For the sake of biodiversity and the climate, European agriculture needs to become much more sustainable in the near future. But how can the EU’s farmers be convinced, motivated and enabled to transition to more sustainable practices? 

Follow Asger Mindegaard and Celia Nyssens to the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern to learn more.

For the sake of our planet and all its inhabitants, we urgently need to reform our agriculture and shift it towards a more sustainable nature- and climate-friendly model. Clearly, we cannot do this without those working the land: farmers. So how do we get them on board? What motivates and enables farmers to change? 

Sustainable farming is not black or white but rather a continuum between more or less ideal situations. One example that underscores this is the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) assessment tool for evaluating progress towards ‘full’ agroecology, which can be applied to farms of all shapes and sizes. The tool provides a practical and accessible guide to analysing a production system and evaluating its sustainability on a range of parameters. The guiding logic is that the transition towards sustainable farming can be gradual and that there is no single transition pathway: each farmer must find their own way. Let us have a look at one German farmer who is doing exactly that.

Step by step sustainability 

In the light and sandy soil of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, not too far from the Polish border in north-eastern Germany, Marco Gemballa and four full-time staff run a large farm. He produces grains, rapeseed, maize and sugar beets on an area of roughly 500 hectares (the average German farm is 60 hectares). At several points, his fields neighbour important protected areas. 

Gemballa’s production is not organic and would qualify as conventional farming. Nevertheless, he does take sustainability very seriously when it comes to production management. For the past three years, he has been a part of the FRANZ project, which seeks to identify and promote agricultural practices that create synergies between enhanced on-farm biodiversity and agricultural production. In the project, 10 farmers have identified and implemented biodiversity-improving measures on their farms in close dialogue with farm advisers and scientists. The particular measures implemented on each farm are tailored to the specific conditions on the farm and to the needs of each individual farmer.

Marco Gemballa on his farm (Image: FRANZ project)

“I see it as my responsibility to maintain and expand diversity in our cultural landscape. I work with the awareness that I must leave the next generations with an environment that is worth living in,” Gemballa says. And the project has brought him closer to that goal: “A prerequisite for this is qualified advice on the implementation of ecologically valuable measures so that already existing potentials are harnessed and measures are designed in a targeted manner.” 

Sibylle Duncker, project manager of the FRANZ project for Umweltstiftung Michael Otto, elaborates: “It is essential for the future of German and European agriculture to find economically viable and ecologically sound solutions for more biodiversity in agriculture. We work closely with farmers, conservationists and scientists to identify scalable measures and this strong cooperative approach enables us to develop comprehensive proposals for the politicians.”

Together with researchers and advisers connected to the project, Gemballa has decided on several practices to improve the conditions for biodiversity on his farm. In 2019, nearly 9% of his land was dedicated to biodiversity-enhancing measures, such as multi-annual flower strips (15 ha), fallows (8 ha), non-productive areas for manoeuvering, bird strips, summer crops intercropped with flax and clover and maize undersown with runner beans. All to provide habitat and food for a wide range of insects and birds. At the same time, both beans and clover fix nitrogen from the air, although the project cannot determine whether this effectively reduces the need for fertiliser for farmers at this stage.

Although the initiative has only been running for three years and the scientific monitoring and evaluation of the impact is still ongoing, FRANZ’s biologist Philip Hunke has already identified several biodiversity improvements. Key bird species, such as whinchat and corn bunting, are increasing in number and expanding to new territories and also the population of brown hare is on the rise. 

“When I stand in this area now, I am very proud,” Gemballa reflects. But he also points to the need for political support. “Politicians have the task of creating the framework conditions for sustainable management of agricultural businesses. I, as a farmer, should not be worse off for trying to enhance biodiversity. I should rather be supported. There are many farmers who would like to contribute to increasing biodiversity under the condition of economic security.”

Marco Gemballa’s farm cannot be said to be agroecological, but his efforts to promote on-farm biodiversity are valuable. The sustainability transition is gradual and every step towards more sustainable farming counts. Moreover, this transition can only be made with the farmers on board.

Thanks to biodiversity-enhancing features, the brown hare (Lepus europaeus) and many other farmland species have been making a comeback on Gemballa’s farm. (Image: Philip Hunke)

The fruits of persuasion

Researchers have also grappled with the questions of what enables farmers to adopt more environmentally friendly farming. Behavioural researchers have, for example, looked at farmers’ ability and willingness to change practices. They found that an extensive infrastructure supporting farmers was necessary. This could be supporting policies, more emphasis on sustainability in education and advisory services, market incentives, etc., as also mentioned by Marco Gemballa.

However, farmers must also understand the importance and benefits of the practices they are asked to adopt and feel personally committed to sustainability. This is more about willingness, and many factors influence farmers’ willingness to change their practices, including their personal convictions and experiences, age, education and financial situation, their feelings of connection to the farmland and local area, and whether they own or rent their farm. In addition, available technology and inputs (seeds, manure, machinery, etc.) and other external factors also influence their willingness. 

Unfortunately, all too often, the cards are stacked in favour of the status quo through ‘socio-technical lock-ins,’ as one French study showed in the case of crop diversification (one of the key principles of agroecology). Socio-technical lock-in simply means that social and technical structures throughout the value chain are working to preserve the current system, making life hard for farmers who want to do things differently. If a French farmer, for instance, wants to diversify their farm by growing a wider variety of crops, there are obstacles that stand in the way. This could be a lack of reliable and well-tested planting material, of well-tested plant protection models and difficult access to markets. In addition, knowledge about how to manage more diverse farm systems, access to high-quality farm advisers and to post-harvest infrastructure is much scarcer than for monocultures.   

Summer cereals with undersown crops. (Image: Liesa Schnee)

Ripe for change

The role of bottom-up initiatives by farmers, NGOs, researchers and the industry should not be underestimated and ‘change agents’ (passionate and dedicated individuals pushing the frontiers, encouraging and inspiring others to follow them) will always be catalysts of system changes. But change agents and bottom-up initiatives from the agricultural sector, civil society and the industry should not act in a political vacuum. Rather, they should be supported and encouraged by public policies as important parts of an enabling environment making the transition towards sustainable agriculture the obvious and best choice for all farmers, regardless of size and convictions. 

“While the ambitions of individual young farmers are as diverse as the farmers themselves, a common characteristic is how passionately they identify with their profession and we see that our sector has an enormous potential when it comes to environmental performance while making sure that no one is left behind,“ Jannes Maes, President of the European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA) points out. “But we also see that farmers are facing many challenges and barriers today, which must be tackled alongside any transition. Our efforts must be acknowledged and supported, by politicians, the market and society, for us to remain passionate about what we do.”

Brussels sprouts greener policy shoots

Just as adoption of sustainable practices depends on a combination of farmers’ willingness and a series of external enabling or inhibiting factors, effective policies must seek to address both. A study of the French national agroecology policy and the German federal programme for organic and sustainable farming found that a dynamic mixture of regulation, economic incentives and market measures, farmer education and training, facilitation of cooperatives and other types of cooperation is necessary for promoting sustainable farming. This should be parallel to an emphasis on strengthening and integrating research and innovation.

“Policies to empower farmers should not just recognise, but build on the diversity of farmers, their realities, ambitions and potential,” Maes observes. “When schemes can be implemented in extension of our daily activities, we are more likely to apply for them. And farmers will maximise their environmental performance, rather than doing the bare minimum, when we can continue to identify with what we do.”

In the EU, the main policy of interest is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which distributes around one third of the entire EU budget as subsidies to farmers across the Union. The CAP is currently under review, and the way this support will be distributed under the new policy will be decisive for what types of farming practices will characterise EU agriculture for the next decade. So far, the CAP has been a driver of biodiversity loss and over-abstraction of water while failing to address greenhouse gas emissions

Agriculture in the EU needs to transform to become a source of hope for the environment. (Image: Jens Dauber)

Having recognised the need for change in its Farm to Fork Strategy, the Commission must now put CAP money where its mouth is and ensure the new CAP is fully aligned with its European Green Deal. And EU co-legislators (European Parliament members and national agriculture ministers) must listen to citizens’ demands and make sure the CAP gives farmers the tools to deliver on climate, biodiversity and pollution reductions. Public money spent through the CAP cannot continue to maintain a destructive status quo. With farmers ageing and the environmental crises worsening, the cost to pay for business-as-usual is too high. Our decision-makers must ensure the new CAP creates the much-needed enabling framework for all European farmers, big and small, old and young, to transition to environmentally, socially and economically sustainable models.

Inspiration for an agroecological Europe

As Europe battles COVID-19 the EEB is committed to continuing our work towards a better future where people and nature thrive together. Getting the future of our food and farming system right is a crucial part of it.

This article is the ninth in a series telling the story of agroecological farms throughout Europe and beyond. We hope to show what an agroecological future for Europe could look like, and why it’s a desirable path. 

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