Eur-Agri-SSP 1: Agriculture on sustainable paths

The content of this page is drawn from Supplementary Material I of:

Mitter, H., Techen, A.-K., Sinabell, F., Helming, K., Schmid, E., Bodirsky, B.L., Holman, I., Kok, K., Lehtonen, H., Leip, A., Le Mouël, C., Mathijs, E., Mehdi, B., Mittenzwei, K., Mora, O., Øistad, K., Øygarden, L., Priess, J.A., Reidsma, P., Schaldach, R., Schönhart, M., 2020. Shared Socio-economic Pathways for European agriculture and food systems: The Eur-Agri-SSPs. Global Environmental Change 65, 102159.

1         Population and urbanization: Strong network of small and medium sized towns and large cities

The European population size remains constant as international immigration compensates for largely unchanged fertility levels. The degree of urbanization increases as urban areas, varying in size and diversity of supplied goods and services, experience in-migration from rural areas and from outside Europe. Residents in small and medium sized towns benefit from good access to social and technical infrastructure and good job opportunities. A gradual value shift towards social and environmental sustainability encourages exchange between farmers and society, increases trust and leads to a positive image of the agricultural sector in society. With a more sustainable image and more diverse work opportunities, farming becomes an attractive job prospect for young and well-educated people. Accordingly, the farming population is characterized by a relatively balanced age structure, and an increasing educational level and innovation capacity.

2         Economy: Diversity in agricultural supply chains supported by globally connected markets with internalized costs of trade

The European economy shows stable growth rates. Society deems economic growth to be a means for human development and social cohesion. Hence, the concepts of industrial symbiosis, and a bio-based, circular and sharing economy increase in attractiveness. The agricultural sector contributes to growth, the creation of employment opportunities in rural areas and the transformation of Europe’s economy towards higher sustainability and resilience through an increase in productivity, and by establishing short and diverse agricultural supply chains with numerous competing traders and retailers. Farmers and consumers frequently interact personally, for instance at farmers’ markets, via community supported agriculture, during open farm days, on youth education camps or via online platforms. Such initiatives improve society’s food knowledge and increase consumers’ preference for locally produced food, even if prices are higher than for products transported over long distances.

Demand patterns for agricultural products are changing. Demand for plant-based products increases and demand for livestock-based products decreases steadily. Diets become more diverse with an increasing proportion of high quality, fresh and seasonal food products that are free from additives and pesticide residues. In particular, demand for vegetables, fruits and nuts increases, which leads to a better health status of the population. Total per capita calorie and animal protein intake, as well as food waste, decline. Demand from the bio-based processing industry for agricultural commodities grows gradually, as production is generally oriented towards low resource input and high resource use efficiency. The demand for bio-energy crops is declining continuously because of land use regulations that aim to support sustainable food production and to reduce environmental trade-offs. However, energy supply from agricultural and forestry residues gains in importance.

The consumer demands of the European agricultural sector are not limited to agricultural products but favors the supply of multiple ecosystem services, such that farmers are engaged in the maintenance of natural resources and cultural landscapes, and in the internalization of external costs (e.g., for greenhouse gas emissions) in commodity prices. Such services are paid for by consumers through increased agricultural commodity prices that reflect internalized costs, by private sector industries through tourism and recreation, and by the public through payments for ecosystem services. The demand for ecosystem services influences a stable pace of structural change in agriculture. It also means that farms represent a diversity of small- to large-scale producers and producer cooperatives – including innovative start-ups in semi-urban environments.

Trade between Europe and the rest of the world decreases, even though markets are globally connected and international trade agreements are strengthened. This is mainly because of a priority for short and transparent supply chains of locally produced goods and an increasing degree of intra-European trade.

Relative to general price levels, the prices of agricultural inputs such as chemical pesticides, mineral fertilizers, and fuel are rising because of strict environmental policies. Similarly, prices for natural resources are rising, mostly because of increased competition between sectors (e.g., real estate, tourism), infrastructure development and environmental policies. Food safety and animal welfare standards further increase production costs while technological progress lowers cost. Agricultural commodity prices increase because productivity-based cost savings and public payments for ecosystem services are smaller than the costs resulting from internalizing externalities.

The supply of skilled and unskilled labor for agricultural work hardly changes, also because of moderate net immigration from outside Europe. Labor productivity increases, partly because of the increasing educational level of farmers and agricultural workers and large investments in agricultural technologies. Technological progress also leads to increasing land productivity, but which is in turn limited by high environmental standards.

3         Policies and institutions: Multilevel cooperation, policy integration and societal participation

European institutions are characterized by increasing effectiveness and multi-level cooperation. They tackle large-scale and cross-border matters such as international trade, environmental, agricultural and food policies. Increasing environmental awareness and multi-level cooperation contributes to strict international and European environmental policies, which are regularly improved. Intensive public debates take place online, via social media or emerging platforms and form the basis for international and European agreements and binding policies. In many cases, civic activism is the driving force for action, whereas public organizations and institutions take a convening and enabling role. European environmental policies aim, for instance, at increasing resource use efficiency, facilitating nature protection, saving energy, and reducing waste and environmental damage.

European agricultural policy is integrated into an overarching food policy framework. Major objectives are increasing sustainability of production and consumption. Income support for farmers, i.e., direct payments, is given up in favor of payments for ecosystem services that make low input farming, respecting high animal welfare standards, and landscape management economically viable enabling farmers to exceed the already strict environmental policy standards. Initiatives on sustainable rural development are subsidized and contribute to achieving a balance between rural and urban areas across Europe. Environmental damage resulting from poor agricultural management are taxed. Subsidies on the demand side are dedicated to products that are beneficial for the environment or human health, have high nutritional quality, and help keep price increases of agricultural commodities reasonable.

European institutions jointly approve or restrict new inputs and technologies for agricultural production such as gene editing, phyto-sanitary products and chemical pesticides through a standardized procedure in which the precautionary principle is applied in every case. Food safety standards are increasing in order to reduce physical, chemical and biological hazards. Animal welfare standards are increasing in order to improve animal health, longevity, and fertility. Together with control mechanisms, standards for agricultural production are developed and evaluated at the European level and discussed with representatives of global institutions and large economies. National governmental bodies and institutions are responsible for implementation and monitoring.

4         Technology: Pronounced technology development directed towards environmentally friendly processes and cooperation between farmers and consumers

Public and private investments in research and development, as well as increasing education levels in the farming population, lead to significant innovations and advances in agricultural technology. Agricultural technology development is directed towards environmentally friendly processes, resource use efficiency, chemical pesticide-free agriculture, organic carbon accumulation in soils, animal welfare, and increases in land and labor productivity. Both high-tech and non-technological innovations are of relevance. Agricultural technology development includes, for instance, activities in breeding and genetic improvements as well as the utilization of robotics, sensors, precision farming, digitalization, satellite data, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence for improvements in agricultural management. Technology diffusion and adoption is facilitated by effective cooperation between public and private sectors, for instance, through international agreements on plant variety property rights or open data standards for the exchange of data gathered on farms, and through improvements in the creation of environmental information systems, e.g., satellite technology for monitoring the atmosphere, land and oceans. Online platforms foster cooperation between farmers and enable the acquisition and provision of and shared access to machinery, goods and services. Technological progress also facilitates farmers’ interactions along the value chain with input suppliers, processors, retailers, and consumers, e.g., via publicly accessible traceability systems of inputs.

5         Environment and natural resources: Increasing environmental awareness, resource use efficiency, and environmental health

Increasing environmental awareness, higher investments in sustainability research and technology development as well as strict environmental policies at the European level are the drivers for a more efficient use of natural resources and higher investments in ecosystem restoration, ecological infrastructure, habitat connectivity and landscape, wildlife and nature protection across Europe. Thus, resource depletion is decreasing even though different sectors compete for resources. Furthermore, the infestation level of agricultural habitats with invasive species is decreasing because of strict environmental regulations, habitat maintenance of endemic species, coordinated control strategies, and moderate international trade levels.