World food security – what is Europe’s responsibility?

Author: Carl-Albrecht Bartmer

Double the amount of food will have to be produced world-wide by 2050 compared to today, according to the latest estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in order to meet rising population figures and demands.

Fertile agricultural production areas are becoming scarce, and, in particular, so are the factors determining their productiveness, such as water and nutrients. Mistakes made in the past resulting in salinisation, erosion and incrustation are jeopardising what used to be fertile locations. Finally, the effects of a shift in global climate that can no longer be denied are not only opening up new productive locations in the east and the north but are resulting in a considerable worsening of productivity in existing areas under cultivation through dry periods and the increased occurrence of other extreme weather incidents as well.

National reduction strategies are increasingly focusing on agricultural areas in order to keep climate changes at a manageable level. These areas are being viewed both as a natural emitter and also, in particular, as a biogenic energy and material alternative to previous fossil sources. Today, the world has a population of seven billion, and consumption demands are constantly rising. It is becoming apparent that this planet is using up more and more of its biotic and abiotic resources, which are the chief determinants of its future. Natural refuges for threatened species are putting further crucial demands on scarce terrestrial and aquatic areas.  

We are facing one of the great challenges of the 21st century, a challenge that we have to address today, for the time biological systems need to react, but also the innovation cycles for human development, naturally tend to be far too sluggish to be readjusted, as it were, case by case by a mere command or to be regenerated. Not only does this centennial challenge affect individual biotopes, nation-states or continents on their own, but today, all of them can only be understood in their global dimension. This is precisely why all regions world-wide – including Europe – bear responsibility, in fact threefold responsibility, for world food security, the climate and environmental protection. 

Is Europe, one of the most important prime locations for the production of agricultural goods, meeting its obligations in this respect? Its current role at climate conferences, an agricultural policy giving considerable consideration to environmental issues, numerous individual initiatives ranging from the Habitats Directive via the protection of birds to the framework directive on water policy, would suggest this. Indeed, it lets Europe appear as a star pupil in global responsibility, as an example of really starting with sustainable redirecting.

Surprisingly, however, a more in-depth scrutiny reveals that even with its important prime locations for agricultural production, the European Community is still the largest net importer worldwide of agricultural goods. Europe is producing significantly fewer goods for its consumptive purposes than it actually consumes. “Virtually”, Europe is having roughly three times the amount of German area under crops (more than 30 million hectares) producing goods for its own needs outside its borders, and this is occurring with a growing tendency. If agricultural land, as represented here, really is a scarce good, then agricultural imports are not first and foremost resulting in rising income for farmers throughout the world, which would be welcome. Rather, with its purchasing power, Europe is creating an additional demand for agricultural products, which makes them more expensive. It follows that food prices will thus rise, and there will be more hunger in certain regions. In the medium term, an intensification of agricultural production will be effected as well as its spread to locations which have so far not offered such good production levels and implicitly served other purposes, such as climate protection or nature conservation.

Thus European responsibility also means realising that measures within one’s own boundaries always bear a global dimension: food that I am not producing in Europe has to be produced at other locations, frequently in poorer natural framework conditions. Thus European strategies are also impacting on the world outside its boundaries, whether they be measures such as protecting and extending biotopes, far-reaching extensification programmes in rural areas that are publicly funded, alternative energy and material use of biomass, or consciously making do without applying innovative technologies in cowsheds or in the fields.

These decisions made by a European sovereign are subject to a responsibility proviso. Their effects have to be carefully analysed. It would be disastrous if, in a few years’ time, one were to realise that Europe’s model country strategies were in fact not doing the global biotic and abiotic basis of life any good, and it would be just as disastrous if we had to admit that innovations that are not put to use mean making oneself guilty.

It is not unjustified for the FAO report published in November 2011 relating to the goal of food security to refer to a need for “sustainable intensification”. Even a highly qualified, innovative region like Europe has to draw consequences from this, and has to make use of its intellectual and natural potentials to the best of sustainability, which can only be understood in a global context. The possible yield potentials ought to be exploited with know-how and the use of state-of-the-art technology and engineering. All this should be resource-efficient and take social criteria into account. For this purpose, intensive, interdisciplinary and cross-country research is required. 
Initially solving the problem of world food security is one that has to be addressed in the needy countries. It is not the ancient “battles” for agricultural resources that have to be fought there but the establishment of intelligent production systems tailored to the locations and their social conditions that needs to be commenced. Europe’s responsibility lies with the unrestricted, cross-border exchange of ideas and goods in order to keep the “global bread basket” full in a joint effort. If Europe assumes responsibility for this, then it is pursuing its very own interests. It will be avoiding flows of immigrants coming to the “baskets that are still full” and will be protecting the global natural resources.
Carl-Albrecht Bartmer is President of the German Agricultural Society (DLG) in Frankfurt/Germany.

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