For sustainable agriculture, big is beautiful

The EU should 'think big' and face tomorrow’s challenge to feed the world sustainably, argue the presidents of the Dutch and Danish farm organisations. To do so, an EU business policy for the agro-food sector and common European standards for sustainable foods are very much needed, they write.

By Albert Jan Maat, President of the Dutch Federation of Agriculture and Horticulture, LTO Nederland, and Martin Merrild, President of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council, Landbrug & Fødevarer.

In 1969, when Neil Armstrong took one small step for man and a big step for mankind on the surface of the moon, the image that stuck to our minds was that of ‘Earth rise’ above the lunar surface. We were young back then and amongst some 3.6 billion fellow earthlings on this beautiful blue planet that Armstrong turned his camera on to picture for the first time. Today our families have grown and the world population risen above 7.1 billion people. That is a wonderful thing – big is beautiful.

Yet with the increased size of the world population – every day we are 140,000 more – our challenges have increased as well. Fortunately, in most countries of the world, farmers have caught up with the demand for more food until now, and farmer’s cooperatives have delivered agricultural products to consumers of ever higher quality and consistency, whilst improving animal welfare and reducing the environmental impacts per unit of production.

The need to produce more on less land

Huge investments in modern agriculture have rendered this positive development possible, and every day, we continue to strive for enhanced resource efficiency. In doing so, pace is still a choice, yet, the direction towards an ever more sustainable and intensive agricultural production is a necessity; Earth’s supply of resources is challenged.

In particular, the increased world population generates an expansion of cities and infrastructure networks in the country side that puts a strain on the availability of fertile land. With climate change, land scarcity is set to be exacerbated as major areas will experience a decline in productivity due to extreme weather events such as draught or flooding.

Hence it becomes a moral imperative to increase production on remaining arable land in order to cater to the demand for ever more and better food, which is sought by an ever richer world population – each minute some 100 people (97 to be precise or 340,000 a day) are lifted out of poverty to join the new middle class, essentially in emerging countries in Asia and Africa. They demand a better diet, and it would be immoral to deny them proteins previously more exclusively consumed in the west.

Sustainable intensification of agricultural production

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has promoted the notion of sustainable intensive production. Every day, we strive to deliver just that. In doing so successfully we have modernised and innovated production lines, enhancing efficiencies and decoupling environmental impacts from production; meanwhile, and partly as a means to cope with these challenges, we have grown bigger.

Ammonia emissions reductions in the Netherlands and in Denmark are one such example of successful sustainable intensive production; since the mid-1990s and in spite of production increases, R&I and a ban on broad spreading of manure has effectively reduced ammonia emissions in both countries. Today emissions per livestock unit – 14 and 12 kg for the Netherlands and Denmark respectively – are significantly lower than the 25 kg EU average, which has led the European Commission’s directorate for the environment to notice our experience as best practice examples.    

Unity makes strong, and in joining forces throughout the food supply chain and within agricultural cooperatives, we have freed resources to invest in R&D, refine best-practices and fine tune synergies.

Historically, farms were small, and cooperatives tiny. Faced with a volatile market, farmers were at the mercy of forces beyond their control. So coming together was a protective measure, which turned out to become both more profitable and more resource efficient.

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