Ladies and gentlemen,

 

I'm very happy to be here with you today. I would like to congratulate my colleagues in DG Agri and the good people at the OECD for having the foresight to organise this joint conference.

 

Of course the OECD has a distinguished history of helping to formulate smart policy in relation to agriculture and water sustainability. 

 

Water is one of those difficult policy issues that affect every human being in a very fundamental way, yet can be complex to tackle from a policy point of view because of its cross-cutting nature.

 

At the European Commission we have come to the realisation – and I acknowledge that perhaps we did not come to this realisation fast enough – that we need to make different policy structures work in harmony if we are to make meaningful progress in relation to our goals on water sustainability.

 

From the global perspective, the goal of improving water sustainability is absolutely fundamental to Europe's ambition to lead from the front in the climate and environment challenge.

 

When it comes to the hard-won global consensus outlined in the COP21Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, we have a strong impetus for action, and a clear framework for moving ahead.

 

But the challenge remains enormous: 2016 was the hottest year on record and a new high for the third year in a row.

 

The UN estimates that flora and fauna are disappearing at a rate 1,000 times higher than normal; and only 3 trillion trees remain on the planet, where there used to be 6 trillion 40 years ago.

 

And when it comes to water, the trends are also alarming:

 

To give just one example, the deterioration in water quality from the process of eutrophication – in other words, from dirty water and agricultural run-off - is estimated to have reduced biodiversity in rivers, lakes and wetlands by about one-third globally, with the largest losses in China, Europe, Japan, South Asia and Southern Africa.

 

OECD research shows that irrigated agriculture remains the largest user of water globally; accounting for 70% of global water abstraction and over 40% in many OECD countries.

 

As human populations continue to grow and economies expand, water resources are being depleted and polluted at an alarming rate. Sustainable water management is the explicit target of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, which calls for a global agriculture able to enhance farming productivity while reducing the impact on the availability and quality of water. 

 

We know that farming and food production are water-intensive industries, so if we want to meet the global demand for more and better food, we need to continue to develop production systems and technologies to make agriculture more productive and efficient, but also greener and more resource-efficient. And we need to make different economic, political and policy objectives work in harmony to achieve that goal.

 

The delicate balance between agriculture and water-related objectives has been addressed at EU level by the evolving EU environmental legislation. In 2000, the EU Water Framework Directive set 2015 as the deadline to achieve good water status.

 

Similarly, the Nitrates Directive has had a measurable effect on the reduction of pollution from agricultural nitrogen.  On the use of plant protection products, the Pesticides Directive aims at reducing risks and impacts of pesticides on human health and the environment.

 

In my own portfolio of agriculture and rural development, the CAP feeds into EU water legislation by providing a wide range of obligations and supporting measures. These include:

 

  • the cross-compliance mechanism;

 

  • measures such as ecological focus areas and permanent grassland;

 

  • Agri-environment-climate schemes under rural development;

 

  • targeted measures to the implementation of the Water Framework Directive;

 

  • And knowledge transfer and especially investment support.

 

The recent EU circular economy package has also prioritized some agriculture-related initiatives such as water reuse, the revised EU regulation on fertilisers, and food waste - with significant potential contribution to improve water status.

 

However, we have recognised at the European Commission that policy initiatives cannot work in isolation to address an issue as fundamental as water. 

 

For this reason, EU Environment Commissioner Vella and I established a Task Force on Water to develop a long-term alliance between different Commission services.

 

The Task Force spearheaded the Commission Staff Working Document (SWD) on "Agriculture and Sustainable Water Management in the EU", published in April 2017. This document outlines in a very practical way the Commission's commitment to make progress.

 

The SWD describes the main sources of pressures on water quality and availability in the EU and finds that the current EU agricultural and water legislation contains a wide range of tools to address these issues. It also helpfully points towards specific challenges remaining in the implementation stage.

 

The Task Force acknowledges the cross-sectoral dimensions of water policies, focusing on improving governance and compliance; on investment, knowledge and innovation needs in the sector.

 

The activities of the EC Task Force have shed new light and enabled significant headway on the issue.

 

The Commission succeeded in bringing various actors into this conversation; ranging from EU Ministers at informal AGRIFISH council in Malta in 2017, to the water and agriculture knowledge community; and incorporating expertise from the OECD, as demonstrated by this very event.

 

However, one key actor needs to be kept in mind above anyone else: the farmer.

 

Successful policies and measures should be devised by working with farmers and taking their needs, together with those of our society, into account.

 

And the Commission has taken concrete action to support a future data-driven farming and precision agriculture, notably through Horizon 2020 and the EIP-Agri.

 

We are convinced that water-use efficiency and water quality can be maximised by making better use of new technologies, such as big data tools, remote sensing, and artificial intelligence.

 

The goal is to maximise both the economic output and the environmental performance of farms; in other words, finding future-proof, win-win solutions for the farmer and the environment.

 

Farmers will respond if they are incentivised as part of the solution rather than punished as part of the problem.

 

In order to find a win-win solution on water quality and sustainable farming, DG AGRI is working together with DG Grow), DG CLIMA and DG JRC on an EU-wide decision support platform for on-farm nutrient management.

 

The tool would integrate information from various sources such as land parcel information, satellite data, and soil sampling. Additionally, it could also support a two-way data exchange between the farmer and public authorities for the implementation of a whole range of further environmental commitments, such as water use efficiency and emissions reduction.

 

These developments have the potential to greatly simplify farmers' agronomic and administrative tasks.

 

The Task Force on Water, working in collaboration with DG JRC, is also behind the creation of a Knowledge Hub on Water and Agriculture; this will link and integrate existing sources of information and generate new knowledge to support cross-sectoral EU policy making in the field of water and agriculture.

 

It will also create synergies between Member States and the Commission in relation to moving towards sustainable solutions.

 

I am also convinced that Member States and regional authorities can in many cases do more, and help themselves by increasing their level of ambition. There are strong opportunities for them to draw down EFSI funding and EIB support for water projects, but they have to take the first step themselves.

 

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I urge you to make full use of today's excellent opportunity. Have an open discussion about the challenges and opportunities in relation to the sustainable use of water in agriculture, and use this as a platform to actively engage with EC services.

 

We have already come a long way together. Now I encourage you to join forces to plot a path for the remaining challenges ahead. Thank you.