Sustainable agricultural productivity – a growing challenge for biodiversity

Europe's World

Climate & Energy

Picture of Jean-Charles Bocquet
Jean-Charles Bocquet

Director General of the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA)

Farmers and an array of agri food-chain actors provide Europe a plentiful supply of safe, healthy and affordable food. Consumers, accustomed to the ready availability of food are often unaware of the enormous challenges facing agriculture.

Food production will need to increase by around 70% to satisfy the demands of a population which is expected to grow by more than a third (2.3 billion more people) between 2009 and 2050.

The EU is a major contributor to global food security and a key player in efforts to reach the millennium goals on combating hunger. However, society’s demands on agriculture don’t stop at food-supply; the sector is expected to contribute to economic prosperity, support the social wellbeing of rural areas and help preserve natural resources including biodiversity.

The single most important driver of biodiversity loss is the destruction of habitat, which is typically the result of land-use change, to which human activities like infrastructure including road construction or agriculture have been largely contributing; (today some 25% of the EU is classified as cropland).

In addition to avoiding further loss of habitat there is also a pressing need to protect and restore the quality of much existing farmland. Poor agricultural practices can contribute to environmental degradation and ultimately risk the provisioning and regulating ecosystem services which help secure global food supply.

Highly productivity and resource efficiency help meet agriculture’s economic, social and environmental challenges; sustainable productive agriculture brings the best of both worlds – more crops and better environmental protection.

No viable alternatives

Policy asks of Europe to ‘produce more with less’; but how does this call for resource efficiency manifest itself in the world of crop production? Farmers optimise yields by protecting crops from pests and diseases; this lends itself to an efficient use of resources (e.g. fuel, time, and capital) and also contributes to prevent the loss of natural habitat that can occur when agricultural land expands to compensate for crop losses.

In the absence of crop protection, losses for certain crops can exceed 80% of potential yield, and relatively resource inefficient practices – such as low-input farming – average up to 34% lower yields than productive agriculture within the EU.

If we wish to maintain and improve yields and make efficient use of natural resources we must continue to protect crops, and today there are no viable alternatives to pesticides for either conventional or organic farming.

By closing yield gaps state-of-the art plant protection products allow agriculture to play a central role in delivering sustainable solutions that make efficient use of natural resources and reserve space for nature.

No unacceptable influence on the environment

Pesticides are formulated to protect crops by discouraging, confusing, altering the behaviour, or killing target pests, diseases and pathogens; this raises inevitable questions about impacts on non-target species that may be unintentionally exposed to pesticides.

Risks to non-target species are assessed and accommodated in EU regulations; active substances in pesticides are only approved in the EU if it may be expected that their use will not have any harmful effects on human and animal health or on groundwater or any unacceptable influence on the environment.

While pesticide use is certainly not without risk, a sensible, risk-based approach to EU legislation ensures farmers have access to the products that are safe to use and European consumers can enjoy a high degree of confidence in the safety, availability and affordability of their food.

Good, better, best

For agriculture to be sustainable, it must be efficient, productive and contribute to a resilient natural environment; to achieve this, farmers require access to appropriate tools and familiarity with best management practices.

Policy makers should embrace science and innovation, and pursue smart policies that ensure appropriate balance between economic, social and environmental needs. These are timely considerations as the European Commission conducts fitness checks on important regulation including the Birds and Habitats directives.

The sustainability challenge requires that we exploit proven technologies and continue to invest in the research and development of solutions for tomorrow. Political support for biodiversity protection, a knowledgeable and passionate community of famers, and the engaged expertise of industry and NGOs can be combined to make the rural environmental more biodiversity friendly and more productive. 

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