Fact of the week: Europe and the future of agriculture

On Tuesday 23 March the 9th Annual Forum for the Future of Agriculture (FFA) met in Brussels to discuss the challenges facing the agri-food system and their link to the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. The meeting opened with a video address by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and featured a range of global and European leaders, including EU Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan. The conference’s main themes revolved around reforming the agricultural model; changing societal behaviours, including the promotion of more responsible consumption; and disrupting and rethinking the innovation model to achieve more sustainable development in Europe and beyond.

The conference heard how the global agricultural model needs to be reformed to strike a better balance between food production and environmental management. A recurring message was that global leaders and the food industry have failed to fully understand the long-term problems the current agricultural model is perpetuating and that co-ordinated action and leadership at the EU and global level is required to address them. These include the need to make smarter, more efficient use of nutrients, through technological developments and more extensive use of precision farming, and to reduce the high level of food waste at farm, processing and consumer level, for example, through finding outlets for food unwanted in its intended market. The discussion likewise focused on the vital role that consumers, and consumer education, can play in helping to make the transition towards a more sustainable food system.

In the European context, Commissioner Hogan emphasized the active role that the EU is taking, both internally and externally, when it comes to providing leadership in sustainable development and promised this role would “evolve and deepen in the coming years.” He also highlighted how the Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP, has adapted to the sustainable development agenda, with 30% of the direct payment budget now going to greening measures. Despite these positives, it is clear that much remains to be done in order to improve both the economic and ecological sustainability of the European agri-food sector. On Monday more than 50 organizations co-signed a letter to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker demanding a ‘fitness check’ of the CAP in wake of the ongoing farming crisis in Europe, which has triggered several protests by farmers across the continent. Faced with the rising tide of Euroscepticism, and various other economic and political challenges, the EU must show that it can deliver value for money. Hence, a review of the CAP, already accounting for nearly 40% of the EU budget, would be a welcome move and could undoubtedly help the transition to a more efficient and sustainable agricultural model.