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Debate on sustainable intensification of agriculture

Can food production be increased without putting natural resources under more pressure? This was the central question when Aarhus University and the Knowledge Centre for Agriculture invited scientists, authorities and representatives from the industry to a discussion on sustainable agriculture on Friday 24 October.

[Translate to English:] Bæredygtig intensivering af europæisk landbrug var på dagsordenen, da repræsentanter fra hele sektoren mødtes i Aarhus. Foto: Janne Hansen

The United Nations estimates that by 2050 our planet will need to support a population of more than nine billion people. A growing population coupled with general economic growth means that the demand for food and agricultural products will grow significantly. But how do you increase food production without cultivating more land and impoverishing the natural landscape and the environment?

This was the crucial question when Aarhus University and the Knowledge Centre for Agriculture invited 30 representatives from research, the agricultural sector and relevant authorities in both Denmark and the EU to a discussion on the sustainable agriculture of the future on Friday 24 October under the heading Sustainable Intensification of European Agriculture. The perspectives and the opinions were varied, but there was general consensus that changes are needed in the current agricultural production systems.

Soil is not just soil

The backdrop to the symposium was a report on sustainable intensification of European agricultural production that the RISE Foundation had published earlier in the year. The report argues that there will be a demand for more food products in the future but that at both European and global level it will be problematic to further expand agricultural production into nature conservation areas. The solution is therefore to develop new ways of intensifying production on existing areas without harming the soil, biodiversity, the climate and the environment and while also creating synergy between intensified production and support of other ecosystem functions.

One of the authors of the report, Professor Winfried Blum from BOKU in Vienna, was one of the keynote speakers at the meeting.

On the basis of 20,000 soil samples, he had divided European soil into different areas according to their suitability for intensification, status quo or extensification. The samples give a picture of a soil’s ability to utilize and retain nutrients and Winfried Blum argued at the meeting that there is a need to differentiate the use of the agricultural land by looking at the resilience of the different soil types.

The project results show that it would be possible to intensify on 44 percent of European farmland, but that much of the agricultural area in the EU does not have the potential to be further intensified because the soil simply is not sufficiently resilient. For Denmark, Blum believes that there is potential for further sustainable intensification of 27.1 percent of the agricultural land, while 1.3 percent of the land should be under more extensive management. He also estimates that 21.1 percent of the Danish area may be subject to intensification under certain restrictions, while the status quo is recommended for 50.5 percent of the area.

Soil analyses not enough

The large study sparked a debate among participants, and although there was general interest in the potential in soil quality mapping, it was pointed out that there are also other factors to be considered when discussing whether an area is suited for a more intensive or extensive sustainable production.

Irene Wiborg from the Knowledge Centre for Agriculture reviewed in her presentation the recommendations by the Danish Commission on Nature and Agriculture, who likewise have identified the need to intensify production in resilient areas and correspondingly extensify in others. The recommendations indicate, however, that there is a need for a more nuanced mapping than what the relatively simple soil analyses can provide. Not all initiatives are equally relevant everywhere, and there is a need for a more solid basis to identify the areas that can be intensified and those than can be extensified.

Another important topic in the debate was new manure handling methods. Denmark has for decades focused on reducing the loss of nitrogen to the aquatic environment. This has been achieved by setting standards for the use of nitrogen, which has led to the production now being below the economic optimum. At the meeting the Knowledge Centre pointed out that this is unnecessarily costly for both society and agriculture and that it has resulted in a drop in wheat yields and topsoil degradation. It was argued that there is a need to allow higher nitrogen applications in areas where analyses show that this would not adversely affect the environment, and more site-specific regulations would here allow farmers to produce both more and better food commodities.

A rethink required

Another of the keynote speakers at the meeting was Professor Allan Buckwell from the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) in London. He also contributed to the RISE report and pointed out at the meeting that sustainable intensification requires more knowledge. Sustainable intensification is precisely one of the methods that Professor Buckwell believes can counter the global encroachment of agriculture onto nature conservation areas and he explained that intensification as a concept needs to give a better vibe. This can be done by associating the concept with the "knowledge per hectare” idea. In other words, intensification needs to be based on knowledge of local conditions, which can improve resource efficiency.

Several people also stressed the importance of not forgetting the farmers whose land according to the data would not be suitable for intensification. Who is going to pay for their lack of earnings – and would EU subsidies be an option? Here the cultivation of perennial crops was suggested as a possible solution, which can ultimately both reduce the import of soy protein and secure an income for farmers.

In his presentation, section manager John Erik Hermansen from the Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University talked about the research initiative BioBase. Here researchers are looking at how to create a sustainable and bio-based production of, among other things, energy/biofuels and new feedstuffs without compromising food production. Compared with an intensive production of cereal, a biomass production based on perennial crops, particularly grass-clover, will improve the crop rotation and result in higher biodiversity and soil fertility. Nitrogen leaching is also reduced as is the use of pesticides.

The development of methods to extract protein from green biomass would also allow you to intensify food production on areas where a more intensive cereal production would be problematic for the environment. The "good" cereal production land could in return be used for a more intensive and more sustainable cultivation of cereals. The challenge is, however, that there is a shortage of effective biorefining options, so this is an area where more research is urgently needed.

Others warned, however, of the global consequences of an increased European production of protein crops. The argument was that a lower cereal production in the EU may indirectly lead to changes in land use in other parts of the world, which can lead to increased cereal production in areas where the natural conditions are not conducive to such production. It was therefore questioned whether an increased European production of protein crops would be desirable in a global perspective.

Holistic approach

The participants at the meeting thus covered many aspects but found no simple answer to the big question of how best to combine an increased food production with the lowest environmental impact.

It was stressed on numerous occasions that there is a need for differentiated environmental regulation and land mapping at farm level. It was also strongly emphasised that other factors besides soil fertility are crucial to sustainable intensification – such as water flow, land management, crop selection and crop rotation. It is also important to ensure that sustainable intensification in Europe, as described in the report, remains focused on the sustainable use of natural resources and on intensification through more and better knowledge per hectare.

The conclusion of the meeting was therefore that there is a need for more research, land mapping and for a greater focus on sustainable intensification.

Further information

Niels Halberg
Director, DCA
E-mail: Niels.Halberg@icrofs.org
Phone: 00458715 8037
Mobile: 29630093