The European Commission released its Biodiversity and Farm to Fork Strategies (F2F) last week. As part of the Green Deal, it aims to deliver a large portion of the environmental objectives of the latter, mainly by delivering on the agricultural industry.
To achieve the carbon neutrality target of the Green Deal by 2050, all areas of the economy will have to commit to European ambitions. However, the prominence of the Agricultural sector will be increased as it is currently the sector with the biggest potential to reduce its emissions. Agriculture and the food sector in general “make a major contribution to air, soil and water pollution and GHG emissions, and have a profound impact on biodiversity.” However, with the right practises, agriculture has the potential to actively remove CO2 from our atmosphere and increase the capturing capability of soils. The timing of the release, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, is ironically fortunate, as the global event highlights the interrelations between our health, ecosystems, supply chains, consumption patterns and planetary boundaries.
The potential business and technological impacts of this comprehensive strategy have already been assessed here and here. However, the biggest impacts will be on the environment. The ecological implications of will be centred around five important axes: the reduction of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) emissions, the reduction of fertiliser use, the reduction of pesticides, the reduction of the use of antibiotics and the shift to sustainable fisheries.
Agriculture is responsible for 10.7% of Europe’s GHG emissions. However, 70% of these emissions are non-CO2 GHG, consisting of methane and nitrous oxide and come from the animal production sector. The sector also represents 68% of the total agricultural land used.
A few solutions can effectively reduce these emissions.
Methane emissions are a direct consequence of animals’ diets and can, therefore, be reduced by changing the diet. Shifting to aquatic animal feed (algae and fish-products) can reduce methane emissions by up to 30%. Further, the choices related to feeding should also include the implications of sourcing. 73% of the protein meals for animal production in the EU came from soya, which is usually imported and often linked to deforestation. Therefore, shifting animal feed to alternative feed materials such as insects, marine feedstocks (e.g. algae) and by-products from the bio-economy would result in a dramatic reduction of both Carbon-based and non-carbon GHG emissions.
Although the agricultural industry is a contributor to carbon emissions, some agricultural practices can actually increase the carbon capturing capacity of soils and actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere. These practises contribute to our carbon neutrality targets and, according to the European Commission “should be rewarded”. The carbon removal certification system will hopefully incentivise farmers across Europe to capture carbon emissions. The agricultural sector would, therefore, become carbon positive and become an active sink for European carbon.
Reduction of Agricultural inputs
Traditional agriculture usually requires a heavy input of nutrients, be it nitrogen or phosphorus, as these elements are a prerequisite for plant growth. However, the uptake of these nutrients is not efficient. The gap between the nutrients applied and those effectively taken up by crops lead to an overload in soils which has a variety of deleterious effects.
The excess nutrients present in the soil will usually be either carried away over-time or leach into deeper layers of the soil. The effect is the same: the excess nutrient will run-off into waterways and eventually in the marine environment. The excessive presence of nutrients in aquatic and marine environments leads to a process called eutrophication.
The nutrients stimulate the growth of algae, while the population of the algae’s predators remain constant. This unchecked growth leads to algal blooms, and patches of the ocean the size of the United Kingdom turn green overnight (or in some cases yellow and red). The rapid proliferation in algal biomass is self-limiting; usually, iron or light become limiting factors and result in sudden mass mortality of algae in the bloom. Bacteria and fungi are then fed to gorge on the dead remains of the algae. However, the microbes are also self-limiting. As the plant matter is metabolised the quickly reduce the local oxygen levels and are reduced to near zero resulting in a hypoxic zone. Fish have a low tolerance to hypoxia. The fall in oxygen levels can stun, slow or even kill them.
Further, excess nutrients can also lead to increased GHG emissions. Indeed, when nitrogen is in the presence of oxygen - and as it is usually sprayed on top of the soil, large quantities are in the presence of, well, air… - it reacts and creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with 265 - 298 times the Global Warming Potential of CO2. Nitrous oxide remains in the atmosphere much less than CO2: it “only” takes 114 years for it to be reabsorbed into the soils - which is good news I guess?
The Commission’s target to reduce nutrient losses by at least 50% by 2030 will likely decrease the occurrence of agricultural run-off, leading to reduced eutrophication events in European waters. Further, its implied ambitions to enable precision farming practices will allow farmers to deploy nutrients directly where it is needed, i.e. close to the plant’s roots and at the exact time when it is needed, leading to reduced contact with the air and therefore a reduction in nitrous oxide emissions.
Another area that was closely looked at by the Commission was the use of pesticides in European agriculture. Pesticides can have tremendous deleterious effects on the environment. Their unchecked overuse has already had immense consequences for the European biodiversity.
The decline in species richness and species diversity of European farm birds has been linked to the use of pesticides, so has the decline in pollinators such as bees and other insects. Further, as pesticides are usually applied the same way as nutrients are, the run-off and the leaking effects also lead to their increased occurrence in waterways. Pesticide-contaminated water poses a great threat to aquatic life. It can affect aquatic plants, decrease dissolved oxygen in the water and can cause physiological and behavioural changes in fish populations. Further, most herbicides, one of the most widely used forms of pesticides, are usually non-discriminatory, which means they will have the same effects on most plants. As herbicides are usually sprayed on top of the targeted plants, they are often subject to drifting or volatilization which leads to adverse effects on nearby ecosystems. These substances can injure nearby plants and tres, reduce seed quality and increase susceptibility to plant diseases.
Integrated Pest Management practises consist of a broad-based approach that integrates practices for economic control of pests and therefore aims to reduce pest populations below the economic injury level, as opposed to suppressing them altogether and at all costs. Through their use, the Commission aims to reduce the use of pesticides by 50% by 2030 which would increase the potential for ecosystem recovery in EU farmlands.
The Case of Fisheries
European fisheries have been continuously overfished for decades. The EU first committed to ending overfishing back in 2013, setting up targets for 2015 which were missed. Subsequently, the targets were moved to 2020. However, the fishing quotas for 2020 remain too high: more than enable overfishing, they actively promote those practices. Overfishing damages the environment as well as the broader economy. Mismanaging natural, renewable resources ruins our natural marine heritage and costs us jobs, food, and money. (Oceana, 2018). While the European Commission itself acknowledges that fish stocks should urgently be brought back to sustainable levels, the actions proposed under the F2F are still vague and rely heavily on the Common Fisheries Policy, often too compromised upon.
The historical failure of the Commission to end overfishing in European waters is worrying in the present context. Indeed, the fisheries sector, although repeatedly mentioned in the document, will not be subject to the systemic changes the agricultural sector will witness. What is more is that its alternative, the aquaculture sector, is almost completely overlooked if not for some vague mention of the funding already secured through the next EMFF and some non-binding guidelines on fish-farming.
The pity of the matter is that the Communication itself recognises that “where fishing has become sustainable, income has grown in parallel”. There are multiple examples of sustainable fishing increasing communities income, but the best one, in my opinion, is the Baja California example you can read about here.
In essence, the Farm to Fork Strategy is a revolutionary piece of legislation. It is a shame, however, that it is not binding. While it lays out plans for awesome changes in the way we produce and consume our food, the fact of the matter is that those changes are not likely to see the light of day unchanged after their journey through Brussels. It remains to see if the Commission’s ambitions are high enough that the effective change once those plans reach national legislations will be palpable and, more importantly, will be sufficient.
Only time can tell whether we can win the battle against climate change, however only we can tell whether or not we will fight.