Is There Too Much Land in Europe?

By Robert Vierhout | October 18, 2011

The European Common Agricultural Policy is controversial. For some it is too expensive, while others cannot do without it. Once driven by the necessity to guarantee enough of a domestically raised food supply for Europe, the CAP now deals with opening international borders and environmental demands—new challenges that are causing considerable strain on the farming community.

The supply-side approach of the early days resulted in a strong agricultural sector, but at the same time, more products than Europeans could digest. The butter mountains, wine lakes and cereal surpluses forced the CAP to become more market oriented.

One of the many CAP reforms resulted in the creation of a set-aside instrument taking land out of cultivation to reduce supply. Initially set up in the late 1980s as a voluntary scheme, it became obligatory in the early ’90s. By 2000, 10 percent of all arable land of the EU15 was no longer used for growing crops for food purposes. The land could be used, however, for growing crops for energy. Then, we had the food price spikes in 2007-’08.  In no time, the set-aside policy was thrown into the shredder. More land for more crops was needed. Unfortunately, only 7 percent was suitable for cultivation; the rest had been permanently converted.

With this history in mind, combined with the ever-growing demand for agricultural commodities and yearly increase of bioenergy demand, one would think that the EU would no longer move towards a policy of set-aside. Even if that extra demand would not exist, why would European politicians want to increase idled land, knowing that year-on-year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, arable land in Europe is left idle?

This reality does not seem to have an impact on the thinking of the European Commission. As part of another reform of the CAP, the commission will soon introduce “ecological focus areas” and farmers will be required to devote at least 7 percent of their eligible program hectares to fallow, terraces, landscape features, buffer strips and reforestation.

Well, it may have a nice name, but in reality is nothing else than set-aside in a different suit. If environmental concern is the name of the game, why then not force upon all crop production, whatever the end-use, sustainability criteria that already apply to biofuel crops? That would most likely deliver more than the 7 percent land being envisaged with this measure.

But what is most striking is the impression given that there is an abundance of arable land in Europe and that we can do with less. If that is indeed the case, why are we having this silly debate on indirect land use change (ILUC)? A study published in March 2011, commissioned by a group of nongovernmental organizations and conducted by the Institute for European Environmental Policy, found the anticipated indirect land use by 2020 associated with increased biofuels in the EU would require an area almost equal to the entire Republic of Ireland.

The 7 percent arable land set aside for ecological focus areas would comprise about 7 million hectares—more or less the size of Ireland.

How ironic can this be: Trying to win land by abolishing biofuel policy while giving away an equal area of land at the same time, and through the back door, forcing it to be taken out of production.

The EU urgently needs to answer one question: Do we have enough arable land to fulfill our needs now and in the future? If the answer is yes, then forget about ILUC, at least for domestic biofuels. If the answer is no, don’t even think about mandatory set-aside, in whatever form or fashion. Worries about food shortages and the resulting risks of harmful land use changes are without substance, if Europe has the luxury to sacrifice valuable productive hectares for ecological enhancement. 

Author: Robert Vierhout
Secretary-general, ePURE