Eur-Agri-SSP 2: Agriculture on established 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: Urban agglomerations continue to grow

The size of the European population remains constant because of stable net immigration and fertility levels. Large urban agglomerations continue to grow, while costly infrastructure in remote areas and small towns is not further developed. Access to primary health care, education and information and communication technology is deteriorating in remote areas. An aging and shrinking population in rural areas and small towns reinforces this development. An increase in the general educational level and in food literacy contributes to an increasing societal interest in the social and environmental responsibility of the agricultural sector. Farmers’ societal status, however, does not improve even though there remains continuous exchange between urban and rural residents. This contributes to challenges in inter-generational land and property transfer in many places.

2         Economy: Few, powerful companies dominate agricultural supply chains and benefit from integrated markets

The European economy continues to grow at a moderate pace. Europe remains the predominant sales market for European agricultural commodities including food, feed, energy and bio-based materials. Domestic food preferences are slowly changing because of generally increasing educational attainment as well as a growing interest in health and the environment. Demand for locally produced food, as well as for plant protein-based meat alternatives, increases steadily. However, a large share of the population still consumes convenience and highly processed food and per capita meat consumption remains at high levels. Accordingly, the incidence of diet-related non-communicable diseases remains high. The amounts of food waste from households and food losses from the food industry remain stable. Bio-based materials and products gain in importance because of policy priorities but do not reach a substantial level. Demand for regulation services and landscape amenities increases, especially from a wealthy urban upper class and rural residents.

Market integration is advanced but not expedited. European free trade agreements focus on important partner countries. Accordingly, global demand for products from European agriculture as well as imports of agricultural raw materials and feed level off. Market concentration in the up- and downstream industries increases and results in the dominance of a few, powerful input suppliers, processors, traders, and retailers who act globally. It also affects farm structural development towards larger, profit-oriented farms, which aim to be competitive in an integrated market.

Relative to general price levels, the price level and variability of both agricultural inputs and commodities remain stable, mostly because of on-going technological progress, open markets and the lack of abrupt changes in vertical coordination between agro-food industries and farms. Prices for natural resources such as land and water increase because of the higher resource demands from various sectors including agriculture and a continuous decrease in the quantity and quality of resources.

The supply of skilled and unskilled labor remains stable mostly because of constant international immigration and improved working conditions. Labor productivity is slowly increasing because of slow but continuous progress in technologies and educational standards. Physical and outdoor work is still dominant but technology diffusion reduces physical effort.

3         Policies and institutions: European agricultural policies follow multiple goals that are not always achieved

Established European and international institutions are supported organizationally and financially by their member states and pursue debates in the traditional policy cycles on how to achieve more ambitious environmental and sustainability goals. Cooperation between international, European and national institutions, the private sector, and civil society is not gaining in effectiveness. This is mostly because of unresolved questions of diverging interests and because innovations for public service delivery, such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality, are only slowly implemented. This results in slow social and environmental progress both globally and in Europe, and in slow and inefficient implementation of policy instruments.

European agricultural policy pursues a slow but continuous development of international trade agreements. It provides a common European framework, which emphasizes agricultural market orientation and further removal of trade barriers, rural development, and rising environmental and animal welfare standards. The European framework is complemented by flexible regulations at the national level that may be more stringent than European standards. Thus, agricultural policy is characterized by multiple support schemes that address diverse, and sometimes contradictory, goals of productivity and efficiency gains and environmental and social protection. Both individual farmers and agri-businesses are eligible for public support schemes. European agricultural policy still has its two-pillar structure, i.e., direct payments and support for rural development. Environmental standards for direct payments and for agri-environmental programs are increased. Public support for farms in less favored areas remain stable. At the European level, frequent or substantial changes in agricultural policy are not planned. Despite multiple and partly ambitious goals, the effective public budget dedicated to the agricultural sector is decreasing slowly but continuously in real terms.

Quality standards for agricultural production, food processing and transportation increase slowly but continuously in order to reduce environmental risks and to ensure improved food safety standards and higher animal and plant health and consumer protection levels. Minimum standards are set at the European level but individual countries can decide on more rigorous standards. Approval processes of new technologies are mainly at the European level. They are transparent but slow and follow the precautionary principle. However, integrated environmental protection is not comprehensively addressed in order not to impair economic growth, which sometimes favors the implementation of end-of-pipe technologies. Furthermore, lobbying activities of large, multinational companies remain intensive and effective, even though attempts are made to develop and strengthen European governance structures.

4         Technology: Agricultural technology development and diffusion focuses on resource use efficiency

Slow but continuous agricultural technology development aims to promote sustainable development and to reduce production costs through a continuous increase in resource use efficiency related to chemical pesticides, fertilizers, fuel and water. It is increasingly driven by the private sector. For example, the development and use of sensor-based crop and livestock health monitoring and automation through robots increases continuously despite data privacy concerns. Technology diffusion increases because of a professionalization in the agricultural sector achieved through structural change and qualifications, and despite some unsolved challenges around data security and protection and high investment costs. Agricultural knowledge and innovation systems stimulate multi-level knowledge exchange between farmers, advisers, processors, retailers and scientists and contribute to technology uptake.

5         Environment and natural resources: High competition for resources and structural change affect environmental performance

Environmental standards and resource-efficient technologies are developed at a moderate pace and with limited scope, whereas resource demands increase from various sectors, including real estate and manufacturing. Land demand for additional nature reserves is also increasing even though progress in environmental policies is slow. Continuing structural change in agriculture decreases landscape diversity and the quality of ecological infrastructure despite stronger policy targets. Competition for resources including agricultural land and water as well as resource depletion and environmental degradation are increasing across Europe. The productivity of agricultural land remains stable and harm from invasive species increases gradually. Their occurrence is amplified by global market connections and slow progress in environmental protection.