How the EU can pave the way for sustainable food systems

A farmer winnows rice in Laos. Agriculture is crucial to reduce poverty and eradicate hunger, as 75 percent of the world's poorest people depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Photo by: Florent Tivet / European Union

Some 795 million people worldwide still suffer from chronic hunger, and with global population growth continuing rapidly, the world will have to produce 60 percent more food by 2050.

We know that agriculture is crucial to reduce poverty and eradicate hunger, given that 75 percent of the world’s poorest people depend on agriculture for their livelihood. We also recognize that the world is more interdependent than ever: The average annual growth in agricultural trade between 2005 and 2013 was 3.5 percent.

The challenge, therefore, in a world of rapid population growth and increasing climate awareness, is to produce more, using less.

We broadly agree on what the sustainable agriculture of the 21st century should look like:

1. Production must intensify, but only within defined natural and environmental constraints.
2. Food loss and waste must be urgently reduced, while water conservation must be urgently improved.
3. Improved research, innovation and collaboration will be the keys to unlocking a variety of challenges.

We need to move toward sustainable food systems, to develop innovative supply chains — based on new entrepreneurial activities, ICT and smart marketing tools. And strong global governance is needed to deliver all these goals. So what can Europe do?

CAP and beyond

As EU commissioner for agriculture and rural development, I believe our policies have a lot to offer, both in their own capacity and as blueprints that can be replicated elsewhere.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy is an example of a living policy that supports farmers, especially the youngest, encourages innovation and promotes sustainable production. It enables the EU to play its role in ensuring global food security.

It is also worth recalling that the EU is currently the largest global importer and exporter of agricultural products, including from developing countries.

CAP is a development-friendly policy as well, in line with the EU’s Policy Coherence for Development commitments due to its nonmarket and nontrade distorting nature. It prioritizes holistic rural development, aiming to provide incentives and supports for people living in rural areas to meet the wide range of challenges and opportunities that face them in the 21st century: economic, social and environmental.

Meanwhile, beyond our boundaries, the agricultural sector in the EU has an important role to play in sharing innovations, good farming techniques and sustainable practices with other regions of the world.

Outside CAP, a number of EU research programs will contribute to promoting agricultural research and innovation in order to allow the farm sector to adapt to new trends and to become more resource efficient.

There are 3.6 billion euros ($4 billion) available at the EU level between now and 2020 to fund synergies between agriculture and research, via Horizon 2020 and the European Innovation Partnership for “Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability.” Concrete innovation projects can be funded under the Rural Development Programs also.

More broadly speaking, the EU has put the target of food and nutrition security through sustainable agriculture at the center of its support programs in developing countries. It is the focal sector of EU assistance in 60 developing countries, particularly in Africa. Our support goes to developing value chains, and providing market access for smallholders to local, national and regional markets.

Responsible agribusiness investments

We also make sure that our trade policies do not harm development. To give you just one example, the Economic Partnership Agreements finalized last year — free trade agreements — were carefully crafted to allow our partner countries to protect sensitive agricultural products from liberalization, either by excluding them or by allowing robust safeguards that can be used to guard against import surges.

In addition, we agreed with our African partners to set up enhanced dialogues on agriculture and food security, and to be transparent as regards our respective domestic support to the farming sector.

Therefore, the EU supports sustainable farming practices in developing countries, focusing on smallholder agriculture and women farmers, the formation of farmers’ organizations, the supply and marketing chain, and responsible private agribusiness investment.

Building markets for agricultural products will require investment — notably from the private sector. As farming remains largely a private sector activity, responsible agribusiness investments have a major role to play.

This will be a crucial step in transforming agriculture in developing countries, as investors begin to realize the potential for production growth and the opportunities for research and innovation.

I am working with my colleagues Neven Mimica and Elżbieta Bieńkowska — the EU commissioners for international cooperation and development, and internal market, entrepreneurship and small and midsize enterprises, respectively — to encourage EU agribusinesses to invest in agriculture in developing countries, given the potential for production growth and the opportunities for research and innovation.

Investment partnerships will also be crucial to delivering the “precision agriculture” of the future, providing farmers with the technology and knowledge to do their work more smartly and more efficiently.

This is the heart of what is popularly known as the “agritech revolution”: a knowledge-based agriculture, strengthening research and innovation, and bridging the communication gap between farmers, researchers and agribusiness.

We must harness this agritech revolution to address the global challenges of increasing water shortage and less arable land. Access to better information and technology is already transforming agriculture for the better.

For example, EU programs are targeting small farmers, who represent the majority of the agricultural sector in developing countries, for vocational training to improve their knowledge base and farming techniques. Targeting women has been a particular priority, given their traditionally central role in smallholdings.

Research, tech at the heart of development country farming

ICT can also be utilized on a variety of scales. On smaller farms, efficiencies can be gained by using mobile phones to access real-time information about commodity market prices, local weather patterns as well as advice on crop spraying, irrigation and the best time to plant seeds. They can also be used for vastly improved methods to collect data in the field and for monitoring and evaluation of projects in rural areas.

So we need to get serious about placing research and technology at the center of developing country farming.

Related to this is the importance of reducing food losses and waste. This is crucial from a food security point of view but also from the perspective of an efficient use of natural resources — protecting the environment from depletion of finite resources.

The EU supports research and innovation in EU agriculture to further reduce food losses by tackling technical limitations to preserving food on farms. Through increased CAP support for collective investments and for producers’ organizations, farmers are incentivized to work together to overcome technical barriers and share best practices.

The commission is active in programs such as African Postharvest Losses, or APHILIS — tools that are essential to better target loss reduction programs, monitor the success of these programs and estimate food availability in countries threatened by food insecurity.

The EU is very active in the international debates on food losses and waste. For example, at the recent G-20 agricultural ministerial meeting, I supported the proposal to establish a common platform to share information and best practice in measuring and reducing food loss and waste.

Agriculture and trade are prominently reflected in the U.N. negotiations over the sustainable development goals. In order for these to succeed, our goals need to be ambitious and realistic, accompanied by achievable and measurable targets. The EU can share best practices in this regard through our sustainable agriculture strategies under CAP.

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About the author

  • Phil Hogan

    Phil Hogan is EU commissioner for agriculture and rural development. Between 2011 and 2014, he served as minister for the environment and local government in the Irish government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny. He has also occupied various senior posts at local, national and European level. Prior to his entry to politics, he established and subsequently directed an insurance and real estate business. He also managed the family farm and is a graduate of University College Cork.