Azara Blog: More EU land is allegedly being farmed

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Date published: 2008/08/03

The BBC says:

In less than a year, 5% more of the EU's countryside is being farmed - 1.3m extra hectares. Quite suddenly, Europe is growing around 14% more food, because there is a market for it and a profit in it.

The changes are visible. The view from the car window on the drive across Belgium is one of intensive cultivation.

Fields tend to be ploughed right up to the edges of roads, woods and rivers. It is very rare to see anything resembling a meadow.

And across the EU, the picture is becoming similar. It is not that farmers have lost their subsidy for set-aside land - that has been incorporated into other areas of their grant income - it is that they are now also allowed to bring disused pieces of land back into production.

And, thanks to the increase in prices, for the first time in many years, they can do this profitably.

Alarm bells have been sounding among conservationists. Set-aside was designed to protect the farmers, not the environment, but the accidental benefits to plant, animal and bird species have been significant.

The non-use of fertilisers and pesticides on disused land has meant an improvement in ground-water quality. The aesthetics of the countryside, it has been argued, have been improved.

Ariel Brunner, who monitors the changes in European Agriculture for Birdlife International, one of the more influential environmental lobby groups in Brussels, says the bureaucrats have made big mistakes.

"Basically, what we are seeing is a big drive towards intensification which will put huge strains on the environment," he says.

"Set-aside has been abolished with hardly any thought to the implications. We are predicting a threat to many wild species. Biodiversity will feel the heat from this.

"One of the most important issues will be water quality. We are already facing very severe ground water and river pollution problems in Europe's most heavily-cultivated regions.
Pekka Pensonen, general secretary of Copa-Cogeca, which represents farming unions across the EU, is candid about the situation.

"The pressures are quite controversial for farmers", he says.

"We are asked to deliver food for reasonable prices and, at the same time, we are asked to maintain biodiversity.

"And it's a difficult question; should we do the biodiversity thing or should we respond to the market requirements? I don't think we can do both.

Pensonen has it about right. There are six billion people on the planet, heading upwards to nine billion within a few decades. These people need to be fed, and the increasingly wealthy people outside the developed countries want to eat as well as the citizens of the developed countries. There is also the (unfortunate) trend towards using food crops for biofuels, which is adding further pressure. Basically, humans are occupying more and more of the planet's ecosystem. There are two ways to reduce that fraction: make humans effectively poorer (e.g. force everyone to be a vegetarian, or make it illegal to own a car or fly), or have fewer humans. Since the so-called environmentalists (e.g. Brunner) decry this increased occupation, they should make it clear which option of decrease they support.

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