Climate change can still be rather abstract for many amongst us. We hear about melting poles, a global increase in hurricane intensity or rising temperatures. For many Europeans this phenomenon does not seem to affect their daily lives. But this is not grasping the full picture. The food you consume daily, from its availability to its quality, is directly affected by climate change. Agriculture depends on climatic conditions, and is therefore highly exposed to climate change.
The consequences of climate change on the agri-food sector
Climate change's consequences are increasingly impacting European agriculture. From extreme weather conditions to changes in seasonality and variability, they have a significant impact on production, possibly lowering the quality of the product or greatly reducing the supplies. In the future these effects will only intensify, constantly challenging the agri-food sector.
Even your glass of red wine is threatened by climate change. In the first part of 2017, Europe faced extreme climatic conditions with serious impacts for producers. For instance, heavy hailstorms and hard frosts in spring caused considerable damage to vineyards all over Europe. As a result, European wine harvests for 2017 are expected to be very low (14% lower than the previous year), hitting a historical low.
It is not only the quantity of agricultural products but also the quality that is threatened by climate change. An example of this is the frequent rain in northern Europe which has resulted in lower protein content in wheat in 2017. This can then have a negative impact on European exports as well.
Responding to these issues, the EU offers support to farmers who find themselves in financial difficulties. For example in September 2017, it allowed 15 member states to increase advance payments to farmers affected by difficult climatic conditions. This increase was aimed at direct payments and some rural development payments for farmers, increasing the amount that could be paid from 16 October 2017 from 50% to 70% of the total amount for direct payments and from 75% to 85% for rural development payments.
Helping producers cope with the results of climate change is only part of the story, however. Another key aspect is mitigation – how to help farmers contribute to overall efforts to reduce the impact of climate change in the first place. The EU is also working hard on this – updating its policies and ensuring funding is available to help ensure the sustainable usage of natural resources and to limit emissions.
At a European level, the common agricultural policy has evolved over time, and today focuses more on the environment and climate than ever before. The results on the ground are clear to see: since 1990, for example, there has been a 23% reduction in agricultural non-CO² greenhouse gas emissions, while the level of EU organic farming across the EU has risen by 5.5% every year for the last ten years.
To achieve this, the EU has changed the way the CAP works in order to promote more sustainability in the agri-food sector. For example, under so-called cross-compliance rules, farmers only receive financial support from the CAP if they meet specific environmental requirements and obligations. Direct payments to farmers can also be topped up with additional sums in exchange for so-called 'greening' measures, such as diversifying their crops or creating ‘ecological focus areas’ where the land is not farmed between their crops. Although a relatively recent addition to the CAP rules, these greening measures have already shown their environmental benefits for biodiversity, water and soil quality, carbon sequestration and landscapes – and such further improving the environmental protection aspects of farming is likely to continue to be a priority for EU farm policy in the future.
Rural development programmes are also playing an important role in the fight against climate change. These are drawn up at member state or regional level and have to address objectives, translated into priorities such as restoring, preserving and enhancing ecosystems related to agriculture and forestry or promoting resource efficiency and supporting the shift toward a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy in the agriculture, food and forestry sectors.
Innovation, a strategic ally against climate change
Innovation and knowledge can also largely contribute to a more sustainable agricultural sector.
From robots to satellites, technology and innovation is slowly changing agriculture. A large amount of information is now accessible to a broad population, allowing farmers greater precision in their daily activities but also helping improve the quality of weather forecasts, crop monitoring and predicting yields. This combination allows local responses such as a more responsible usage of resources, but also at European level, to inform decision-making and policy-shaping.
Through its Horizon 2020 programme, the EU is also investing significantly in research and innovation. In its latest work programme, launched on 27 October 2017, €1 billion is devoted to knowledge and innovation in agriculture, food and rural development, mainly under the themes of sustainable food security, rural renaissance, and to a lesser extent information and communication technologies.
Climate change, a global problem
It is crucial that the EU fulfil its commitments in the fight against climate change, with agriculture at the heart of it. EU commitments mainly come from the United Nations sustainable development goals and the Paris Agreement, which was adopted in 2015 after the COP21 climate negotiations that took place in November 2015 in Paris, and aim at keeping the global temperature increase to well below 2°C. The COP23 organised in Bonn between 6 and 17 November 2017 will continue working towards the implementation of the Paris Agreement with the 197 parties involved.
Europe has a rich and diverse agri-food sector, which should be protected. This is why the European Commission wants to take it a step further and put sustainability at the centre of its priorities. In its Communication on the future of food and farming, published on 29 November 2017, a new delivery model for the common agricultural policy was proposed. This new model will allow member states to design a mixture of mandatory and voluntary measures, resulting in quantified targets which will ensure that the objectives defined at EU level will be achieved. This will be applicable for environmental and climate objectives, enabling flexibility at member state level to respond better to local needs.
7 November 2017