Integrated farm management: transforming sustainability in agriculture

Martijn Buijsse from the European Initiative for Sustainable Development in Agriculture talks about European sustainable agriculture and how ‘integrated farm management’ could help to solve future issues.

When it comes to the essence of sustainable agriculture, we can translate this to being able to: meet the demand for food, feed and fibre in the agricultural sector, without depleting or compromising the ability of future generations to equally produce and meet their demands in the future. Sustainable agriculture is not just about farmers and what they can do on their farms, but is about integration across the whole supply chain. The question is: what can farmers, retailers, packaging companies, producers, transportation companies etc. do to make the final product a sustainable one?

For many years, agricultural use of and reliance on chemical crop protection products and fertilisers, as well as biotechnology, mechanisation and government subsidies, have allowed crop yields and agriculture to soar in industrialised countries, leading to an abundance of food at affordable – or even very low – prices.

However, repercussions of this type of farming have in part led to depleted and contaminated soil and water resources, and a loss of biodiversity. However, farmers need good and fertile soil and sufficient water to produce crops and have healthy livestock. The future is at risk for those young farmers who will be taking over affected soil and water resources in the years to come, unless there is a change towards a more sustainable approach to agricultural production.

Throughout Europe there are many policies, and there is a lot of talk around how we can utilise natural resources in such a way that they can maintain and/or regenerate their productive capacity, whilst making sure that we are not depleting ecosystems. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was originally launched in 1962. It is described as a partnership between agriculture and society, and between Europe and its farmers. The European Union can use this CAP to stimulate production or to stimulate more sustainability.

The United Nations’ sustainable development goals include;

  • The quest to end hunger
  • Achieve food security
  • Improve nutrition and
  • Promote sustainable agriculture.

The UN states that to ‘end hunger and malnutrition it relies heavily on sustainable food production systems and resilient agricultural practices’. It also explains that, globally, 20% of local livestock species are at risk of extinction, which also highlights the increased need for sustainable development in agriculture.

Innovation News Network spoke to Martijn Buijsse from the European Initiative for Sustainable Development in Agriculture (EISA) to get his views on sustainable development throughout Europe, and the role integrated farm management could play.

What is integrated farm management (IFM), and how can it help in making agriculture more sustainable?

At EISA we promote sustainable agriculture to working farms. We do not pursue a theoretical approach, and yet our views are based on the guidelines of IFM. We believe that there are 11 aspects to consider in an IFM approach, which include:

  • Organisation and planning
  • Human and social capital
  • Energy efficiency
  • Water use and protection
  • Soil management
  • Crop nutrition
  • Crop health and protection
  • Animal husbandry, health and welfare
  • Landscape and nature conservation
  • Waste management and pollution control, and
  • Climate change and air quality.

These 11 areas can be considered as a toolbox for integrated farm management, the tools of which can be chosen and used according to a given site and situation to develop adequate understanding and sustainable solutions. We look at sustainability through the integration of several different sustainability themes – the 11 areas or indicators mentioned above. One farmer may say that he would like to replace the plough by non-inversion tillage or even no-till practices. The farmer must then assess how that decision will affect practices and results of the farm. How will crop health, soil management, energy efficiency and nutrient availability be affected? That is why integrated farm management pursues a holistic approach, looking at given tools and strategies from different angles in order to identify sustainable practices and solutions.

We also believe that a farmer cannot change practices on his farm from one day to another, but rather in a process of setting objectives, choosing measures, measuring results and then further adapting objectives and strategies on that basis. Farmers cannot suddenly go from one extreme to the other when it comes to sustainable development, therefore, IFM tries to shape the transition to be a continuous process, constantly working on a whole lot of small, individual aspects on each individual farm.

Every farm is working under different conditions. That is why it is impossible to implement a one size fits all approach. Conditions, climate and soil in various parts of England will be different from those in other parts of the country, and even more so from conditions in France. Farm sizes are different, as are available equipment, state of training, marketing opportunities and available farm hands. This is why we need these 11 areas of integrated farm management, so that solutions can be tailor-made for each individual farm.

We believe that, in sum, sustainable agriculture must be based on several teams of people who work together: it is not just down to the farmer. Sustainable agriculture comes from a collaboration of stakeholders, such as farm advisors, governments, market organisations, etc. This is why we use the guideline of integrated farm management to encourage dialogue and discussion on all levels. If implemented in that sort of co-operation, integrated farm management delivers prosperous agriculture that provides a decent living for farmers, enriches the environment and engages local communities. Our aim at EISA is to contribute to the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals by encouraging the uptake of integrated farm management.

Why is it so important to think about sustainable development within the agricultural sector?

After the Second World War, we found that the demand for food was much larger than the available supply, and many Europeans found themselves hungry. It is against this background that the foundation of the EU, and thus the CAP, should be understood. Based on the urgent need to provide sufficient food, the CAP implemented subsidies and other programmes throughout the member states. Based on the CAP, incentives were created which allowed farmers to produce more food in times when it was needed.

Over time, however – and also fostered by these incentives – food supply overtook food demand. Throughout the EU, a new line of thought was needed, and this had to include thinking about how food production was impacting the environment and how agriculture could become more sustainable. This then led to discussions such as those on nitrate, phosphate, pesticides, soil compaction, etc. This is why the first environmental directives were integrated into European policy, which in turn started altering objectives of the CAP. Whilst farmers had incentives from the CAP to produce more food and to extend their farms, this is clearly less so as the CAP is focused on stimulating sustainable practices today.

What difficulties does the EU face when it comes to attaining sustainable agricultural practices?

I think that a key difficulty results from the large variety of climates, soil types and other farming conditions throughout each Member State, and throughout the EU at large. One policy setting in the CAP will not necessarily be beneficial for everyone.

The difficulty is that we need to make a policy that fits every farmer in all countries, with their conditions, with one limited set of tools and measures. We have to question, too, what the Netherlands will do in comparison to other governments if they are granted the freedom to create their own policies, and how will this then affect the competitiveness and the level of controls for their farmers.

I have not found any evidence so far that organic is the only sustainable farming approach and people believe that it provides difficulties for other farming approaches. To make a farm organic is very specific, and you need the correct climatic condition, location, specifications, etc. It is the individual farmer more so – whether implementing organic farming or integrated farm management – who makes the difference. I am pleased to see that we are increasingly becoming more aware throughout Europe that organic doesn’t stand for the only sustainable source of food.

What more can be done on an EU level to increase the amount of sustainable farming?

I think the answer lies in finding a good balance between frameworks, such as EISA’s guidelines and other comparable approaches and regulation, be it on an EU or Member State level. We surely need a good balance between Member States’ approaches to their national implementation of the CAP, and the needs and competitiveness of farmers. Frameworks and guidelines provide farmers with the ability to enhance their sustainability, but they can also limit them. In addition to these guidelines, regulation is very important and necessary because regulations provide the frame for farmers to implement the guidelines. I am convinced that the CAP is the right instrument in terms of sustainability, and I believe that if the EU provided an influence on more sustainable practice that this would be a good thing across each Member State.

In terms of sustainable farming systems, what is already being widely used throughout Europe?

There are as many systems as there are farmers. Each farmer can personalise his approach to sustainability, and so this really builds on the systems that are already out there. When I look through the practices that farmers apply on their farms – such as using natural enemies to replace crop protection products – a lot can be done. This must be continuously communicated, thus also making farmers increasingly aware of new tools in the toolbox.

There are other examples: there are strategies which can be used to stimulate biodiversity in the soil; there are chances to reduce the use of energy, which in turn is good for our climate – all meaning that broadcasting information, increasing knowledge and continuous training are also helpful for farmers. In the end, this is about learning about sustainability and about the different ways to implement IFM on their farms.

Throughout the agricultural sector itself, we increasingly see the emergence of technologies and efficient tools to help farmers, making them more efficient and more sustainable at the same time. We also have to consider that fulfilling roles with regard to renewable energy sources, fuel, etc – if done in the right way – also adds to making the farming sector more sustainable. A lot of farmers already use solar power to run their farms and this is clearly more sustainable than using fossil energy sources, whilst also providing economic benefits, meaning that they can then invest more in their farming practices and farming systems, making them more sustainable.

What are you excited about seeing in the future of sustainable agriculture?

The pitfall is when we start trying to get a one size fits all solution for our food demands and European produce. There is no such solution; each farmer should be considered individually as much as possible. If all were uniform, it would become very boring as the landscapes throughout Europe are so diverse. We have mountains, we have water, we have dry climates, we have wet climates, we have everything in Europe.

What I am excited about is the ability to offer farmers a range of options in the sense of the toolbox I mentioned earlier. For example, if a farmer wants to produce for world markets, that is a decision that we can offer to them and it would be wrong to say beforehand that we do not want an industrial type of farming anymore. On the other hand, I like the idea of urban farming, although city and urban farming could never feed the world. The idea of food production being close to citizens and consumers is a highly attractive idea. I like the idea of offering a choice, where people can choose from either world markets, from local niche farming, or from a specifically quality-orientated supply chain. A simplification of policies and controls within the CAP is something that we all should be excited to see in the future, as it will allow for easier interpretation which in turn will lead to better implementation.

When a young farmer makes his decision, he may then have to choose whether he wants to be a city farmer or whether he wants to farm for the supply chain. Once this decision has been made it is very difficult to go back on it and decide to adopt a different approach, we need quality advice to help young farmers in making this decision, and then we need to aid them in transforming that decision into a successful business. It still happens too often – where a farmer chooses to be a city farmer, invests all his money and then policies change and the chosen system no longer works for them, as a consequence of largely increased hygiene requirements. This is counterproductive and not in line with an approach to sustainability. I hope that we will increasingly be able to see sustainability policies being created with a clear perspective on continuity.

Who is EISA and what does the association do?

We are a Brussels-based association with two types of members, i.e. national and associate members. National members are usually farmers’ organisations and include associations from France, Hungary, Luxembourg, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

EISA’s associate members are, in principle, representing businesses which offer supply to farmers. These members are associations on the European level and include sectors such as: crop protection and fertilisers, animal healthcare products, compound feed, or landowners.

On the basis of ideas, knowledge and support from these two types of members, we promote sustainable farming systems for working farms and particularly foster exchange between farmers, the farming community and media, as well as between politicians via our working farm network.

EISA and our members are strongly committed to systems of agriculture that are economically viable as well as environmentally and socially responsible. We are convinced that integrated farm management is the most appropriate system for implementing sustainable principles and practices in farming.

Martijn Buijsse
European Initiative for Sustainable Development in Agriculture
+31 6 55 2391 55
Tweet @SustAgriculture

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