Rationale and instruments for making Europe’s economy sustainable

Sustainability of agriculture

In a free market economy, economic growth is difficult to reconcile with the guiding idea of sustainable development. Preserving the environment and natural resources for future generations not by means of traditional environmental protection, but by changing consumption patterns, creating less pressure on the environment, is difficult but feasible.

In the spirit of UN documents, sustainable development is understood as social and economic development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Thus, the global economy must meet human needs, but its growth should be within the Earth’s ecological capacity.

Sustainable development is assumed to have three main dimensions:

  1. environmental – referring to the impact on the environment,
  2. economic – relating to finance and the distribution of scarce resources,
  3. social – relating to being, values, institutions and relationships.

Taking demographic trends into account, action must be taken simultaneously in three directions:

  1. the use of innovation, particularly resource-efficient technologies,
  2. rationalising consumption and the structure of consumption,
  3. reducing waste and wastage in the product life cycle.

Sustainable development implies a harmony between the multiplication of wealth and the capacity of ecosystems capable of renewal. This requires adherence to four strategic principles:

  1. the use of renewable resources, such as land, freshwater, forest, fish, should not exceed their rate of recovery,
  2. the consumption of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, metal ores, deep-sea water should not exceed the level that results from their substitutability by renewable resources and the increased productivity of renewable and non-renewable resources,
  3. pollutants discharged into the environment should not exceed the capacity of the environment, i.e. the capacity of the environment to absorb, treat or dispose of them,
  4. substances discharged into the environment should be compatible with natural processes in the environment.

Nowadays, financial markets, corporations and regulators are the main forces steering socio-economic development, without always paying attention to environmental and social externalities. This has made it possible to achieve impressive economic growth during the period of industrialisation, but at the cost of significant consumption of non-renewable natural resources and degradation of many elements of the environment. Changing attitudes requires a conscious combination of actions in promoting sustainability and in creating the legal conditions for the necessary changes. The task is complex and difficult, as it must go beyond the traditional, usually short-term policies of nation states.

Agriculture is a special area of the economy because it is responsible for feeding society today and in the future. It is also responsible for the quality of the environment and the lives of our communities outside cities and, indirectly, in cities. The sustainability of agriculture is the most important element of sustainable development, as it concerns the largest areas of our globe, a huge part of its resources and the possibility of feeding the human population in the future. Agriculture feeds, but by using environmental resources and industrial means of production it also contributes to environmental degradation, greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.

In agriculture, there are great opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, and water pollution, which can reduce the negative effects of climate change – which is also in the interest of agriculture. In addition, agriculture can make efforts to mitigate climate change through measures to fix carbon from the atmosphere in the soil. The implementation of these measures must not adversely affect agricultural productivity, as the overriding goal of agriculture is to ensure the availability of food for a growing global population.

Agricultural sustainability aims to optimise production, basing it sustainably on soil fertility, better use of water, seeds, fertilisers, plant protection products, machinery, energy carriers, while enhancing the financial sustainability of agriculture and preserving its social functions.

This guide is intended to facilitate the translation of the noble idea of sustainability into concrete actions and practices at farm level, enabling the farmer to optimise the food production process and achieve a stable income while respecting environmental resources and the needs of society today and in the future.