Copyright © Agronomica Ltd
Home page.Sustainable Farming.Research & Consultancy.About Us.Contact Us.

Approaches to Sustainability 

These are still very much at an evolutionary stage in all EU countries. There are big differences of emphasis - as well as common elements - in the strategies different countries are following, as well as in the specific measures they have already adopted or plan to introduce. They can be classified under four main headings:

Integrated and organic systems

There are currently two principal approaches to achieving sustainable agriculture  in the wider sense defined above.  First, there has been what can fairly be described as the fundamentalist response of organic agriculture, with its bans on all synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, and other stringent rules. This has achieved a remarkably high public profile, to the point that politicians and the media often equate ‘organic’ with ‘sustainable’.   For more information see: www.ifoam.org

The conversion of farms to organic is now strongly supported by the EC and, to a greater or lesser extent, in all EU member states. And though organic production still accounts overall for less than five percent of farmland in the European Union, the organic movement s agenda-setting power and influence is significantly greater than this would indicate. It has, most notably, been one vocal advocate of the ‘red flag’ policies pursued by EU member states, greatly delaying the introduction of GM crops and foods.

The organic movement’s campaigns have also contributed to a climate of opinion which increasingly demands zero pesticide residues in foods, ultra-low levels of nitrates in drinking water, and the extension of the ‘precautionary principle’ to the point that the development and introduction of new crop protection chemicals and animal health products has become extremely difficult and expensive.

In contrast to the situation with organic, the absence of a single set of standards backed up by an uniform and transparent independent certification system has arguably done much to handicap efforts to promote integrated production systems (incorporating integrated crop management (ICM) and integrated pest management (IPM)) and the various animal welfare codes that constitute the other main approach to sustainability.  For more information see: www.sustainable-agriculture.org

Versions of ICM/IPM now provide the basis for most of the commercial protocols that are coming to dominate the procurement activities of major food firms across the EU - both manufacturers/processors and the largest retail groups. Since such protocols now cover a much greater proportion of total farm production - over 50 percent of some commodities (such as potatoes) - than organic, their impact on farming and ‘sustainability’ issues is already very much larger.

Indeed, if the process continues, integrated production will become the new conventional. In this context a key element is ‘traceability‘ where the aim is to track products from farm to final customer.  However, the extent to which the various schemes explicitly include natural resource management and other ‘sustainable’ objectives varies greatly and is becoming increasingly contentious

These quality assurance and animal welfare schemes and protocols have principally been set up and run by food processors and supermarket chains. Others are under the control of government organisations, farmer/grower groups or other producer-controlled organisations. Two issues in particular have bedevilled their introduction and widespread adoption. One is the precise methods and products that are permitted under the protocols.  The other is the rules and procedures for inspection and certification.

Whereas ‘organic’ now has near-universal consumer recognition, for integrated labels and logos this is at best limited and confused; indeed many of the protocols linked to procurement contracts have only a trade rather than a consumer identity. It has been argued that this will not change until the protocols converge and acquire a common brand identity.

Linked to this is the thorny issue of price premiums for those producers who follow a demanding protocol.  What persuaded the organic sector more than a decade ago to agree on an uniform set of standards (and their subsequent incorporation in EU and national legislation) was the realisation that without uniformity it would be impossible to prevent cheating and this in turn would make it difficult to obtain the large price premiums for both crop and livestock products on which organic production so heavily depends.

The question is whether food produced under an integrated standard should be sold at a premium is a matter for the market place. It has happened with a few products - for example apples grown under IPM rules in the Trentino area of Italy - fetch a significant premium.  Chiefly, non-organic products that sell at a premium are those with a regional/varietal quality claim that consumers recognise and value (for instance Jersey new potatoes, premium wines, Bresse chicken & ). 

It may be that in future producers of these premium-priced non-organic products will feel that adding an integrated certification will reinforce their position. This is the logic of wine growers in Champagne who have largely adopted lutte raisoneé methods. But for the producers of bulk commodity products compliance with a particular protocol is more likely to be the unavoidable cost of obtaining a supply contract. The issue then will then be whether such a contract provides sufficient benefits in terms of a guaranteed outlet or price. 

The indications that for most producers it will be hard to say ‘no’.  In most cases the grower has to carry all the costs of compliance  including extra paperwork, audit costs, the costs of providing a secure store and so on  without any immediate extra reward. Such costs bear particularly hard on smaller producers particularly in developing countries. But the competition to find markets means that over time those producers who refuse are likely to find themselves replaced by others who comply.

The fast-growing importance of both approaches - Integrated and organic - is increasingly evident at all stages of the food chain.  They are changing farming methods, the inputs used (and how they are applied), the way crops and livestock are marketed, the procurement procedures of processors and retailers, and the food buying decisions of many caterers as well as much of the general public.

What is Sustainable Farming?

SUSTAINABLE
FARMING

 

What is Sustainable Farming 

All EU member states do now have a strategic commitment to promote sustainable farming and all have put in place a number of measures with this objective. But, that said, what is very apparent is that these measures are a very variable mix of initiatives under the first two headings above, and the overall approach varies greatly from country to country.

In France, for example, sustainability is being promoted chiefly around the concept of l’agriculture raisonneé. This version of IPM/ICM forms the core of a national programme with broad environmental objectives and well-defined rules which farmers can join and receive financial incentives. This programme is increasingly being linked with various product label schemes that have marketing benefits. Most significantly it is coming to provide the basis for food firm procurement protocols and to provide consumers with an environmentally-friendly alternative to organic which is expected in due course to supersede existing conventional production. For more information see:www.agriculture.gouv.fr

In contrast, Germany has adopted a rather different approach, with much of the initiative being left to the individual landers. The measures put in place so far differ considerably from one lander to another. At federal level, with a Minister of Agriculture from the Green Party official policy is putting heavy emphasis on extending the organic area. For more information see : www.bmvel.bund.de

The Italian approach is in some respects similar to the French, with a national programme to encourage the adoption of l’agricultura sostensibile.  One key objective of this is pesticide use (or, more accurately, pesticide residue) reduction. This builds in part on quite long established IPM protocols - for examples those followed by the great majority of Trentino apple growers - that have generated both public recognition and (in some instances) price premiums.  Italy is also the home of the ‘slow food’ movement with its emphasis on traditional varieties and methods. For more information see: www.politicheagricole.It

In Spain, one powerful driver for the wider adoption of sustainable methods is currently the need to meet the increasingly stringent demands of the export market, especially for horticultural products. The danger is that growers and their marketing organisations become obliged to comply with a medley of commercial protocols, creating confusion and adding to costs. As in France and Italy, there are a number of traditional products that already have strict production codes - for example for ham; these can be brought under the sustainability umbrella to qualify for any special support payments, but this possibility has so far been little exploited. For more information see: www.mapya.es

In Denmark, the official focus is on food quality as much as on environment protection, driven in part by the need to maintain the reputation of Danish food exports. Denmark followed Sweden in introducing pesticide taxes. Ambitious targets have been set for organic conversion, backed up with higher levels of subsidy than in most other EU countries.  For more information see: www.fvm.dk

As in Denmark, the heavy concentration of livestock and the consequent water pollution problems from their effluent is a key concern in the Netherlands. The Dutch policy on this has been to encourage a modest shift in intensive livestock to areas where animal manures can be used safely, and also to develop on-farm techniques for manure handling and treatment that minimise the problem. The Dutch have also adopted a pesticide use reduction programme (particularly for the glasshouse industry which now makes heavy use of biological control methods); however, the main thrust of Dutch policy has been to focus their ecological and biodiversity conservation efforts on protected areas, avoiding measures that will reduce production on the main crop - arable and grassland - areas. While there is official support for conversion to organic, there is no suggestion that this will supersede  conventional production - albeit modified on ‘integrated’ lines - as the mainstream system.  For more information see: www.mininv.nl

This issue is approached somewhat differently in official UK policy. Widespread public concern about ‘intensive farming’ and food safety, exacerbated by the traumatic experience of the BSE and food-and-mouth outbreaks, has generated political pressures for changes in agricultural and food policy. So have falling farm incomes. Late in 2002 the government announced a new ‘strategy’ for sustainable farming and food. This includes plans for a new ‘broad and shallow’ agri-environment scheme that is hoped most farmers will eventually join.

Alongside this there will be continued support for the more demanding ’countryside stewardship’ programme, and measures whose aim is to ‘improve the efficiency of the food chain’.  Where this differs markedly from, for example, the French and Dutch schemes is that it does not provide for official food product quality certification, which remains matter of private initiatives (except for organic certification which is legally regulated as in all EU countries). For more information see:www.defra.gov.uk

What must be emphasised is that - with a few exceptions - the strongest pressure for the adoption of sustainable methods is now coming from commercial players, with the pace being set by the larger food firms. This includes the major supermarket groups - such as  Tesco, Sainsburys, Carrefour, Albert Heijn, Edeka, Migros and many others - as well as leading food manufacturers such as Danone, Nestlé and Unilever.

While their main concerns are food quality, food safety and traceability, several of the other issues cited earlier (for example animal welfare) are either included in suppliers’ production protocols, or else are taken into account separately in the procurement process. In an effort to regain the initiative, a number of producer organisations have set up their own quality assurance/traceability schemes, in some cases attempting to promote these at consumer level with logos and PR. An example is the red tractor logo used in the scheme set up by the National Farmers Union in the UK. At present the situation is increasingly confusing for many farmers and growers, with a proliferation of schemes.