Agriculture - in depth

Europe is a major player in the global food system in terms of food production and consumption, and also for policy-making. With over 14 million farms, Europe produces 21 percent of the world's grain, and exports food worth billions of Euros every year.

The European Union is also the world's biggest importer of agricultural products, mainly raw materials like soy. It is estimated that Europe uses more than two times as much land and water to feed itself than is available in Europe. It also plays a significant role on the world stage during trade negotiations.

The current system of production and consumption has big impacts, both here and across the world.

What's wrong with European agriculture?

Bad for nature, bad for people

The continuing industrialisation of agriculture has major knock-on impacts on biodiversity, with species declining rapidly as a result of habitats being lost. In addition, the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides leads to pollution and further species decline as well as contamination of our food and drinking water. Factory farms are also heavily dependent on the import of cheap soy as animal feed from South America, leading to massive levels of deforestation – damaging wildlife, people and the climate.

Factory farming

Factory farming of livestock is a particular problem for Europe. This system is responsible for 85 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector. This is equal to 13 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions if land use and land use change emissions are included.
Factory farming is a major consumer of global cereal stocks. European factory farming sucks up about two thirds of European cereal production, as well as millions of tonnes of cereals from abroad. This has major knock-on impacts on global supplies of food. It also leads to millions of hectares of land being grabbed in South America.

Concentration in the food chain

Where the power and money lie in the food chain is key to the problem. Farmers around the globe have seen their share of the market shrink. Farmers play a pivotal role in ensuring food security for a growing population. They are also the largest global land managers. Yet most of the money spent by consumers goes to intermediaries, traders and retailers rather than farmers themselves. The dramatic loss of small and family farms around the globe will have major implications for food security, rural communities and the management of our natural resources.

Corporations in control

Corporate control over the food system has increased dramatically, whilst market regulation has been reduced. A handful of global corporations now have control over the basic building blocks which underpin the food system, including seeds, animal breeds, and other inputs.
It is not only agri-business that is benefitting. As a result of deregulation and the financial crisis, banks and traders are moving in on farming and land to make big money. Escalating food speculation causes skyrocketing costs for farmers and consumers and a dramatic increase in the number of people facing hunger.

Promoting unsustainable trade

European agricultural trade policy is a key factor in shaping global trade, agriculture and food production. The European Union plays a leading role in establishing global trade agreements and other free trade agreements. Since the 1990s the European Union has been reforming its agriculture policy to fit World Trade Organisation rules. Despite the move away from product specific payments, the system which over-produces and exports processed products affects negatively third world countries markets.

The race for resources

With a growing global population, increasing meat and dairy production and mandates to develop agrofuels and energy from biomass, competition for farmland and natural resources like water is rapidly increasing. Plans to use crops to make pharmaceuticals, fibres and plastics will increase demand even more. The so-called bio-economy presents as many challenges as it does benefits. For example, agrofuels – once thought of as green – have increased climate emissions and forced food prices up, sending millions of people into poverty as crops get converted to fuel and not food. The battle over natural resources and agricultural land has already begun.

Fixing European agriculture

Friends of the Earth Europe campaigns to change the current system. We believe that if European agriculture policy continues as it is – fixated on productivity as small farms disappear, natural resources are depleted and polluted, and power is handed over to a small number of corporations – then the harmful effects on people and the environment will continue.

There is an alternative. Industrial agriculture and the problems it causes can be avoided. Examples of good practice in farming and food production, such as organic farming, exist. Local food economies supporting sustainable farming can and should benefit from subsidies. Corporate control can be reined in. Europe's thirst for land and resources abroad can be quenched. The food chain can be fixed.

Food sovereignty

Friends of the Earth Europe campaigns for food sovereignty – the right of peoples, communities and countries to define their own policies for agriculture, trade and food. These policies should be ecologically sustainable, contribute to social justice and do not restrict the possibilities for others to do the same.

Achieving food sovereignty through promoting agroecology

Friends of the Earth Europe believes that control of food and farming needs to be put in the hands of local people and farmers, shifting to agroecological systems that work within environmental and equitable limits to achieve food sovereignty in Europe and the rest of the world.
For a number of years, Friends of the Earth Europe campaigned for effective CAP reform that made provisions for local, sustainable, and socially just agriculture – what we call agroecology.

In 2015, the reformed CAP comes into force, with more power for national and regional governments to choose how funding is allocated. We see this as an opportunity: convince governments that agroecology is the way forward, and policy can be shifted in their favour.

Our work promoting this across Europe can be found here.