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European Commission

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Agriculture and the Environment

Forum for the future of agriculture - session: sustainable intensification and resource efficiency

Brussels, 5 March 2013

Mr Chairman,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to speak again at this conference. I appreciate your recognition of the importance of the environment in the broad agriculture debate. I hope we can continue to make real environmental progress in the coming decade.

Before dealing specifically with sustainable intensification and resource efficiency, I want to spend a few moments on the MFF and CAP debate as it reaches its critical point. The European Council has set out the broad lines of reform, but the devil will be in the detail. The 30% commitment to greening within direct payments is very welcome but to be meaningful, it must work in favour of biodiversity, water, soil and climate. We risk missing out the clear notes of a finely tuned piano in the permitted measures, to judge by both, the COMAGRI outcome and Agriculture Council discussions.

The European Council was silent on the inclusion of the water framework and sustainable use of pesticides directives within cross-compliance but both Member States and COMAGRI sing from a different sheet. How ironic would it be, just as we make environmental progress in greening direct payments, if the burden of clean‑up were to be thrown on the shoulders of tax payers? We need to be very careful because this is certainly not what we want. What we want is to prevent pollution by a tough, but fair, cross-compliance.

Otherwise, we would give the signal that agricultural policy is incapable of reform… and the cries for more environmental legislation and environmental funding independent of the CAP would grow ever louder.

The European Council also increased flexibility in the transfer of funds between CAP pillars and went further for those Member States whose direct payment levels are less than the EU average.

I understand the temptation for some Member States to increase direct support. But we have big tasks to achieve in modernising our farms, protecting our environment and improving the quality of rural life. These tasks cost money, are generally positive for jobs and the environment and spread our limited resources rather better within and beyond the farm gate. Member States need to resist the short term carrot for the longer term benefit of a basket of fruits, including a fully functioning and well-funded Natura 2000, delivered through rural development.

The CAP today goes far beyond production and if we don’t continue the progress of the past 20 years, we deliver an unsolicited poisoned chalice to our children but a welcome gift to those who would destroy the CAP. In coming weeks, I truly hope that all concerned understand the real longer-term issues at stake. In this context it will be fundamental to keep the partnership between environmental and agriculture community alive. If this partnership is broken, this could only lead in a separate environmental fund, more regulation and more legislation.

And now, let me turn to sustainable intensification and resource efficiency. The Earth is abundant in its gifts but these gifts have ever more visible limits. That, in effect, is the principle "raison d'être" behind our roadmap to resource efficiency. Of course, resource efficiency without innovation will only give us limited time before the drain on resources becomes unbearable – we need both.

Agriculture is not immune in the need for resource efficiency. We tend to forget that it is a biological system and that it has responded to population growth over the past 50 years by tripling output but not without making serious inroads into precious resources. Its progress has absorbed the low-hanging fruits of improvement but with weakened ecosystems and especially reduced water availability, its tasks are becoming heavier.

Firstly, agriculture faces, in the front line, the demands of rising prices linked to scarcity and demand. Oil is the most obvious example. The sector is almost totally mechanised in the developed world and our EU population alone needs about 2 million tonnes of food and packaging delivered daily. On its own, this is already a telling argument for efficiency but allowing that the key agricultural inputs are almost totally dependent on oil, simply reinforces it. Later this week, I will speak at a conference on phosphorus. The Commission will put forward ideas on the issue in the coming months so that all stakeholders can contribute to a debate on its sustainable use.

Phosphorus is currently not in short supply but over time it will become scarcer, more expensive to mine and more saturated with contaminants. It is begging for more attention, not least because there have been large swings in prices which are a sign that something is wrong and which make it impossible for farmers to plan ahead and invest. A positive approach on phosphorus would be good for resource efficiency, for the bio economy, for agriculture, for energy use, for climate change and reduced water pollution. For these reasons, and as a follow up of the commitments made in the Resource Efficiency Roadmap, I hope to present a Green Paper on the issue in the coming months.

I have addressed our land take out of agriculture on several occasions. It makes little sense that we ask our land to take on more and more tasks, but at the same time, we pay almost no attention to the protection of our land and soil. In Rio, land degradation was a big issue which governments agreed to tackle. The 'land-degradation neutral world' target, championed by the EU in Rio+20 and agreed by world leaders, has put the issue of land and soil degradation on the global political map.

My aim is to propose in 2014 a ''Communication on land as a resource'' which should give us some responses on land as a resource as we simply cannot continue to lose an area the size of Berlin to development every year, and neither can we avoid a debate on land‑use priorities.

Let me turn to sustainable food consumption. The figures on food waste are staggering, and in Europe it is at the retail and consumption end. Imagine if there was no waste. We could use our land more effectively and have fewer arguments about land scarcity. But we don't live in an ideal world so the pressures will grow and we will have to face some inconvenient truths and uncomfortable choices. We are working this year on how to ensure sustainable food, with particular focus on addressing the problem of food waste.

The estimates are that we throw away at least 30% of our food. Wasting food is wasting our resources, our land, our water, our energy. Wasting food is not only economically unacceptable, it is also immoral. And while discussing the intensification of agriculture, we simply cannot avoid addressing the issue of food we produce but then never consume.

Turning to the next problem: the forest sector is neither immune. The great debate on forest biomass, now rumbling in the background as we strive to attain our 2020 energy targets, is really about use preferences and how much EU and global forests can be used for energy without undermining the forest's role in manufacturing jobs, climate mitigation, weather pattern maintenance and environmental and settlement protection. If we cannot achieve efficiency here, we will lose a lot.

***

Mr Chairman,

Ladies and gentlemen,

The environment played no part in the various banking and economic crises of the past five years. But many have pushed it to the back of the queue in the urgent list of tasks to be undertaken. When the economic crises have passed, the environmental problems will still loom large and even larger than before.

The equation we have to solve in Europe is far from easy. People got used to relatively high quality of life. And they have expectations to keep this quality of life also in the future, and rightly so. But this will have to be done bearing in mind the following facts:

  • 1) Lowering of growth rates in the last decades and prospects for low growth rates in the future (5.3, 3.8, 3.1, 2.9, 1.4% respectively);

  • 2) Respecting macroeconomic stability conditions, responsibility;

  • 3) Protecting social standards, social equality;

  • 4) Respecting the boundaries of the planet.

It will not be possible to continue without transforming the ways we produce and consume, we behave. Resource efficiency and circular economy will play a central role.

It will not be easy, but we have no choice.

Thank you.


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