While global food chains, market competition, industrial processes and increasing productivity have turned agriculture into a profitable economic sector, it is also one of the biggest contributors to environmental and sustainability challenges in Europe and worldwide. In tandem, the COVID-19 pandemic, recent geopolitical developments in Europe and socio-economic trends have driven attention towards agriculture and food systems. Considering these new challenges, it is even more urgent to rethink agriculture and food systems to make them resilient and sustainable. This briefing reflects on what makes agriculture unsustainable today — and the types of agriculture we may want to preserve and support.

Agriculture: where next?

Agriculture plays a central role in human societies — shaping our landscapes, economies, communities and cultures. Over the last 70 years, agriculture has evolved from primarily a local activity to a global industry tasked with feeding a growing global population with globalised tastes (EEA, 2019a). Agriculture’s intensification and expansion worldwide has led to widespread pressures on the environment and climate. This poses a threat to the health of people and the planet and to the viability of food systems (EEA, 2019b,c, 2021a). It also bears potentially negative repercussions for social and political stability.

Numerous, intertwined drivers of change bring about new risks and uncertainties. These drivers include urbanisation, digitalisation, lifestyle shifts in Europe and beyond, climate change, environmental degradation, resource scarcity and geopolitical instability. They also potentially include crop failure, disruptions affecting international supply chains, price shocks (e.g. fuels and fertilisers) (Cagnin et al., 2021) and animal disease outbreaks (e.g. African swine fever, bird flu). However, some of these risks and uncertainties also present new opportunities for reconfiguring agriculture and food systems in Europe and elsewhere (EEA, 2019b, 2020a). For example, the EU is one of the world’s main importers and exporters; this means it can play an influential role in setting standards for food and feed production and trade (Bock et al., 2022).

In the EU, agriculture and food systems have been at the core of recent policy developments such as the farm to fork strategy (EC, 2020a), the EU biodiversity strategy for 2030 (EC, 2020b), the common agricultural policy (CAP) 2023-2027 (EC, 2021) and European climate law (EU, 2021).

Agriculture is also closely connected to strategic issues such as food security and safety, and sustainability. Sudden changes in the geopolitical landscape have opened up the debate over food sovereignty and strategic autonomy (Bounds, 2022).

This has become particularly visible in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For example, agricultural production in the EU is dependent on ‘key imported inputs, including energy, animal feed and feed additives, and also agricultural fertilisers’ (EPRS, 2022a). The war could put these supplies at risk. Global commodity prices are surging (Baffel and Macadangdang, 2022; FAO, 2022); consequently, food affordability for low-income households could be further jeopardised — heightening the challenges created by the pandemic (EPRS, 2022a). Agricultural policy has now become ‘a crucial security policy’ (EPRS, 2022b) and immediate actions have been taken to counter new risks to food security (EC, 2022a).

The EU’s ambitions for a sustainable food system are arguably under pressure from a number of challenges. This has delayed proposals for the sustainable use of pesticides and nature restoration (EPRS, 2022b).

Governments, scientists, farmers and non-governmental organisations worldwide have been working together for years to devise and act upon new ideas, policies, blueprints and narratives for transforming agriculture and food systems (EEA, 2017; 2019b; EC, 2020c; SAPEA, 2020). Against this backdrop, and considering the rising challenges associated with recent geopolitical developments in Europe, it has become even more important to ‘rethink agriculture and food systems’ and push them towards resilience and sustainability (EC, 2022a).

Multiple framings for ‘agriculture’

Agriculture is the activity of governing and managing ecosystems so that they deliver food products that meet our nutritional needs. Agriculture is an integral part of the food system (EEA, 2017) and can be framed in various, legitimate ways. Reflecting on these framings unearths opportunities to explore the root causes of unsustainability and debate possible routes forward.

For example, agriculture can be seen as an economic sector contributing to economic growth (Johnston and Mellor, 1961; Mundlak, 2000) and poverty alleviation (Timmer, 2002). From this perspective, the market is the best tool to govern the agricultural sector. Competition will drive each region and producer to specialise in what they can produce most efficiently and cheaply.

Agriculture is also the means to feed a growing world population.The global population is projected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050 (FAO et al., 2021). Meeting the global demand for food will require increased productivity (FAO, 2018a) in combination with dietary changes and food waste reductions. This is a complex challenge involving issues related to agricultural production (e.g. yield increases), distribution, inequality and access to food (SAPEA, 2020). Agriculture can also be framed as an enabler of basic human rights: it can contribute to ensuring food democracy and food sovereignty, e.g. through community-supported agriculture (Wittman, 2011; Claeys, 2015; SAPEA, 2020).

Agriculture as an agroecological system is a holistic approach that promotes diversifying farms and reducing chemical inputs. It also seeks to enhance biodiversity and stimulate interactions between different species to build long-term soil fertility, healthy agroecosystems, and secure livelihoods (IPES-Food, 2016; FAO, 2018b). It is based on knowledge sharing and co-creation — and the premise that increasing production and efficiency is not enough to reconcile human and ecosystem health with social welfare (HLPE, 2019).

Agriculture can also be considered a frontier of high-tech applications. Challenges around productivity and sustainability are interpreted as issues that can be solved through technology. Precision agriculture — increasingly dubbed the ‘third agricultural revolution’ — uses technological innovation, global positioning system (GPS) technology and big data to accomplish two tasks. First, it is used to make the application of fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation more efficient; second, it is leveraged to manage inter- and intra-field variability (EY Global, 2017).

Farmers can be seen as guardians of rural heritage and cultural landscapes. Farming is not simply a ‘job’ done by people in rural areas. It represents a way of living and knowing and creates a territory that is distinct from urban spaces; it has its own identity. Farmers are seen as knowledge-holders and guardians of traditional practices.

Agriculture is also increasingly considered part of the ‘solution’ to climate and environmental challenges. Agriculture, forestry and other forms of land use are expected to play an important role in carbon sequestration (EEA, 2021b,c) and biomass production for bioenergy and bio-based products (EEA, 2018). At the farm level, nature-based solutions [1] — such as integrated crop-livestock systems, soil organic matter management, mixed cropping, crop rotations, biological pest control and agroforestry — can improve soil and water management and promote biodiversity. These solutions also contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation (EEA, 2021c) and to nature conservation and restoration (EEA, 2019d).

These different perspectives reveal complexity and tensions that may not be easily resolved. Such tensions create fundamental paradoxes in agriculture and food systems.

Paradoxes at the heart of unsustainability in agriculture and food systems 

Agriculture is highly interconnected with a broad set of activities, economic sectors, societal actors, regulations and policies. Considered together, these are often referred to as a food system. Such systems operate across multiple regional scales and are interconnected through international supply chains, financial markets, technologies, flows of resources, information and ideas. How agriculture is framed and its functions are prioritised may have important direct and indirect effects on other food system components and overall sustainability outcomes. These effects — especially the indirect ones — may be counterintuitive. If they are not acknowledged and addressed, they may lead to undesirable consequences. Three important examples are illustrated below.

Despite the focus on producing more, we are still far from achieving healthy diets for all — globally or in Europe

Today’s food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of food to global markets feeding an ever-growing human population. This is because of increasing yields and efficiency and falling food prices over the last 60 years (IPES-Food, 2016; Benton and Bailey, 2019). Despite these achievements, food security [2] is still a major issue worldwide. It is estimated that between 720 and 811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020 (FAO et al., 2021), a figure that has been increasing since 2015. In recent years, more food has not equated to less hunger. More wealth has not meant better health: obesity and diet-related diseases are on the rise globally (WHO, 2018; Willett et al., 2019; UN Environment, 2020). The prospects of a growing global population and a rising global middle class, which is increasingly adopting western lifestyles and consumption levels, are likely to heighten these challenges (EEA, 2020a).

In the EU, food security is still an issue. Although trends indicate that the issue has become less problematic since 2011, in 2020, over 1 in 12 EU citizens could not afford a meal with meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent every second day (Eurostat, 2022). At the same time, EU citizens are increasingly affected by non-communicable diseases associated with dietary choices. For example, the number of people who are overweight or obese is rapidly increasing among EU Member States (Eurostat, 2021a). Obesity alone is estimated to have caused about 2.8 million deaths per year and absorbed 7% of the EU’s health budget in 2017 (FAO et al., 2017).

Inequality is a major driver of food insecurity in Europe and globally. Hence, efforts to increase food production may not hit the mark if barriers impeding access to food and adequate nutrition remain.

Efficiency gains have not halted environmental degradation in Europe or globally

Agriculture contributes to severe environmental and sustainability impacts such as ‘widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high [greenhouse gas] emissions; biodiversity losses; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world’ (IPES-Food, 2016). Recent findings confirm the major roles that climate change and intensive agriculture play in driving the decline of insect biodiversity worldwide (Outhwaite et al., 2022). There are even warnings of a potential global collapse of insect life, pointing to potentially catastrophic effects on food production worldwide (Hallmann et al., 2017; Sánchez‑Bayo and Wyckhuys, 2019).

These impacts are still very significant, despite the fact that since 1960, food production and land use have been decoupled thanks to increases in yield (OECD, 2021). The impacts remain because global competition generally incentivised those who could produce the most and at a cheaper cost, even if the environment was damaged in the process (Benton and Bailey, 2019). Many of the environmental problems associated with agriculture ‘are linked specifically to “industrial agriculture”: the input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots that now dominate farming landscapes’ (IPES-Food, 2016).

In Europe, policies have ensured that the agricultural sector remains competitive. At the same time, efficiency-driven approaches, focusing on short-term productivity and profitability, are paradoxically associated with increased resource use (Vivanco et al., 2018; Paul et al., 2019). For example, ‘where lower (production) costs result in lower prices, consumers are likely to react with increased consumption of the more efficient product’ (Paul et al., 2019). Moreover, as higher efficiencies mean lower production costs and higher income, producers are motivated to expand (specialised) production (Paul et al., 2019).

In Europe, ‘while intensification has enabled the production of food for a growing population, intensive agriculture is also putting pressure on the very resource that sustains it: healthy and productive soil’ (EEA, 2019a). Overall, the intensification of agriculture has resulted in (EEA, 2019a,b):

  • excess nutrients in water bodies and water overabstraction
  • chemical pollution
  • loss of landscape diversity and features (e.g. ponds and hedgerows)
  • loss of soil health and fertility
  • biodiversity loss, including pollinator decline (Figure 1).

Soil health and biodiversity are particularly critical to agricultural production. Despite this, an average of 2.5 tonnes per hectare of soil are lost every year across the EU — a value considerably higher than the average annual rate of soil formation (around 1.4 tonnes per hectare) (Panagos et al. 2015). High erosion levels lead to a loss of agricultural productivity and significant economic costs (Panagos et al., 2018). Soil loss alongside major changes in agricultural practices led to food production in Europe becoming reliant on high inputs of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and on the preventive use of antibiotics (EEA, 2017), although recent trends point to a reduction in antibiotic use (ECDC, 2021). However, the short-term profitability of input-intensive agriculture is likely to come at the expense of long-term soil health and viability.

Agriculture also significantly contributes to climate change by accounting for nearly 10% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions (EEA, 2021g). In turn, climate change affects agriculture in several ways. Changes in temperature and precipitation, as well as weather and climate extremes, are already influencing crop yields and livestock productivity in Europe. These changes also affect water availability for irrigation, livestock watering and food processing (EEA, 2019c, 2021d). Agriculture is dependent on soil characteristics, weather patterns and biodiversity — which makes it one of the socio-economic sectors most sensitive to climate change (EEA, 2021a).

Globally, several, combined factors undermine agriculture’s ability to maintain productivity, ensure resilience and feed a growing global population (Bullock et al., 2017; FAO, 2017; Oliver et al., 2018; EEA, 2020a). These factors include climate change, soil loss and degradation, pollinator decline and multiple environmental pressures. The situation is expected to get worse in the future (UNCCD, 2017).

Figure 1. Decline in grassland butterflies (population index) in Europe between 1991 and 2018

A growing sector, a disappearing heritage in Europe

Europe has made its agricultural sector competitive and is a significant exporter of value-added products, such as processed food, meat and dairy products (OECD and FAO, 2020). Although the gross value of the sector is growing (Eurostat, 2021b), the labour input is shrinking (Eurostat, 2021c). This points to decreasing opportunities for small producers.

Between 2005 and 2016, the number of farms in Europe decreased by about one quarter. In other words, nearly 4.2 million farms were lost — the vast majority of which were small farms (Eurostat, 2018). Small-scale farming in Europe is also threatened by land grabbing, a process involving ‘large-scale purchase or leasing of agricultural land by companies, governments and private individuals’ (EESC, 2015). In land grabbing, land ownership becomes increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few landowners and foreign capital, with a ‘detrimental effect on rural life, with jobs disappearing in the regions affected’ (EESC, 2015).

Between 2012 and 2018, the extent of total arable land and permanent crops did not change significantly (EEA, 2019b). However, several regions in Europe have been subject to ‘land abandonment’ — a process ‘driven by a combination of socio-economic, political and environmental factors by which formerly cultivated fields are no longer economically viable under existing land use and socio-economic conditions’ (Ustaoglu and Collier, 2018). Land abandonment particularly affects rural communities in remote regions, and generally ‘where local economies rely mainly on small farm holdings with limited economic prospects and low productivity, with younger generations tending to move to urban areas’ (EEA, 2019a). Recent estimates indicated that around 30% of agricultural areas in the EU are under at least a moderate risk of land abandonment by 2030 (European Parliament, 2021).

The CAP’s subsidies for rural development have had significant, positive spill-over effects on the wider rural economy and have significantly reduced poverty in rural areas (EC, 2022b). While ‘CAP support can help slow down the rate of depopulation and land abandonment in the EU’ (EC, 2022b), it could not stop land abandonment and loss of rural heritage. This is because those dynamics are connected to broader urbanisation and migration trends — from rural areas to cities for better paid jobs — as well as shrinking and ageing populations (EEA, 2019a, 2020a). Low farm income (EC, 2018), poor working and living conditions for migrant seasonal workers or even modern forms of slavery (EPRS, 2021) are problematic social issues often associated with the same dynamics driving heritage loss.

Agriculture is more than an economic sector 

Agriculture is essential to human society and plays a fundamental role in the transition towards sustainability (EC, 2020c). Therefore, there is value in seeing agriculture as a caretaker of rural communities, the environment and our food — rather than simply an economic sector. Agriculture can be an enabler of food system-related sustainability outcomes (EEA, 2017; see also Figure 2):

(1)    Social well-being: taking care of rural heritage, including the landscape, farmers, rural society and livelihoods. Farmers are seen as experts, empowered to make their own choices.

(2)    Ecosystem health: managing societies’ interface with the natural environment. Agriculture directly depends on and affects ecosystem health and biodiversity. Production systems are adapted to respect soil regeneration, aquifer recharge rates, and ecosystems and biodiversity.

(3)    Food and nutrition security: contributing to food security by producing safe, nutritious and affordable food — and incorporating a long-term perspective.

Figure 2. Agriculture can help a food system reach sustainable outcomes

  Agriculture can help a food system reach sustainable outcomes

Source: EEA (2017)

These enabling functions have been at the core of the CAP since its reform in 2003 (EC, 2003). As much as 37% of the EU’s budget for 2014-2020 went into the CAP (Moës, 2018) — primarily to support farmers and the rural economy, and improve agricultural productivity to ensure a stable supply of affordable food. The secondary aim of the CAP 2014-2020 was to maintain rural areas and help tackle environmental issues.

Despite an effort to ‘green’ the CAP during its 2013 reform, the ‘greening’ measures introduced during 2014-2020 had limited impacts. This is probably because they were introduced in addition to the CAP’s core aim of making agriculture more competitive. These are two different sets of goals that turned out to be in opposition (Matthews et al., 2018).

According to the European Commission, the CAP 2014-2020 had ‘economic, environmental, social and political benefit across the EU’, while ‘results in enhancing environmental protection and climate action by raising standards and encouraging change were mixed’ (EC, 2022b). The way in which CAP tools have been deployed across EU countries has indicated that ‘not all the opportunities to improve the environmental sustainability of farming and to step up climate action were seized’ (EC, 2022b).

The European Court of Auditors suggests that the CAP 2014-2020:

  • failed to contribute to halting biodiversity decline (ECA, 2020)
  • possibly increased rather than reduced water demand (ECA, 2021a)
  • did not significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions — despite the fact that a quarter of all 2014-2020 EU agriculture spending, amounting to over EUR100 billion, was earmarked for tackling climate change (ECA, 2021b).

Moreover, CAP support for 2014-2020 was not fairly distributed: 20% of the beneficiaries received 80% of CAP direct payments (EC, 2022b). Farmers were not fully recognised for their roles in providing public goods outside of the market (Buckwell et al., 2017) and their share of financial benefits was low.

Recent policies developed under the European Green Deal, such as the farm to fork strategy (EC, 2020a) and the EU biodiversity strategy for 2030 (EC, 2020b), have raised sustainability ambitions for agriculture and food systems. Given the mixed results obtained by the CAP 2014-2020 regarding sustainability in agriculture (EC, 2022b), the newly-approved CAP 2023-2027 (EC, 2021) is expected to be ‘fairer, greener and more performance-based’ (Council of the EU, 2021). 40% of its total expenditure (about EUR154.6 billion) is earmarked for climate action (EC, 2022c).

However, the CAP 2023-2027’s effectiveness will largely depend on its implementation at Member State level through national strategic plans. Moreover, despite the CAP 2023-2027’s heightened level of ambition, civil society organisations (e.g. EEB, 2021, EEB and BirdLife International, 2022) have raised concerns over its design and ability to achieve its goals.  

What kind of agriculture do we want to support?

In Europe alone, agriculture is highly diverse — so what may be a solution in one place may create a problem elsewhere. Some strategies may also have unintended consequences. For example, efficiency gains are clearly a sensible strategy to reduce losses along the food production and distribution chain. However, solely relying on strategies targeting system optimisation at the farm level may lock agriculture into the usual, unsustainable cycle (Benton and Bailey, 2019).

Traditional agricultural practices promoted and reinterpreted through agroecology (Altieri, 2002), coupled with change across the whole food system may offer important insights. For example, leveraging dietary change, agroecology and the integration of crop and livestock production could reinforce Europe’s autonomy, resilience and productivity. At the same time, it could reduce pressure on the environment and help cut greenhouse gas emissions (Billen et al., 2021).

A recent analysis of contrasting scenarios for the future of European agriculture in 2040 indicates that in a ‘scenario characterised by environmental-friendly practices, multifunctional landscapes and localism, significant decreases in the environmental pressure of agriculture can be achieved with minimum decrease in agricultural output’ (Rega et al., 2019). This scenario outperforms ‘neo-liberal’, ‘protectionist’ and ‘sovereigntist’ scenarios and suggests that policies targeting multifunctionality and diversified agricultural landscapes could effectively protect biodiversity and ensure food security in Europe (Rega et al., 2019). Similarly, the European Committee of the Regions (2021) suggests that agroecology should be pursued further, as it ‘increases the economic and social resilience of farms with healthy and accessible food’ and reduces some environmental pressures. Nevertheless, concerns have been raised that scenarios with high climate ambitions could negatively impact agricultural productivity and prices (Barreiro Hurle et al., 2021).

According to other studies (e.g. WRI, 2018), the key to sustainability in agriculture lies in increasing efficiency and productivity — coupled with sparing land, managing demand and innovating. Sparing land from agriculture would allow it to be allocated to nature conservation; meanwhile, a high-tech production system would increase the remaining land’s productivity. At the global scale, this could prevent further deforestation and increase carbon sequestration — which would contribute to achieving global climate goals (WRI, 2018). However, intensifying agricultural production requires high inputs of agrochemicals to boost production, with consequent impacts on biodiversity, soil health and food safety. This may also reinforce some of the dynamics which lie at the core of the paradoxes.

Although ‘land-sparing is needed to preserve the last of Europe’s wilderness’ (Grass et al., 2021), this approach alone is not particularly fit for conserving traditional agroecosystems in Europe — where many rare habitats and species have co-evolved with farming over thousands of years (Halada et al., 2011; Grass et al., 2021). Instead, ‘land-sharing practices needed for the preservation of low-intensity agroecosystems, including high nature value farmland’ (Paracchini et al., 2008) should be combined with land-sparing approaches (Grass et al., 2021).

We need to accept that business as usual is no longer a safe course of action. The world needs more nature, not less – and it needs it now if we are to prevent the next big crisis from which we might never recover.

Janez Potočnik, Co-chair UNEP International Resource Panel, and former European Commissioner (Potočnik, 2022)

While technological innovation can contribute to sustainability, traditional knowledge and behavioural change are vital to solving the current food system crisis(Nature Food, 2021). It is important to remind ourselves that we passed the point of business as usual (Potočnik, 2022) and that prioritising ‘short-term security to a subset of vested interests can undermine the resilience of longer-term beneficial outcomes for society’ (Oliver et al., 2018). If we are truly to transform agriculture and the food system, we need to reflect on and debate why and for whom agricultural innovations are created (EEA, 2013, 2021f).

An absolute reduction in environmental pressures and impacts requires fundamental transformation, which cannot be achieved through incremental efficiency gains (EEA, 2021b). Instead, values, worldviews and system goals are potentially the most influential levers for change, but also the most difficult ones to transform.

The European Green Deal and its farm to fork strategy represent a fundamental step towards achieving agriculture and food system sustainability. These commitments should not be undermined by short-sighted responses to rising food prices and fears of global food shortages resulting from the invasion of Ukraine (IPES-Food, 2022).

This is particularly true in the current context, which is characterised by multiple and interconnected crises (EEA, 2020b). Achieving systemic change in agriculture requires moving beyond questions of ‘how’ to farm. Rather than pursuing change simply by improving practices, technologies and processes, fundamental change means asking broader questions, such as:

  • What roles can we imagine for agriculture and the broader food system in a sustainable future?
  • Which of its multiple functions do we want to preserve, grow and support?

Designing practices within the new paradigm may include keeping old practices that are still relevant and making space for creativity. For example, efficiency could play a role in more collaborative ways of producing and consuming. Goals such as ecosystem health and human health and well-being could be better defined to become mutually-reinforcing.

The broader questions that need to be asked include reflecting on the trade-offs that may emerge when the futures we imagine are realised. Can better quality food and production processes be provided for everyone? Is there a risk that these would only be accessible to an elite few? How can quality be ensured while upholding fairness? There are also many actors who need to contribute to making agriculture more sustainable. Some have much more power than others to influence activities and choices (EEA, 2017; Bock et al., 2022). This influence should come with responsibility. How can less influential actors be empowered to contribute to more sustainable agriculture?

European citizens and institutions certainly do not lack knowledge (e.g. EEA, 2017, 2019a,b,c, 2021a,b,c,d) or ideas about possible future avenues. However, there is no obvious solution to these questions or blueprints — particularly at a time of heightened challenges and uncertainty. The suitability of one particular solution is often dependent on the perspective of the observer, as scientific findings and insights alone cannot resolve ethical questions surrounding sustainability issues (EEA, 2020a; Benton and Harwatt, 2022). These are questions that can only be addressed based on people’s worldviews, values and beliefs (Vries, 2013). Hence, to realise systemic change, we need actionable knowledge — co-produced by citizens and communities. The possibilities for such change are ready to be explored.

The following information, documents, and materials were originally published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) and are being shared on this platform with the EEA’s permission. The EEA holds the rights of use for this material, and it may be reused by others without prior permission, provided that the EEA is acknowledged as the original source and the original meaning or message of the content is not distorted.

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Last modified: February 15, 2023