November 14, 2013, by Fraser

More from less

Dr John Strak, Honorary Professor in Food Economics at The University of Nottingham, on how we can get more food with less environmental impact. 

I was in Denmark a couple of weeks ago, as the guest of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council (DAFC), attending a gathering of over 2,000 Danish pig farmers and their employees in the town of Herning. I joined them for two days listening to experts in all aspects of pig and meat production.  And, before you jump to conclusions, it wasn’t the prospect of a bacon sandwich that took me to this isolated (but very pleasant) part of Jutland.

The theme of the Herning Congress was “more from less” and that was the attraction for me – and a further incentive was the release of a major report by the DAFC which describes the potential gains to the Danish economy of investing in the Danish pig in industry. The report noted that, over the past 30 years, production of pigs in Denmark has increased from c. 10 million to 30 million pigs whilst the environmental impact has decreased. Two pigs are produced today, claimed DAFC, with the same environmental impact as a single pig in 1985. That is certainly, “more from less”.

Just after I returned to the UK from my “information smorgasbord” I reviewed an academic study published in Germany that takes this “more from less” theme on to a wider European analysis.  It shows that productive agriculture brings significant benefits for food security, resource efficiency, economic stability, improved biodiversity, and climate-change mitigation.

This report, ‘The social, economic and environmental value of agricultural productivity in the European Union’, has been published by the Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture, an international non-profit think tank based in Berlin.

Significant benefits

According to the report each percentage point increase in agricultural productivity in Europe brings significant benefits. Namely:

  • feeds more than 10 million humans per year
  • increases the annual social welfare generated in European agriculture by approximately 500 million
  • contributes EUR 500 to the annual income of an average EU farmer
  • reduces our net virtual land imports by about 1.2 million hectares
  • acts to save 220 million tons in CO2 emissions
  • preserves global biodiversity equivalent to fauna and flora of up to 600,000 hectares of rainforest

The report draws heavily on peer-reviewed work and assembles a cogent case for investing in improved productivity in European farming.  The authors conclude that switching to low input agricultural methods, with an average of 31% lower yields than productive agriculture in the EU, would come at the cost of these benefits.

In other words, we can get more from less when we apply science and technology to agriculture and, indeed, improved productivity is essential for global food security and meeting the challenges that come from climate change.

Am I surprised by this? No. Am I surprised that we have to continually make this point to a wider audience? Yes.  My Danish trip and the German report at least reassure me that that other academics and decision-makers in Europe realise that science, innovation and higher productivity are the way forward.

Posted in sustainability