Europe and Central Asia
5 May 2020

Our fatal farming system: the other emergency

By Harriet Bradley, EU Agriculture and Bioenergy Officer

We currently produce more than enough food in the EU – even too much when it comes to meat and dairy. But our food systems will be in danger if we don’t urgently bring them in line with planetary boundaries. The COVID crisis is bringing into ever sharper relief the battle between intensive and sustainable agriculture…

The COVID crisis has left me confined to a remoter part of rural England where I see enviably unaware sheep grazing in the fields from my window as I write. As far as confinements go, I am acutely aware of being among the extremely lucky ones.

Digesting emails and expert analysis about the impact this pandemic has on the farming sector, whilst being surrounded by farms, it’s easy to match up what I read with what I see out of my window and hear from local farmers – contrary to industry opportunism, expert analysis confirms that the land’s ability to produce food is not what is at stake here. Europe produces enough food to sustain its population. Most areas are even self-sufficient, and agricultural production this year is on track, given most crops will have been sown before the impacts of the crisis hit. Rather, the challenges for the farm sector are coming from supply chain disruptions: from worker shortages to transport issues. 

So whilst assisting the farming sector to overcome the immediate challenges is justified, the attempts by intensive farming lobbies to exploit the crisis to slash our already weak environmental safeguards in the name of producing enough food are immense folly. This is a direct attack on nature, on people, and it even poses an existential threat to farming itself – we already know how badly pollinators are impacted by intensive agriculture, and without them, we cannot produce food.

This crisis should also prompt us to reconsider all the potential food crops like maize and rapeseed that get burnt for bioenergy: 60% of rapeseed in the EU goes to biodiesel and much of the maize grown in countries like Germany goes to biogas plants. This competes with food production, harming nature and increasing greenhouse gas emissions as forests in other parts of the world are cut down.

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Luckily, there are other farmers who are against exploiting this pandemic, and want to see destructive, intensive agriculture come to an end. 40 organisations including organic, small scale and agroecological farmers have joined forces with environmental NGOs and other civil society organisations, to stress the urgent need for sustainable European farming policies - from the Farm to Fork Strategy to the Common Agricultural Policy (or the CAP, one of the largest systems of farm subsidies in the world).

Europe isn’t forced to continue down this path. A study into the viability of shifting to agro-ecological production systems in Europe by 2050 showed that it can be done: we can lower overall production and still feed Europe’s population sustainably and nutritiously. How? By producing differently and smarter. Freeing up land by reducing meat production by 45%, reviving ecosystems by dedicating 10% of farmland to agro-ecological infrastructures such as hedges, flower strips, and ponds, and preserving semi-natural grasslands. The transition to agroecology also involves phasing out pesticides and fertilisers, and stopping burning food crops like maize and rapeseed for biofuels.