Most of the food we eat is produced on land and in soil. What we eat and how we produce it have changed significantly in the last century along with the European landscape and society. The intensification of agriculture has enabled Europe to produce more food and at more affordable prices but at the expense of the environment and traditional farming. It is now time to rethink our relationship with the food we put on our plates and with the land and communities that produce it.

Agriculture has always been more than food production. Over centuries, farming shaped the European landscape, local communities, economy and cultures.A hundred years ago, the countryside was dotted with small farms, and many houses in urban areas had small vegetable gardens. Markets offered local, seasonal produce, and meat was a special treat for most Europeans. In the last 70 years, however, agricultural food production has increasingly evolved from a local activity to a global industry aimed at feeding growing populations with globalised tastes in Europe and around the world. Today, Europeans can enjoy lamb from New Zealand next to rice from India, along with Californian wine and Brazilian coffee. Fresh tomatoes cultivated in Dutch or Spanish greenhouses can be bought all year round.

In an increasingly urbanised and globalised world, farmers need to be able to produce ever-increasing amounts of food. Growing competition called for economies of scale — intensive agricultural production — favouring larger corporations, often specialised in cultivating a few types of crops or livestock in larger areas with secured access to markets across the globe. European agriculture was no exception.

Agriculture in Europe: a focus on producing more

Just like air and water, food is a basic human need. Whether it is due to natural disaster or bad policies, not having access to enough food could result in the starvation of entire communities. Given this, food production has always been seen not only as an activity carried out by individual farmers but also as a national policy and security issue, including an economic security issue. In the 1800s, the majority of Europeans worked in agriculture; however, the share of the workforce accounted for by farmers has been declining since, mainly because of the increased use of agricultural machinery and better incomes from urban jobs.

It was in this context that the EU Member States agreed on a common agricultural policy initially aimed at ensuring that there was enough food at affordable prices in Europe. This also implied that enough farmers would have to stay on and cultivate their land. Global competition can drive prices down and only a small fraction of the final sale price ever reaches the farmer. Over time, the common agricultural policy integrated measures to help the rural economy in general and to reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture and protect soils.

In recent decades, the land area used for agriculture in Europe has decreased in size due to expanding urban areas and, to a lesser extent, expanding forests and woodlands. Today, over 40 % of Europe’s land area is used for agricultural activities. In 2016, there were more than 10 million farms (agricultural holdings) in the EU and about 3 % of these used more than half of the agricultural land. In fact, about two-thirds of Europe’s farms are smaller than 5 hectares (50 000 m2, roughly equivalent to seven football pitches) and they largely consist of hobby and subsistence farms, which consume more than half of their outputs. Many farming communities, especially in areas with lower agricultural productivity, face land abandonment, and shrinking and aging populations, putting additional pressure on smallholdings.

Europe’s agricultural landscapes are increasingly characterised by low crop diversity with vast areas and increasingly larger fields where only a few crops such as wheat or maize are grown. In such intensive-agriculture landscapes, biodiversity is significantly reduced compared with landscapes characterised by smaller fields of different crops, separated by lines of shrubs and small woodlands.

Intensive agriculture: higher outputs but higher impacts

Higher productivity was also achieved partly thanks to the increased use of synthetic chemicals, such as fertilisers and pesticides. Throughout history, farmers have used manure or minerals to fertilise soil and increase productivity. Fertilisers work by adding nutrients to soil, which are essential for plant growth.

Synthetic fertilisers were invented in the early 1900s and widely commercialised from the 1950s onwards to solve the problem of ‘nitrogen depletion in soil’ and thus increase productivity. Synthetic fertilisers contain mainly nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, followed to a lesser extent by other elements such as calcium, magnesium, sulphur, copper and iron. Farming also relies on plant protection products — a wide range of mostly chemical substances aimed at eliminating unwanted weeds, insects and fungi that harm plants and restrain plant growth.

On the one hand, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides secured a higher amount of harvests from a given field, enabling the growing populations both in Europe and in the world to be fed. Growth in output has also made food more affordable.

On the other hand, not all the nitrogen applied is taken up by plants. The excessive use of synthetic chemicals can contaminate the land, rivers, lakes and groundwater in a wider area, and they even enter the atmosphere as nitrous oxide — one of the main greenhouse gases after carbon dioxide and methane. Some pesticides harm pollinators, including bees. Without pollinators, we simply cannot produce enough food.

European countries produce significantly more meat than in the 1960s. And meat, beef in particular, requires significantly more land and water than plant-based food products. At the same time, cattle raising produces methane and nitrous oxide, both very powerful greenhouse gases. Livestock is estimated to contribute to more than 10 % of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Nitrogen: the key to plant growth

A plant is made mainly of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. Plants can easily obtain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen from water and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but this is not the case for nitrogen. Soil can be depleted of its nitrogen after a couple of harvests.

Nitrogen makes up more than 70 % of our atmosphere, but plants cannot use the nitrogen in the form it is found in the atmosphere. Only some free-living and plant symbiotic bacteria (notably legume symbionts) can transform atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use. To allow the soil to replenish its nitrogen stocks, traditional farming practices let land go fallow or plant legumes between harvest and sowing the next crop.

Unsustainable use harms soil and land productivity

The long-term agricultural productivity of soil depends on its overall health. Unfortunately, if we continue using this resource as we currently do, we will also reduce soil’s ability, among others, to produce enough feed and food fit for human consumption.

There are many pressures that intensive agriculture exerts on land and soil, including contamination, erosion and compaction due to heavy agricultural machinery. An increasing number of studies highlight how widespread the residues of chemicals used in pesticides and fertilisers are across Europe ([1]). For some chemicals, such as copper and cadmium, soil samples from some areas indicate critically high levels. Excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) have altered life in lakes, rivers and seas, and recent EEA recent assessments ([2]) on water call for urgent reductions in nutrients to prevent further harm to these ecosystems.

In addition to affecting land resources and soil biodiversity, this increased food production has also influenced our diets in unplanned ways.

Changes in eating habits come with new problems

Five of the seven biggest health risk factors today (high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, obesity, alcohol abuse and insufficient consumption of fruit and vegetables) causing premature death are linked to what we eat and drink. More than half of Europe’s adult population is classified as overweight, including over 20 % that is classified as obese. Child obesity is also a growing concern.

Compared with 50 years ago, Europeans consume more food per person. The intake of animal proteins, mainly meat and dairy products, has doubled in this period and is currently double the global average. Every year, on average, European adults eat, for instance, 101 kg of cereal and 64 kg of meat per person — which has been slightly declining in recent years but is still well above the global average. We also consume more sugar and sugar products (13 kg) than fish and seafood (10 kg).

At the same time, 88 million tonnes of food are wasted in Europe every year, corresponding to 178 kg per person. Food waste means that all the resources used to produce food — water, soil and energy — are also wasted. And, the pollutants and greenhouse gases released during production, transport and marketing contribute to environmental degradation and climate change.

However, there are millions of people across the world who do not have enough nutritious food to eat. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 820 million people in the world were undernourished in 2017. According to Eurostat, 12 % of Europeans were unable to afford a good-quality meal every second day in 2017.

It is clear that increased food production does not always mean better nutrition for everyone. This is a widely recognised problem and there are European and global measures aimed at addressing food waste and malnutrition, including Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger and Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. Healthier diets, and minimising food waste, including through a more even distribution of healthy and nutritious food across society and the world, could reduce some of the impacts on health, the environment and the climate linked to food produced on land.

Competing demands for agricultural land

The EU common agricultural policy and the single market make food products produced across the EU in accordance with high safety standards a common feature of our daily lives. Along with this intra-EU trade in food products, the EU imports and exports agricultural products from and to the rest of the world, which accounted for 7 % of all extra-EU trade in 2018. The EU is a large importer of fresh fruits and vegetables, while exporting beverages and spirits and meat. Indirectly, food trade means that the EU imports and exports land resources. Along with palm oil production, growing global meat consumption is one of the drivers of deforestation in tropical forests, which are often converted to pastureland for cattle or palm plantations.

But land is not only cultivated to produce food or animal feed. An increasing share of Europe’s agricultural land is used to grow crops, such as rapeseed, sugar beet and maize, for biofuel production. Competing demands exert additional pressure on land in general and on agricultural land in particular when it comes to cultivating biofuel crops. Biofuels are seen as a tool to reduce greenhouse gases but this depends on the way they are produced and what plant material they use. Various biofuels have unintended negative consequences for the environment. To prevent such outcomes, the EU adopted a number of sustainability criteria to limit biofuels’ harmful impact on the environment, including land resources.

The EU’s environmental impact on land and soil resources is not limited to the EU territory. Europeans consume agricultural products imported from the rest of the world. Land and soil, along with other resources such as water and energy, in the countries exporting to the EU are affected by Europe’s high consumption levels. To ensure a regular supply, multinational corporations might also opt to buy large swathes of land in third countries to cater to European consumers.

According to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the productivity of about one quarter of the global land surface has been reduced because of land degradation. Declining pollinator populations can result in crop losses worth up to EUR 500 billion every year.

What the future holds

According to United Nations projections, in the next 30 years, the global population will increase by 2 billion to reach 9.7 billion in 2050. This increase in itself means that we must change the way we grow, produce and consume food. Food production will need to increase, while factoring in climate change.

Yet, the way we currently produce food on land is already exerting too much pressure on this finite resource. At the same time, reducing the amount of food produced in Europe and meeting the domestic demand by increasing imports more can have severe impacts on global food markets, increase food prices and put vulnerable populations at risk of further undernourishment.

The urgency of this situation calls for an overhaul of our relationship with food — both what we eat and how we produce it. Most likely, this will entail eating less meat and dairy products and more seasonal fruits and vegetables. Plant-based ‘meats’ and ‘milks’ or other food products with similar nutritional values but with significantly lower inputs (including land, water and energy) are being developed and marketed. The question is whether these alternatives will become the norm in our shopping baskets, rather than the exception.

It will also require food waste to be minimised in the field, in the market and in homes. To meet the growing demand for food and to prevent further deforestation, intensive production in some areas will need to continue but we must stop the contamination that comes with it. For sustainable food production, depopulation will also need to be addressed in certain areas by encouraging more people to remain to take care of the land, protect local biodiversity and produce high-quality products.

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Last modified: January 15, 2021