payments cannot be the only tool. To have a clear impact on the way agriculture affects the environment and our commons, while still providing food security, we need to go beyond the CAP and try to create a more harmonised system, which takes into consideration all the levels of power in the European Union. A Common Food Policy, as supported by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPESFood), might be the long-term solution for the construction of a proper and sustainable food system for Europe. As is often the case in the history of our continent, the solution lies in deeper integration.

Unprecedented challenges to agriculture – including population growth, climate change, energy scarcity, natural resources degradation, and market globalisation – emphasise the need to rethink policies in Europe. Business as usual is not an option; Europe needs to look ahead.