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agriculture and environment

Crop trends and environmental impacts

Michel POIRET (Eurostat)

On the whole, there has been a steady increase in the production of arable crops in Europe. Community aid for cereals, oilseed and protein crops, together with a fall in the number of grazing animals, has led to an increase of crops to be sold at the expense of permanent grassland and other forage (pasture and secondary cereals). Simplified distribution of crops, the increased importance of annual crops and the favouring of financial criteria made possible by agronomic progress are the main conclusions that can be drawn from the changes observed in arable crop area over the last 25 years. The reform of the CAP in 1992 had little impact on these overall trends. However, it has been a major, but insufficient, step towards the awareness of environmental aspects linked to the agricultural activity.

Of the 129 million hectares of farmland in the Community of 15, over half consisted of arable land in 1995 and over a third was permanent grassland (Figure 1 and Table 1). The remainder, less than one hectare in ten, was given to permanent crops (vines, orchards, olive groves, etc.), with marked concentrations in certain regions. 

Major changes in crop rotation in the Member States between 1975 and 1995

There was a 12% decrease in permanent grassland in the Community of 9 in 20 years (Figure 2). Although, relatively speaking, the fall was less marked in Luxembourg than in Denmark, over four million hectares of permanent grassland were lost in Europe. France alone lost 2.4 million hectares of permanent grassland. The greatest impact was on land used for rearing herbivores (cattle and sheep) in the plains. High-yield fodder crops increased in these areas, thus reducing the amount of land needed for grazing animals. This phenomenon was accentuated by the fall in numbers of livestock due to the decrease in stock rearing after the milk quota implementation (1984). This released land that could be farmed for the production of crops for sale outside the holding. In mountainous regions, or regions where stock-rearing was the only way of utilising land, changes in permanent grassland over the same period were minimal. In 1992, the Community introduced agri-environmental measures, partly to stop this decline in permanent grassland.

The ploughing up of permanent grassland poses environmental problems in the short and medium term. Initially, there is a massive release of nutrients following the decomposition of the considerable quantity of organic matter in the upper layers of the soil. After a meadow has been ploughed up, the nutrients in the roots and leaves decomposing on the surface (phosphorus, potassium and, most importantly, nitrogen), together with carbon, are often released into the environment through volatilisation, leaching or runoff. Subsequently, the complex ecosystem of the meadow environment (wet and dry meadows) is upset, in terms of biodiversity (maintenance of wild flora and fauna), soil quality (organic matter rates, stability), water management (infiltration, replenishment of water tables, flood limitation, transpiration, etc.) and landscape. Generally speaking, the ploughing up of meadows has led farmers to modify the boundaries of plots by removing fences or grubbing hedgerows.

There has also been a reduction in permanent crops. The grubbing of vines for the production of table wine was the main reason for the reduction in area between 1980 and 1995 (-0.4 million hectares). The relatively unprofitable market in table wine, combined with Community grubbing-up aids, has led Mediterranean areas, which were the leading producers of such wine, to shift production towards wines of better quality on part of their vineyards and to cultivate crops on the remainder. Part of the grubbed-up vineyard areas with a low agricultural potential has probably been returned to fallow, i.e. serves no particular agricultural purpose. Outside the Mediterranean, other areas concentrated their production on quality wines produced in specified regions (quality wines p.s.r.). The trend in areas under orchards was characterised by a sharp reduction in the northern Member States but no change in the southern Member States.

On the whole, areas under olives increased over the period in question. Greece and Italy increased plantings, whilst Portugal remained steady. France saw a reduction of 50%. In Spain, the increasing plantings have been registered since 1995 only.

Generally speaking, reductions in the area of farmland were found only on permanent grassland and permanent crops. Over the same period, arable land increased by 12 % in the Community of 9. This increase was observed in all Member States and was largely in cereals to be sold outside the holding and high-yield forage crops. In addition to this increase in area, the distribution of crops also underwent a profound change for economical and political reasons. 

More common wheat, dried pulses and industrial crops in 1990 than in 1970

Between 1975 and 1990, changes in the distribution of crops in the Member States basically reflected the overall trend in European agriculture. Changes in crop cultivation methods and the increased use of plant protection products in the 70s, against a backdrop of guaranteed prices and a cereal shortage in Europe, led to a rapid increase in the production of cereals (basically in the plains). However, the surpluses accumulated in the 80s led to a fall in prices and thus lower gross yield per hectare as from 1984. There was a shift from secondary cereals (barley, oats, rye, etc.) towards common wheat and maize, given their higher yield potential and prices (Figure 3).

In the early 80s, supply balances for dried pulses (protein crops) and industrial crops (rape, sunflowers, soya, etc.) showed a deficit, and gross yield per hectare was comparable or superior to that of cereals (Figure 4). An efficient aid system led to the rapid spread of these crops in all the Member States - hence the marked increase in sunflowers, field peas and rape over the last decade (Figure 5). Areas sown leapt from just a few thousand hectares in the early 80s to 4.8 million hectares by 1990. These crops call for no special investment (same equipment and marketing as cereals), have been readily assimilated and have conquered the major crop-growing areas in a spectacular fashion.

Within the category of fodder crops, the predominance of fodder maize as feed for herbivores was another prominent feature of the 80s. The pattern of land under fodder maize changed, with a migration from the traditional grain-producing areas of the south to the major cattle-rearing areas of the north. The staple of annual fodder in many Member States, it is high in energy and can be incorporated into all types of feed for herbivores, whether for milk production or fattening. Its production potential is superior to that of a grass crop (Box 1). Harvested whole, it is easy to store in silos and is liked by animals. Harvested in grain form, it constitutes concentrated feed that is given to both ruminant and monogastric animals. This use of maize has also contributed to the decrease in grassland. The cultivation of maize requires the land to be worked annually and demands more input (fertilisation, weeding, harvesting costs), but it makes for greater flexibility in the management of fodder areas, as it allows surplus silage maize to be used for the production of grain. 

The development of maize in Europe has revolutionised animal feeding. By definition, herbivores are able to digest cellulose perfectly, making them the only domestic animals that can eat grass. Without herbivores, grass would have no other use. By feeding cereals to herbivores, we have substituted a product that can be consumed by ruminants only (grass) with a product that can be consumed by man or other animals (maize). From this point of view, the intensive feeding of herbivores (particularly dairy cattle) has led to an intensification of fodder production and has profoundly changed the nature of fodder.

Whilst maize has become very important in cattle-rearing areas, grain-maize has remained a major cereal in other production areas, even though it has lost some of its appeal. Between 1970 and 1980, the productivity of grain maize did not grow at the same rate as that of common wheat. Its price, although higher, did not always allow it to compete with common wheat. Areas under this crop thus varied over the period in question according to climate and the market. However, it remained the number one crop in many regions, as it is better able to cope with high temperatures and irrigation.

The area of irrigable land (see article “Water and agriculture: contribution to a analysis of a critical but difficult relation ship”) increased considerably in the Community of 9 between 1980 and 1990, from 4 to 7.3 million hectares. France alone saw a 1.3 million hectare increase. Although maize has been the main irrigated crop in terms of area, irrigation has also been used on other annual or permanent crops to stabilise or increase yields. Irrigation often leads to an increase in inputs (fertilisation, crop protection products) and to the loss of nutrients or pesticides into the environment. Locally, it has also caused problems with the distribution of water between farming and other activities (energy production, household consumption, etc.).

Industrial and economically profitable farming

Between 1975 and 1990, crop cultivation systems underwent a major change. The traditional farms mixing crops and livestock were replaced by specialised farms, consolidating the major producing areas. A considerable portion of UAA used for own supply (cattle feed, seeds, etc.) or own consumption (food for humans) was freed and redirected to crops to be sold outside the holding: cereals (common wheat, grain maize), industrial crops (rape, sunflower, soya, etc.) or dried pulses (field peas in particular).

Numerous factors allowed this change.

  • Technical and technological progress.
  • Prevailing policy of high prices, that stimulated production and made possible the implementation of new productive means stemming from this technical and technological progress.
  • Decrease in manpower available for agricultural work following the rural exodus and thus the need for rationalisation and simplification of agricultural work.
  • Improvement in infrastructure and transportation, that allowed products from remote areas to compete with local ones. The competition was facilitated by the implementation of the Single Market and the successive enlargements of the European Union.
  • Concentration of granivore-rearing holdings near the importing seaports (for logistic reasons), that increased the competitiveness of European animal products. Production went up, increasing accordingly the market demand for crops (cereals, oilseed and protein crops).
  • Improvement of the European society’s general standard of living, encouraging farmers and their family to buy more goods on the market, and consequently to require incomes able to meet these new needs.

Modern farming is characterised not only by an increasing amount of production, but also by an ever more important volume of inputs bought outside the holding. From 32.2 million hectares in 1975, crops to be sold rose to 37.3 million hectares in 1990, representing an increase of 16 % (Figure 6).

Seeking short-term profitability

The economical logic of productivity during the so-called "prodigious" last decades led farmers to often prefer financial considerations (profitability) to sustainability of the agricultural productive activity.

This driving force had major consequences on the distribution of crops.

  • predominance of common wheat and grain maize, reducing the number of crops cultivated: Because of their high per-hectare yield and unit price, they ousted other rotation crops. Between 1975 and 1990, the share of secondary crops in total cereal area fell from 58% to 48 % in the Community of 9. In the Netherlands, for example, common wheat accounted for almost three-quarters of cereal crops in 1990.
  • the appearance and rapid development of oilseed and protein crops: They hastened the demise of areas under secondary crops (barley, oats, rye, root fodder crops, etc.).
  • the increase in the relative share of annual crops, including fodder crops: The area under annual crops rose from 44.9 million hectares in 1975 to 48.6 million hectares in 1990, an increase of 8 % (Figure 6).

The major efforts devoted by research and development bodies to increase yields have affected all types of crop. The practice for crops to be sold have also been applied to fodder crops. Many natural or permanent pastures have been replaced by sown meadows (consisting of legumes) or temporary pastures, the per-hectare yield often being higher.

Traditional crops have tended to become concentrated in certain areas. In their quest for short-term profitability, farmers have concentrated on the crop or crops that are best suited to the local soil and climate. 

On contrary, new crops, including silage maize, were developed even beyond the areas with the best natural or agronomic growing conditions: sunflower, soya, maize and lucerne advancing north of the 45th parallel, concentration of rape in the continental areas.

Evolution of this type has sometimes led to excess. Some crops have become virtually exclusive, continuing year after year (Box 2). This was the case with fodder maize in cattle-rearing areas, and with common wheat in cereal-growing areas. 

Finally, production structures themselves have changed, and a particular effort has been made to improve land (drainage, irrigation, consolidation, etc.). Although land improvement statistics are not always available, the general trend is towards an increase in parcel size in major growing areas and, locally, the grubbing up of isolated bushes and trees to facilitate the use of farm machinery that is increasingly powerful and cumbersome. These changes may impact biodiversity, soil quality (compaction, erosion), the flow of water and other elements (drainage, infiltration, runoff, wind, etc.) and landscape.

Intensive industrial farming has taken little or no heed of its impact on the environment. This aspect is still not a central component of discussions or decision-making at either individual or collective level. The initial problem was to produce at the lowest possible cost. This object has now been achieve and, indeed, surpassed, and the resultant agricultural surpluses are expensive to store and dispose of. 

The 1992 reform of the CAP modified the distribution of crops...

The second period begins with the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. Since 1988, a system of voluntary set-aside had been proposed to the farmers in order to reduce the cereal production. As from the harvest of 1993 (1992 for oilseed), price support for the production of cereals, oilseed and protein crops was reduced and offset by subsidy payments for areas under cereals, oilseed and protein crops in return for the compulsory set-aside (Box 3).

For the Community of 12, the introduction of the new CAP finally brought cereal production under control. There was a 3.4 million hectare decrease in the area under cereals between 1990 and 1993. It did not fall to the same level as the set-aside (15 %) owing to the special scheme for small producers, very widespread in Member States with small production structures, such as Italy and West Germany. Incidentally, yields increased over the period. In spite of the reduction in area, some Member States saw increased cereal harvests, such as Germany and the Netherlands. Others, such as France and Ireland, saw tonnage fall by over 10%. European cereal production fell from 169 million tonnes in 1992 to 164 million tonnes in 1995.

At European level, common wheat has remained crop number one. At national level, the areas under common wheat have stayed the same or increased. The fall in institutional prices has brought the animal feed market back under control, easing considerably the European supply balance sheet for common wheat, in spite of stable resources. Although European production of common wheat remained virtually unchanged between 1992 and 1995 (at just over 76 million tonnes), stocks fell sharply, from 20.8 to 8.8 million tonnes, with greater amounts of the now more competitive domestic production being used for animal feed.

There was a 16% reduction in areas under barley in the European Union between 1990 and 1993. With a lower yield than common wheat, barley has featured less prominently in the European distribution of crops. Grain maize has seen its share stabilise at European level. However, there has been an increase in areas under this crop in Italy and Germany, and a reduction in Spain. Other cereals have held their own, as they are basically for feeding livestock for own use (triticale, oats) or qualify for specific aid (durum wheat).

The farming of field peas grew between 1990 and 1993. At the start, field peas benefited from a scheme that was more favourable than that for cereals. However, this relative advantage disappeared in 1995, and there was then a drop in areas under this crop.

For oilseed, the impact of the reform was evident as early as 1992, since it had been introduced one year before cereals. There was a sharp fall in the European production of rape. However, after 1993, world prices picked up and production followed suit. Some of the "non-food" crops were used for the production of biofuels. Rape then exceeded the level it was at prior to the reform. To a lesser extent, the area under sunflowers fell during the first year of the reform and subsequently increased. When prices picked up in 1994 and 1995 owing to two years of severe drought in Spain, this crop followed suit.

... and imposed set-aside

Widespread set-aside had a new impact on the environment (Figure 7). Farmers were initially allowed to manage set-aside as they wished, but were gradually forced to consider this legal duty in their choice of crops. They had generally to ensure a crop canopy on the plot, particularly when set-aside was to be maintained for several years. It aimed also in more arid zones to re-introduce fallow lands given up in the intensification process described above.

If a fairly dense cover of vegetation is maintained in the appropriate manner on the plot, a parcel under set-aside can retain chemicals and serve as a haven for wild animals. In the case of a long duration set-aside, it has proved possible to sustain genuine environmental or wildlife policies on a local basis.

The introduction of compulsory set-aside has limited the use of machinery on parcels of set-aside and lower institutional prices partly reduced inputs (fertilisers, fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, etc.) on the other parcels. This positive impact of farming together with the decrease in guaranteed prices for field crops led to combining reasonable farming and agri-environmental measures (see chapter on agri-environmental measures in the present publication). It has limited the agricultural pressure for nutrients, pesticides and fossil fuel consumption. 

The CAP reform has not noticeably altered the general trend that started in the 80s: annual crops to be sold outside the holding have consolidated their position relative to permanent grassland and perennial crops. Whilst most land has displayed a downward trend, areas under the most productive crops have increased. 

Generally speaking, the 1992 reform of the CAP was a major, but insufficient, step towards a better integration of environmental demand and sustainability in the Common Agricultural Policy. In its proposal for a reform of the CAP (Agenda 2000), the European Commission aimed to enhance the role of ecology in agricultural activities and introduce a more structured and consistent policy of agricultural aid and environmental protection.


Map 1: area of arable land (relative value), NUTS 2, 1995

Map 2: changes in arable land (relative value), NUTS 2, 1975/1995

Map 3: area under permanent grassland in UAA (relative value), NUTS 2, 1995

Map 4: changes in permanent grassland (relative value), NUTS 2, 1975/1995

Map 5: area under common wheat in UAA (relative value), NUTS 2, 1995

Map 6: area under rape in UAA (relative value), NUTS 2, 1995

Map 7: area under sunflowers in UAA (relative value), NUTS 2, 1995

Map 8: fallow in UAA (relative value), NUTS 2, 1995


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