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agriculture and environment

Specialised holdings and more intensive practices

Michel POIRET (Eurostat)

Between 1975 and 1995, more than 1.4 million holdings disappeared in Europe. This downward trend outpaced the reduction in the areas cultivated, and agricultural production became more concentrated. As the average area increased, crop distribution was modified and European holdings specialised, with a trend towards crop production. Farmers intensified their output by increasing their use of inputs. Their technical know-how afforded them a better technico-economic management of their holding, but the increase in the use of inputs for the crop production had in turn an impact on the environment.

Concentration of holdings

As a consequence of the migration away from rural areas and the industrialisation of European society, the number of agricultural holdings has been steadily falling since 1950. Between 1980 and 1995, the number of holdings dropped everywhere in Europe; in several countries, such as Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark and France, by more than 40% (Table 1). Only the holdings of Italy and the United Kingdom were spared any further loss, and this limited the drop in the overall European total. Between 1990 and 1995, the rate of disappearances increased due to the age of holders, who had reached retirement age or benefited from incentives to stop farming. During this period, more than a million holdings disappeared in the Europe of Twelve, the equivalent of 550 holdings a day! This phenomenon has continued since 1995.

Since the end of the Second World War, agriculture has had to compete with other users of space: residential areas and economic zones, networks, infrastructures, and so on, on the one hand and forests on the other. Whereas, from 1980 to 1990, trends in agricultural area use varied from country to country (decreasing in Belgium, France, Ireland and the United Kingdom; increasing in Greece, Italy and the Netherlands), the decrease was general over the period 1990-1995.

The fall in the number of holdings has been greater and faster than that of the areas (see article "Crop trends and environmental impacts"). The result of these two asynchronous (or even inverse) developments has been a concentration of agricultural production. Fewer and fewer holdings are using more and more agricultural area. Thus the average European holding increased its use of agricultural area between 1975 and 1995 from 15 to 20 hectares (+33 %), although the rate of increase varied from one country to another, as well as from region to region within the same country. The rise in the use of agricultural area was highest in Luxembourg (+18 ha), Denmark (+17 ha) and France (+16 ha), three countries with an average area exceeding 35 hectares in 1995. Over the same period, the United Kingdom, where historically production had been more concentrated, recorded an increase of only 11 hectares (with a highest average of 70 ha). Other countries showed the same trend, but at a slower rate. In Greece and Italy (with averages of 4 and 6 ha respectively) the change was only slight because of the practice of dividing an inheritance amongst several heirs, who then farm their share individually (often on a part-time basis).

This concentration of production has led to holdings becoming more specialised. An analysis of concentration by farm type reveals different dynamics. Between 1975 and 1995, specialised farm types (holdings earning a main source of revenue from a single type of production) decreased a little in number and increased in area (Table 2). While the farm types "granivores" and "grazing livestock" decreased in number, the farms specialised in crops increased slightly in number and markedly in area. Meanwhile, non-specialised farm types suffered a huge fall: their number was divided by two, their area reduced by a third! 

Between 1975 and 1995, the number of holdings fell by more than 1.4 million in the Europe of Nine. The number of holdings specialised in crops rose by 47 000 and the farm types specialised in livestock fell by 396 000 (Figure 1). The biggest drop was recorded by non-specialised farm types: more than seven out of ten holdings disappeared, although this group represented only 32 % of the number volume. The same trend can be seen in the figures for cultivated areas: the Europe of Nine gained 538 000 hectares. However, holdings specialised in crops and in livestock gained respectively 8.4 million and 0.9 million, while non-specialised holdings contributed to the overall drop, to the extent of 8.8 million hectares.

The specialisation of holdings has continued since 1995. The Europe of Fifteen is dominated by specialised farm types, which, in 1995, amounted to 80 % of holdings and 78 % of areas.

The increase in the average area of holdings has had an effect on their production practices, with cash crops taking over (see article "Crop trends and environmental impacts"). Livestock holdings have continued to specialise, with breeders concentrating more and more on their areas of excellence. In mixed cropping and livestock farming, the gradual abandonment of grasslands in favour of industrial crops has led to an increase in the area used for field crops. In field crop farming, the distribution of the various cereals has focused on the crops that are a priori most profitable. In other farming areas, permanent crops (vines, fruit trees) have also moved towards a single, specific line of production, such as quality vines or fruit trees, and farmers have increasingly abandoned subsidiary types of production to become vine growers or arboriculturists. The same is true, though to a lesser extent, of vegetable producers. There are therefore fewer and fewer non-specialised holdings.

Holders' training levels - not necessarily higher...

We have therefore moved from a model of mixed cropping and livestock to a system of monotype production. Farmers have become specialists and thus acquired a better knowledge of their main production. However, the specialisation of a holding is not in itself a sign that holding managers are better trained.

In 1995, the Europe of Fifteen contained 7.4 million holdings and 128 million hectares of agricultural land. Only 4 % of the farmers had completed full agricultural training (any training course continuing for at least two years after the end of compulsory education and completed at an agricultural college), with large differences according to the farm types (Table 3). This low level of training could be a structural handicap in the future: a lack of training can not only penalise farmers in the daily running of their holding, but also reduce their margin for manoeuvre and their ability to adapt to new economic (cost analyses, assimilation of technological progress, production which is less harmful to the environment) and social conditions (awareness of rural surroundings, new direct markets). Training therefore plays an important role.

The incidence of full agricultural training for farm type "field crops" was higher than that of farm type "cereals". This difference within farm type "field crops" was due to the relative ease of growing cereals, compared to the difficulty of producing a crop of industrial plants, such as sunflowers, beet or potatoes. The level of training in farm type "horticulture" was comparable to the average when that of farm type "permanent crops" was markedly lower. The overall level of training of farmers specialised in crops was lower than average.

Farm type "grazing livestock" showed a level of training higher than average. Farm type "granivores" recorded a much higher level (7 %), largely above the average rate (4.2 %). This high level of training of breeders of non-grazing livestock was linked to the complex process of intensive rearing of pigs and poultry, similar to "industrial" processes. Overall the level of training of farmers specialised in livestock was higher than average.

Farm type "mixed cropping" had a low level of training. This can be traced to the high proportion of multi-activity managers in this farm type (occasional holding managers). In particular, this involved holdings mixing "horticulture and permanent crops" in the south of Europe and holdings under the heading "mixed cropping, mainly general field cropping" in the north (Belgium, Ireland). Farm types "mixed livestock" and "mixed crops-livestock" showed a higher than average incidence of training.

A closer analysis of farmers' training levels by farm type shows that, in 1995, specialised holders did not have a higher level of training than non-specialised holders. In other words, farmers who mainly drew their income from a single production type did not necessarily have a higher level of training than those managing several types of production at once.

... but an intensification of crop production and impact on the environment

The specialisation of holdings has given rise to two phenomena: an increase registered by some productions on each holding and an intensification of the factors of production.

The productions which determine the farm types (i.e. which generate more than two-thirds of the overall revenue of the holding) have increased their share of the agricultural area in use (Table 4). Generally speaking, arable land has taken over from permanent grassland and permanent crops. This growth is particularly noticeable in farm type "field crops", where arable land was already dominant (nine out of ten hectares). It is distinct also in farm type "grazing livestock", where feeding from arable land has risen from 15 to 20 %, replacing permanent grassland.

This has led to a loss of crop diversity, a concentration of labour, an increase in work during sowing and harvesting, a simplification of the crop management, the use of more powerful machines to carry out the work in time, and so on. By putting all their eggs in one basket, farmers prevent themselves from spreading risks among several production types, reduce their room for manoeuvre, increase their use of "insurance" systems and intensify the factors of production.

This intensification of the factors of production is reflected in the rise of inputs used in production. It corresponds in general to an increase in, or stabilisation of, the yield, and involves the increased use of certified seed, fertilisers, pesticides, equipment, resources (particularly water) and energy in order to guarantee maximum income with a yield optimising both the costs and the products of the crop.

The importance of certified seed has increased during the last 15 years. For certain crops, such as corn or sunflower, the general use of hybrids has necessitated the purchase of new seed every year. The high genetic potential of these crops is a source of high yields, an improvement in the quality of the products obtained and increased natural resistance to certain parasites. But, at the same time, it causes a loss of hardiness in the plants (short-term danger) and an impoverishment of their genetic quality (long-term danger). In the fields, these crops are very homogeneous: since they are all related, the plants are at the same stage of development at any given moment. This makes them more susceptible to attacks from parasites and to weather conditions (frost or high temperature).

Fertilisers, particularly nitrogen, provide an easy means of implementing crop intensification. Lack of nitrogen (a specific constituent of proteins) is the most restrictive factor in crop yields. Thus, the total consumption of nitrogen fertilisers rose between 1970 and 1994 from 6.8 to 9.6 million tonnes in the Europe of Fifteen, with a peak of 10.9 million tonnes in 1985 (Figure 2). Over the same period, most Member States of the European Union increased their nitrogen consumption considerably: Portugal and the United Kingdom by 80 %, Spain and France by 60 %! Only the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden witnessed a reduction in the use of nitrogen fertilisation over this period. The increased use of nitrogen fertiliser led to a considerable rise in the level of production, to an exploitation of the genetic improvement resulting from crop selection and to an improvement in product quality (particularly the protein content). However, nitrogen is very soluble and difficult to bind in the soil. The resulting difference between the addition of nitrogen fertiliser to the soil and its consumption by the plants is therefore a loss of nitrogen in the environment (see article "Nitrogen in agriculture").

The use of phosphate and potassium fertilisers fell considerably between 1970 and 1994: by 36 % and 21 % respectively for the Europe of Fifteen. Together, they represented less than 45 % of the mineral tonnages consumed in Europe in 1995, in contrast with 62 % in 1970. Less directly responsible for crop yields, they were neglected through ignorance or budget limitations. Previously in frequent use on grassland, they also suffered from the drop in grass-covered areas, which limited their potential use. On the whole, they counterbalanced the rise in nitrogen consumption: the amount of fertiliser used overall dropped from 17.9 to 17.5 million tonnes.

Once the conditions for growth have been established, the plants need to be protected from pests and parasites. This is where pesticides come in: herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, and so on. Initially derived from inorganic chemistry, they have quickly benefited from technological progress in the area of organic chemistry. Nowadays, most molecules are complex, result from extended research and act on very localised areas to neutralise the crops' enemies. They are used in weaker and weaker doses. This explains the decline in the quantities of active ingredient used between 1980 and 1994 in most European countries. This decline was strong in certain countries: 66 % less herbicide in Sweden, 28 % less fungicide in Austria, and 36 % less insecticide in Finland. Although there was an overall drop in the use of herbicides, fungicide and insecticide treatments increased in some countries: 55 % more treatments against cryptogamic diseases in Belgium, 45 % more treatments against insects in France.

The apparent decline in consumption (in particular with concentrated, organic substances) does not compensate for the noxiousness of the molecules. The use of pesticides is subject to approval procedures, during which their physical, chemical and biological characteristics are studied (including the dangers of their potential residue). However, these products are potentially dangerous. The quantities used are falling (particularly since lower doses are applied), but the areas treated are increasing. Some pesticides are subject to restricted use, others are closely monitored, with regard to the residue in both the environment and food.

Capital gradually taking the place of work

Farming methods have also evolved considerably with mechanisation. Although animal traction is still used in some areas, tractors have become the norm amongst producers of field crops. Tractors have also benefited greatly from technological progress. In view of the concentration of production and of the increase in area to be worked, tractors have become more powerful in order to work faster with larger, heavier and more complex tools. The number of powerful tractors (more than 60 kW) has more than doubled in most EU countries. The largest increase has been in the Netherlands (from 4 000 to more than 30 000 units in 15 years) and the highest number of tractors has been recorded in France (more than 250 000 units). On average, each holding in the United Kingdom had two powerful tractors in 1995.

In another example of material progress, the area of land under irrigation has increased in all EU countries. Between 1980 and 1995, it more than tripled in France (from 770 000 to 2.5 million hectares) and made strong progress in Portugal and Denmark. Apart from fresh vegetables, which cover a relatively low area, the crops most frequently irrigated are maize and sunflower. This enables high and regular yields to be achieved in climatic conditions where summer rainfall is often limited. It also enables an intensification of winter crops (irrigation of cereals) or an increase in the quality of the products (irrigation of food potatoes). However, in view of the greater needs of crops, which are particularly important when rain is rare, the drawing off of water often causes a fall in its availability as a natural resource (article “ Water and Agriculture: Contribution to an analysis of a critical but difficult relationship"). New methods (drip irrigation, booms and pivots) have been developed to reduce the quantities of water used to the crops' strict needs. However, this reduction in dosage is often accompanied by an increase in irrigated area, so that the overall quantity of water extracted remains the same. In addition, the booms and pivots, which are capable of irrigating tens of hectares at a time, have greatly changed the size and shape of the lots (crops arranged in circles or in islands around capture points, consolidation, and so on).

The production structures have thus been adapted to the increase in average area and tools. In order to work faster, farmers have consolidated many areas of land, redividing them into large, regular lots. Covering large areas (several thousands of hectares at a time), this consolidation has led to a simplification of the land cover structure. It has favoured open fields and reduced the number of hedges, slopes and spinneys. It has often contributed to an increase in productivity in the short term, but locally it has disturbed the normal physical flows of water, wind and earth and the biological flows of fauna and flora, and been able to cause floods, drought, erosion, and the migration or disappearance of species. These factors must now be taken into account when agricultural and rural areas are restructured. Future agricultural policy will encourage a return to the past, towards a more varied countryside (and will promote, for example, the replanting of hedges).

The intensification of crop production has been, and remains, a source of progress, but also a potential source of pollution, which is general like the consumption of fossil energy and its risk to the air, temporal like the increase in the consumption of water during the summer or diffuse like the eluviation of nitrate during winter. The difficulty is to determine which inputs have a negative effect on the environment, and which are perfectly in order. The borderline is thin and a macro-economic analysis is difficult in view of the high number of factors to be taken into account. Assessments of the pressure-status-response type always focus on the negative impact of agriculture on the environment. However, further study should be made of the intensification of the factors of production at micro-economic level to prove the need for farmers' responsibility towards their environment.


Map 1: Share of farm type "field crops" on all holdings (relative value), NUTS II, 1995

Map 2: Share of farm type "grazing livestock" on all holdings (relative value), NUTS II, 1995

Map 3: Share of farm type "granivores" on all holdings (relative value), NUTS II, 1995

Map 4: Development of farm type "mixed cropping" between 1975 and 1995 (relative value), NUTS II


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