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agriculture and environment


On 27 January, the Commission approved a Communication 1 to the Council and the European Parliament entitled "Directions towards sustainable agriculture". Sustainability is the key concept of the 5th Environmental Action Programme, in which sustainable development is defined as "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". This entails preserving the overall balance and value of the natural capital stock and a redefinition of short, medium and long-term considerations to reflect the real socio-economic costs and benefits of consumption and conservation.

Environmental considerations have become a major concern of the common agricultural policy (CAP). Agriculture and forestry rely on the availability of natural resources and, in making use of them, can bring pressure to bear on the environment. Differentiated landscapes and the associated biodiversity shaped by farming over the centuries may be seriously affected by the abandonment of land-use.

The contribution of Agenda 2000 to sustainable development

The aim of the new reform of the CAP, an integral part of Agenda 2000, is to achieve the necessary structural adjustments in the main markets and to introduce a strong rural development policy, which becomes the second pillar of the CAP.

An essential component of the Commission’s proposals are a range of environmental considerations aimed at the adoption of agricultural practices necessary to safeguard the environment and preserve the countryside.

The general idea underlying these considerations is that farmers should observe a certain basic level of environmental practice as part and parcel of support regimes. But all environmental services beyond this basic level of good agricultural practice and compliance with environmental legislation should be paid for by society through agri-environmental programmes.

A priority to agri-environmental indicators

The European Councils in Cardiff and Vienna stressed the importance of developing environmental indicators. These indicators help to transform raw physical and financial data on human activity and the state of the environment into information to facilitate decision-making. They make it easier to understand complex agricultural and environmental issues, show how situations develop over time, and provide quantitative information. All this is needed for setting targets and monitoring.

The Communication devotes a section of the document to agri-environmental indicators. The following points are stressed:

  • A coherent system of environmental indicators should not be limited to instruments and themes specific to the environment. A piecemeal approach does not fully take into account the fact that the environment is a global system in which the mix and interaction of constituent elements matter. With respect to agriculture, a "systems approach" is even more important, since agriculture itself interacts with the environment as a system. Understanding agriculture in its multiplicity of positive and negative environmental effects means taking into account the full context of such an interaction. A meaningful spatial context for agri-environmental indicators is provided by the concept of "landscapes" - the cultivated, partly semi-natural space within which agricultural production takes place, characterised by the totality of its bio-physical and cultural features.
  • Although developing environmental indicators related to agriculture requires a differentiated approach, reflecting regional variations in economic structures and natural conditions, the role of indicators is to communicate by a selected number of key statistics an easily understood picture of the main trends for politicians and general public.
  • The implementation of indicators must be based as far as possible on existing statistics. Care should be taken, however, not to be too driven by current data availability. It is necessary to intensify efforts on the conceptualisation of indicators, and at the same time to launch reflection groups in order to meet new needs concerning data requirements. It will be also necessary to ensure that adequate statistical tools are established.

The Communication concludes by announcing that this work will remain a priority for the Commission over the coming months and years.

A useful contribution

The publication falls within this general context. Its purpose is to highlight statistical information available primarily from Eurostat but also from the Joint Research Centre and the Commission Directorates-General.

The request by the European Council for environmental indicators to assess and monitor the impact of different economic sectors – including agriculture - on the environment and progress in integrating environmental concerns into those policies is giving additional impetus and new orientation to ongoing work on agro-environment indicators. There is a clear demand from polici-makers and the public for a selected set of indicators which provide an easily understood picture on how we are faring in « greening » agriculture – not least through implementing the Agenda 2000 decisions. The Commission is committed to responding to this demand and to presenting to the European Council meeting in December 1999 a report on such indicators, including for the agricultural sector.

It aims to add value to the various existing publications concerned with the relation between farming and the environment.

It contributes to the difficult work already under way to construct sustainability indicators that are satisfactory from a conceptual and practical point of view. It also throws light, on the one hand, on how different kinds of economic and the environmental indicators for agriculture relate to each other, and, on the other, how indicators for the agricultural and agrofood sector relate to those in other economic sectors.

It covers, of course, what specialists have called "pressure indicators" designed to measure the impact of agricultural activity on such important matters as water quality, climate change or soil acidification.

But, to take account of the complex interactions between human activity and the environment, these indicators are accompanied by statistics on a variety of important subjects like organic farming, the impact of agri-environmental measures, "Natura 2000" zones, European landscapes, renewable energy sources, and agricultural employment.

We have sought to make this contribution to the discussion rigorous and complete, and hope that it will form a solid basis for the work which will have to be undertaken in the future.

M. James CURRIE, General-Director
Environment, Nuclear Safety and Civil Protection

M. Yves FRANCHET, General-Director
EUROSTAT - Statistical Office of the European Communities

M. Guy LEGRAS, General-Director
Agriculture and rural development.

1   COM (1999) 22 final


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