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European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Land use and natural resources in EU policies

Seventh Forum for the Future of Agriculture

Brussels, 1st April 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is the seventh edition of this conference. I have been a 'regular feature' here for the past 5 years.

As we approach the end of the mandate of this Commission, I want to thank the organisers for giving me the opportunity to present my thoughts on challenges relating to land use and natural resources in the Union; what has already been achieved and what should still be done.

But before doing that, let's look at some facts.

The United Nations forecast an increase in the world’s population from around 7 billion people in 2012 to a range between 8.3 and 10.9 billion people in 2050, in particular in less developed countries. While already half of the world population lives in cities, this share is expected to grow further, to almost 70% in 2050. All this contributes to higher demand for land. Recent studies suggest1 that between 2000 and 2030, urban land cover will have expanded by 63% in more-developed countries and by 170% in less-developed countries.

This inevitably comes with trade-offs. As demand for land for urban growth increases, the land available for agriculture shrinks. This urban growth is also taking a high toll on landscapes which host a large share of the world’s biodiversity and provide key ecosystem services. We already see that the loss of fertile plains and deltas is being "offset" by the conversion of other natural areas to farmland. Even in Europe, where population growth is low, we are losing a surface area for agricultural production equivalent to the area of Cyprus every ten years. Globally we may lose up to 130 million hectares by 2050 – which is equivalent to 7% of current cropland. This matters to Europe because global competition for land and water resources is increasingly associated with volatile and rising food prices, social unrest as well as risks of geopolitical imbalances.

In Europe, urban sprawl is not the only factor behind the trend of declining agricultural land: even where land isn't being paved over, it is often degrading, and this degradation could affect 15% of our current cropland by 2050.


Ladies and gentlemen,

With demand for land increasing and supply constant, it is inevitable that quality is decreasing.

At a time when almost four out of five Europeans live in cities, it's easy to forget the extent to which we rely on the natural world and to overlook the fact that unsustainable land use and soil degradation has significant consequences for our livelihoods and wellbeing, regardless of where we live.

It is putting pressure on biodiversity, contributing to climate change and to the increase in extreme events, such as floods and droughts. And unlike air and water, soil is a very complex resource with numerous links to other environmental challenges. The significance of soil degradation or land conversion due to urbanisation goes far beyond the crucial issue of soil for the production of food or bioenergy – it is one of the major environmental challenges Europe is facing. It puts at risk the many other vital functions which soil provides.

Allow me to illustrate this with two examples.

The first is the relationship between soil and climate. Soil contains more carbon than the atmosphere and vegetation together. Releasing just a fraction of it can offset savings in other areas. But if appropriately managed, the soil carbon pool has the potential to increase. And increasing soil organic matter is the best way to maintain the fertility of the land, enhance its resilience to climate change and prevent desertification.

The second example is biodiversity. We are beginning to be aware of the importance of diverse plant and animal life to a healthy environment, but we are much less aware of the critical role of soil biodiversity in supporting a wide range of ecosystem services, such as water filtration, soil stability and its role in protecting against natural disasters.

There won't be sustainable land management across the EU, or indeed the globe, if we don't protect the life under our feet.


Ladies and gentlemen,

How should we begin to respond to these growing challenges? Faced with pressing constraints, some people see the solution in the intensification of our agricultural production.

There may well be forms of intensification which are genuinely sustainable – in other words, solutions which can be carried out without damaging the environment and animal welfare. Perhaps some can even enhancing them. But there has been without doubt a great deal of unsustainable intensification.

The leading advisory committee on the future of agriculture for the EU concluded in its latest report2 that "Many of today´s food production systems compromise the capacity of Earth to produce food in the future. Globally, and in many regions including Europe, food production is exceeding environmental limits or is close to doing so."

I have spent a good deal of energy during my mandate trying to fix some of the problems resulting from this, be it water pollution and shortages, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and loss of organic matter. So before rushing into seemingly obvious 'quick-fix' solutions, let us first properly assess and agree what we mean by sustainable intensification. Then we can design policies and incentives to make intensified use of land as sustainable as possible.

This is important, because a significant number of protected species and habitats are dependent or closely associated with traditional agricultural practices that have shaped much of the European landscape through the centuries. We need to support and preserve the economic viability of such farming systems, which are an excellent example of sustainable use of natural resources, providing benefits not only for our rural communities, such as local employment, income and food, but also for our landscapes, natural and cultural heritage and biodiversity.

In the coming weeks and months, Member States will be deciding how to implement the CAP reform. The main elements of the policy are there, but the devil is in the detail and Member States need to determine how the different objectives will be met, and what will or will not be allowed. This applies to the greening and eligibility rules for Direct Payments as well as to Rural Development spending. I hope and expect that the issues I have just mentioned will be well reflected in these decisions.

But it is not credible to talk about making agricultural policy greener if we do not also reflect how best to protect and improve the long‑term productivity of the soil which sustains it.

I recently discussed the issue with my colleagues in the Environmental Council, and while we recognised that the proposal for a legal framework on soil which the Commission put forward in 2006 is not going to progress further, we also agreed that something needs to be done to address the problem of soil degradation. If it remains unchecked, we will definitely fail to achieve our common objectives in other areas, such as climate change and sustainable agriculture. We have a collective responsibility to protect and improve our soils. This should be as much in the interest of farmers as it is in the interest of environmentalists. It is time to leave some past disagreements behind us and work together to find a constructive way forward.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Efficiency in land and soil management is one of the main challenges facing our society. This challenge can only be met if we act to address the factors underlying it. In particular:

We need to acknowledge that land is a finite resource, and use it first and foremost for as many purposes as possible – economic, social and environmental. Secondly, we need to avoid its wastage, including by preventing land degradation. Thirdly, we actively need to restore its functions once the land is degraded and encourage land recycling, in particular by supporting the regeneration of brownfields.

We need to strive for more sustainable consumption and production patterns. In particular, to cut food waste. Just consider that in 2006 we were already wasting close to 90 million tonnes of food in the EU per year, but that this is expected to reach 126 million tonnes by 2020 if nothing is done about it. The estimates are that around one-third of all the food we produce is wasted. That's one-third of all the land, water, energy, not to mention the chemicals used to grow crops.

This situation can't continue. The Commission is therefore working on the preparation of a communication on sustainable food, with a strong focus on reducing food waste, to be presented still in the first half of the year.

We also need to enhance the efficiency of biomass use, and make sure that the production of biofuel and the consumption of biomass from cropland and forests is done in line with sustainable land resource management, in particular to avoid competition with food crops and ensure that it doesn't lead to the degradation of our environment.

And we need to better understand and reduce the impact of EU demand on land resources in third countries, especially where the impacts are negative in environmental or social terms.

All these themes are crucial not only for environment policy but also for agricultural policy and the broader development of our society. They were identified in the 2011 Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe, and taken up in the European Union's new Environment Action Programme to 2020. I expect they will move higher up the political agenda in the EU and internationally in the near future. Why? Because it is not only necessary; it is actually inevitable.

For these reasons, I will be launching a debate on the issue of "Land as a Resource" and on possible policy responses at a conference here in Brussels on 19 June. You are all invited and encouraged to attend.

Since this is very likely the last time I address you as Commissioner responsible for environment, I would like to thank you for always being a patient and attentive audience. I have tried to do my best so that we would agree about the obvious: That the future success of agricultural policy, to a large extent also depends on the (future) success of environmental policy. And that we should be trustworthy partners in our joint effort to make the future sustainable.

Thank you for your attention.

1 :

2010 estimates of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (Cambridge, MA)

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