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Moving away from conventional farming

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Tractors in a field
© EIT Food

As our conventional agrisystem has grown, its focus has been on finding cheaper ways to produce more food to feed our growing population. As a result, farmers in Europe often receive prices for their products that don’t even cover the costs of production, forcing them to rely on subsidies just to stay afloat.

Additionally, many farmers are seeing tangible changes to their farm. Production is declining; there are more pests and diseases; more fluctuating and extreme temperatures, heavy rain events and winds.

Uncovered soil combined with occasional heavy rains are causing extreme erosion and loss of fertile soils. Further exacerbating the issue is deforestation, and the grazing and burning of land that has expanded deserts in the region. Water scarcity has been temporarily held at bay through irrigation, dams and use of drought-resistant crops; but as soil erodes, and over-irrigation makes it saline and unproductive, opportunities in agriculture in Europe are increasingly limited.

Farming has become incredibly costly to the environment – and to the farmer.

Not only that, but industrialised agriculture is leading to a collapse of the social fabric of rural communities. The life of a farmer has always meant hard work and high risk, but communities can see that things are getting worse. For example, over the last hundred years, rural poverty in the Mediterranean (caused by drought and erosion) has led to mass migration to the cities; this exodus only amplifies environmental issues as well as social and economic divides. For all these reasons, the Mediterranean is a priority region in tackling climate change and transforming the agrifood sector in Europe.

Farming systems and ecological systems are intrinsically linked, and that our human wellbeing depends on a sustainable relationship with the natural world. To future-proof our farms, we need to act on a systemic level – but we all have a part to play.

Natural capital & ecosystem services

Natural capital refers to the social and economic benefits we all get from a healthy ecosystem. For example, a wetland that filters freshwater, a healthy lake with plentiful fishing stock, the pollination of crops by bees, or clean, forest-filtered air.

When maintained in a healthy balance, these natural stocks provide benefits and services that we all need for survival.

Unfortunately, in Europe, our natural capital and ecosystem services are under pressure.[1]

Threats to natural capital in Europe

Soil erosion

  • Loss of soil: decarbonisation and soil loss through surface erosion
  • Hydrology: low or no ground cover results in lower water uptake. Unsustainable use of water sources results in desertification and salinisation
  • Salinisation: soils are becoming more saline
  • Pollution of soil by herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilisers

Climate change

Caused by:

  • Direct and indirect emissions: manure, cattle, feed production
  • Land change, tilling
  • Loss of organic matter in soil reduces the ability of soil to sequester carbon

Biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation

Caused by:

  • Soil erosion and climate change
  • Habitat destruction.
  • Pollution: as a side effect of the use of herbicides, fertilisers and manure.

Greater occurrence of pests and plagues

  • Monocultures are more vulnerable to the rapid spread of pests and plagues
  • Degradation of ecosystems, soil and hydrology make crops and cattle more vulnerable to pests and diseases

Land abandonment

  • Decreasing opportunities to make a decent living
  • Lack of facilities in rural areas
  • Monocultures requiring few people and labour

The Economic cost

Together, these issues pose a massive threat to health, food security and biodiversity worldwide. They are all interconnected, through complex interactions of chemical compounds, species and material and nutrient cycles. But for now, let’s take one example: soil erosion in Mediterranean countries.

Although erosion is a world- wide problem, Mediterranean countries have an above-average risk for erosive events, flood events and water scarcity.[2] It is estimated that erosion in Europe costs between 4.80 € and 93.33€ per hectare and year.[4]

The total cost of soil degradation in the EU is approximately 97 Billion € per year. Two-thirds of these are costs to human health.[3]

According to the European Commission, land degradation in the Mediterranean threatens food security directly, as 30% of the semi-dry areas have already been affected by desertification. 52% of agricultural land is moderately or severely affected by soil degradation, with arable land loss estimated at 30 to 35 times the historical rate.[1]

© EIT Food
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The Regenerative Agriculture Revolution

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