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Learning from the past


Reaching a given vision will most often imply innovative ways of thinking and acting. Nevertheless, trends and insights from the past help to underpin the probabilities of reaching the vision and provide understanding of the possible barriers on the road. In VOLANTE past land use trends and drivers of change have been analysed at local to EU-wide scale and for time periods ranging from decades to centuries. Three examples are given here, of trends in agricultural intensification, of displacements effects, and of local multifunctionality.

Trends of agricultural intensification – slightly decreasing in the past decade, and some disruption on the way

Centuries: Since approximately 1800, agricultural expansion and modern crops and crop rotation systems increased the agricultural production. Land-use intensification generally emerged with the introduction of phosphates and mechanisation in the century following 1850, but with very different uptake rates across Europe. After 1945, the widespread and often government-supported availability of synthetic nitrogen and fossil-fuel based motorisation caused a surge in agricultural input and output intensity, often with negative environmental impacts.

Decades: Strong increases of land-use intensity, mainly on cropland, in particular in the decades after 1950. These increases in cropland yields were accompanied by slight reductions in cropland area as well as areas used for livestock grazing, allowing forests to grow in area. Agricultural outputs increased significantly driven by surges in agricultural inputs (fertilizers, machinery), a link that was only weakened from the late 1980s onwards in Western Europe. Central and Eastern European countries showed disruptions with the collapse of the Soviet Union around the year 1990, leading to abandonment, drastic reductions of the livestock numbers and reductions in agricultural output.

Recent years: By and large, agriculture has stagnated in Europe as a whole recently, both in terms of intensity (e.g. yields) as well as in the extent of agricultural land. The use of fertilizers and pesticides has decreased in Western Europe, contrary to the trends observed in Eastern Europe (i.e. rebounding from the post-socialist decline). Polarisation trends continue, i.e., the intensification of fertile lands and the abandonment of marginal lands in Europe’s mountain areas and in the Mediterranean. Important drivers of change are structural changes in the agricultural sector and EU and national environmental and agricultural policies, which are increasingly concerned with improving environmental conditions in rural areas. Forestry has been intensifying in many areas recently.

 Displacement effects – disconnection of land use and consumption

An investigation into cropland areas embodied in international trade shows that in 2007 the European Union’s (EU27) consumption of agricultural products required a cropland area of 125 million hectares. One out of three of these hectares is located outside the European Union’s territory. In contrast only one out of ten hectares of cropland harvested within the EU serves the export of agricultural products. In the period from 1987 to 2007 harvested cropland area within the EU declined by 5 million hectares, while the cropland for the EU’s consumption remained virtually unchanged. Looking at the location of croplands supplying the EU’s consumption, a striking increase in land located in South America was observed during the two decades (an increase by 7 million hectares, an area larger than the UK’s entire cropland). These overall trends are mirrored when using the indicator eHANPP (i.e. a measure for the amount of biological productivity, or net primary production, embodied in final biomass products) as a comprehensive consumption-based measure of land use impacts across different land use classes (cropland, forest land, grassland). This indicator also reveals a growing impact of the EU on land use processes around the globe, with imports from the Global South (above all, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia) playing an increasingly dominant role, with especially high growth rates during the last decade.

 Local multifuntionality (P4a & P4b)

In the past decades, the number of persons working full-time on farms in the EU is reduced, and 83% of the family labour force were only working part-time on the farm in 2002 (Linares, 2003). In many cases, economic circumstances have forced land owners to supplement income with off farm income or to diversify production on the property into non-agricultural activities, also named Other Gainful Activities. Both of these types of development lead to a more multifunctional production pattern, as opposed to the traditional agricultural production strategy, and this has important land use implications. Part-time farmers may need to pursue special strategies to be able to accommodate both on- and off-farm employment (e.g. a simple rather than a complex crop rotation, no animals to reduce labour use and thus less need for fodder crops). Properties with Other Gainful Activities may devote buildings or land to these activities and thus introduce alternative types of land use. These changes mirror some of the intentions expressed in the Local Multifunctional vision.


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