is Sustainable Farming?
concept of ‘sustainability’ in farming now encompasses a
much wider range of issues than its earlier, more limited and
narrow technical definition. In brief, three basic elements can
be seen as critical to the ‘sustainability ‘agenda’ in its
protection has come to embrace a rainbow of concerns.
First and most basic, obviously, is the need to protect the natural resource base on which agriculture depends: in
other words sustainability in its most literal and narrow sense.
While within the EU recent decades have seen a remarkable
rise in per hectare productivity that in reality shows few
indications of being unsustainable – there are serious
concerns in some areas about soil
erosion, falling soil organic matter levels, rising salinity
and heavy metal contamination.
comes the need to reduce air, soil and, above all,
water pollution from pesticide residues and from fertiliser
and livestock effluent run-offs. Legislation to safeguard both
ground and surface water is forcing major changes in farming
practices across Europe, most dramatically in zones where
fertiliser use and/or concentrations of livestock are heaviest.
to this in some regions, particularly in southern Europe, is the
problem of water availability and the need for irrigation
practices that minimise waste.
EU member states have now put in place measures to strengthen biodiversity
conservation and the effectiveness of different approaches
in improving the overall sustainability of the farm environment
will be closely monitored. It is increasingly being realised
that there are two distinct dimensions here – the direct
impact on the fauna and flora of the actual farmed area and also
the extent to which the productivity of the farmed area allows
land to be returned to the wild.
most controversial of all is the potential environmental impact of biotechnology - not only in breeding plants with genetic
resistance to diseases, pests and broad-spectrum herbicides, but
also in developing traits that deliver clear benefits for
food/feed processing, consumer, industrial and pharmaceutical
applications. These developments are likely to be seriously
delayed by anti-GM campaigns but not blocked permanently (recent
research shows declining public concern on GM foods, for
example, in several EU countries).
and reduced emission of greenhouse gases is another
environmental dimension of sustainable agriculture. Practices
such as minimal tillage can play a part in this.
Increased subsidies for energy crops for electricity
generation and biofuels
are also advocated on sustainability grounds.
Other environment protection
demands are reflected in the legislation on waste
in particular on packing both of inputs (fertilisers,
pesticides) and of farm products.
responsibility issues impinge on sustainable
agriculture more and more.
Most basic is farm
worker health and safety - especially ensuring the safe use
of crop protection products.
public health food
comes first including pressure for minimal pesticide (and animal
health product) residues, as well as freedom from salmonella and
other microbial contamination. The question now is how far such
consumer protection will and should go – exemplified by the
arguments over GM ‘contamination’ where public perceptions
are so out of line with the scientific evidence and expert
opinion, creating difficult dilemmas both for governments and
the food industry.
responsibility issues that both policy makers and firms in the
food chain are under pressure to take into account include employment
conditions for the workers
concerned and the impact
of changes in farming practices and structure on rural society.
Many food processors and retailers have begun to respond to the
ideas behind mantras such as ‘local
production for local needs’ and ‘fair
trade’ even where their rationale does not always stand
scrutiny. The farmers’
market movement – more important in some EU countries than
others – is another aspect of this.
is also the wider issue of the recreational
use of the countryside. In many regions the revenues
generated from rural tourism and associated activities now
exceed those from food and farming. In consequence, countryside
access and landscape conservation are now an important element
in rural strategy in most EU countries. So, too, though outside
the scope of this study, is the relationship between farming,
forestry and other competing land uses.
to this is the widespread perception across Europe of a growing
gap between farmers
and the general public, and in particular the latter’s
poor understanding of agriculture and food production.
Economic viability is the third key feature of the sustainability agenda. A
central element in the reform of the CAP is the effort to
‘decouple’ commodity payments from farm income support..
This is happening alongside extensive diversification, as a survival strategy exploiting both technical and market
opportunities. One important example in this context is the
development of rural (or agri) tourism. This and other measures
will delay but not prevent extensive changes in the structure of
farming across Europe as less viable farm enterprises go out of
business. So the EC now treats rural
development both on and off the farm as the ‘second leg’ of
the CAP, with a steadily increasing budget.
needs to be recognised more
openly that many aspects of sustainability have added
significant costs right down the food chain. Restrictions on
crop production methods, traceability, inspection, certification
and separate storage and distribution – these all cost money
and there is an argument for realistic cost-benefit analysis as
part of both commercial and official policy-making in deciding
which measures deserve priority. Where these extra costs raise
retail food prices the impact on poorer consumers is highly
regressive and may reduce their purchases of ‘healthy’ foods
such as fruit and vegetables.
reality is that the sustainability agenda now has a strongly
political as well as a technical dimension in all European
policy makers the challenge is to reconcile the need for
economic viability of farming and rural areas with the
imperatives of environment protection and social responsibility.
This means attending to the
demands and views of the various stakeholder groups – input
suppliers, farmers, food processors and traders, and consumers
in the food chain as well as the consumer and environmental NGOs
and other political interests. All these have their own complex
and often conflicting agendas.
The ideas and practices of
sustainable agriculture in its different guises are emerging
as the key policy framework, allowing a consensus to
evolve on the policies and instruments that offer the most
effective means of achieving agreed objectives and targets.