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What Future for Sustainable Agriculture?

Znaor, Darko (1997) What Future for Sustainable Agriculture? Danube Watch, 1997, 3 (2), pp. 2-3.

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Next to soil, water is the resource mostly threatened with agricultural practices. Agricultural pollutants (fertilizers, pesticides, silage effluent, organic manures and other farm wastes) enter the water through the run off, erosion, leaching and rarely by direct input. Studies from various parts of the world have shown that agriculture represents major, much more serious source of water pollution than any other sector (industry, transport, population, tourism, etc.) or sometimes all these sectors together. The same counts for Danube, and this has been confirmed by the recent Danube Environmental Integrated Study. The damage to priority functions of ground and surface water in the Danube basin (DB) and part of the north western shelf of the Black Sea is estimated at some 8 billion DEM/year.
More than a half of the territory of the Danube basin is used for agricultural activities and agriculture represents an important economic activity of the region. Except in Germany and Austria, farmers in all other Danube countries currently practice mostly low-input agriculture. This is due to the post-communistic economic transition resulting in price liberization and serious disproportion between change of producer, input and retail price of agricultural commodities. This situation resulted in reduced purchasing power and demand for agricultural commodities inducing a mere negative profit margins for farmers. Dramatic price increase of agricultural inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, seeds, fuels, etc.) also resulted in dramatic change in the use and production of pesticides and fertilizers which in some countries dropped by more than 70% since 1989. Although from the environmental point of view this change is desirable, it inevitably resulted in declined agricultural output. Therefore advocating continuation of low-input farming in the DB, from the view point of an average "Danubian" seems to be nonsense. "Do you want us to starve?", and "contrary to Germany and Austria we don't use fertilizers and pesticides and our agriculture is already environmentally friendly" are the two most common and most frequent statements one hears about the issue. Indeed, travelling along the mid and lower Danube one can find hundreds of thousands of hectares being managed almost as century ago. Scenes with horse ploughing, hand sowing and weeding are reality again. Very little, or often no pesticides and fertilizers are used. And yields are very poor. Far too little to attribute the word "sustainable" to that type of agriculture. However an experienced eye can notice that besides poor yields, low-input agriculture as practised in the region, causes a number of environmental problems, too. Signs of ongoing erosion, over (or more often) undergrazing, lack of soil organic matter and bad soil structure, soil left bare after harvest, inappropriate manure storage and handling (often resulting in leaching) are only a few of these. Besides, narrow crop rotation or sometimes monoculture (e.g. maize, grain cereals, potatoes) apart from reducing soil fertility and building-up pest and diseases, has deuterating effect on overall biodiversity, too. In other words, present agriculture in DB, although low, or often "zero" input, is not sustainable neither from economic nor environmental point of view.
Only a tiny part of DB farmers learnt the lesson: drastic reduce or complete refrain from agri-chemical inputs alone, without parallel steps in (re)designing eco system and its strengthening through biological processes is not sufficient. What does it mean? It means that "conventional agriculture without inputs" unless complemented with better farm management is not an optimal form of low-input agriculture, and will never achieve production levels and environmental benefits as required by the concept of sustainable agriculture. This can be achieved only when low-input agriculture is encompassed with good farm management, wider crop rotation, proper land:animal ratio, careful soil cultivation, wise use of green and other organic manures, preventive and environmentally friendly curative plant protection measures, etc. Some DB farmers took this approach, and they are usually called "organic" or "ecological" farmers.
Organic agriculture is rapidly growing sector both in EU and DB, with the annual growth rate of 25-30%. Reliable data on the area farmed organically in DB are scare, but it is estimated that some 1 million ha are currently being farmed according to the EU or similar (inter)national regulations on organic agriculture (table 1). However, organic farming is more popular in Germany and especially in Austria (16% of total Austrian agriculture is organic), while in other DB countries it is still marginalized.
Yields obtain under organic management, as well as net return indicate that this type of agriculture is fully competitive to the existing low-input agricultural practices in the basin. Besides, comparison studies with other farming systems show far less environmental degradation. Organic farms usually have better soil structure, more organic matter, better nutrient balance, less polluted soil and lower erosion rate. Further, organic farms show better energy efficiency and are also more diversified both at the level of crops/animals grown and the level of naturally occurring species and habitats.
In some Danube countries organic products are certified and separately labelled and sold, sometimes also attracting 10 50% higher price. This is especially true in CZ, H and SK where organic agriculture is far more developed than in other post communistic DB countries. While CZ has developed domestic market for organic produce, H and SK export most of their organic production (> 80%). Research on organic farming is being carried at agricultural universities and research institutes in Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Moldova.
Although the sustainable (organic) agriculture in DB has increasingly been under focus of various parties (e.g. UNDP round table on sustainable agriculture, several Avalon Foundation seminars, PHARE demonstration centres project, etc.), the issue is still not taken seriously enough. And all this in spite of clear indications that agriculture plays the key role in biodiversity, climate change, water pollution (the main polluter of the DB), and that it is at the same time most cost-effective sector when reduction/prevention of (water) pollution is in question. This ignorance is however, not only at the side of international organizations like UNDP, UNEP, FAO, EC, etc. and governments (both from DB and others), but what surprises, even at the side of well respected environmental organizations. Although the "Gro_njan Declaration" (resulted from a workshop organized by Avalon Foundation) which appeals for further recognition of organic agriculture in the region as it is "one of the most ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate forms of agriculture for Europe" was co-signed by organizations like EURONATUR (European Natural Heritage Fund), WWF (World Wilde Fund for Nature), Birdlife International, IUCN (The World Conservation Union) and Greenpeace- these organizations their concern about, and care for nature conservation and biodiversity translate into support for nature parks and not for sustainable agriculture yet. The same counts for REC (Regional Environmental Centre- Budapest) which when compared with other fields, awarded far too little grants in the field of sustainable agriculture.
Sustainable (organic) agriculture is also a very important part of the Strategic Action Plan for the Danube River Basin 1995 2005, and is positively addressed in the documents from the Pan European Ministerial Environmental Protection Conferences in Luzerne, and especially in Sofia. Governments policy however is still almost entirely focusing on reaching the former output levels through restoring of the former high input approaches via re organised cooperatives or a small number of big private farms. But Danube countries (and apparently CEE in general) are going through a "forced" experience with low-input agriculture. Forced in the sense that it was not desired policy for agricultural development but was a consequence of a politically dominant process of evolution from state economy to market economy. Policy makers can chose for different strategies to support the development of organic agriculture. These can include a whole range of actions, consisting both from the deterring (regulations, "green taxes", penalties, etc.) and stimulating measures (subsidies, education, research, publications, building public awareness and institutional structures, etc.). Every DB country can devote 1-2% of its total agricultural budget to sustainable (organic) agriculture, as well as international funding programmes. But the fact that this is not happening, and that potentials of agriculture towards solving urgent environmental problems of the Basin are neglected, lead towards one of two following conclusions. Either policy makers from the region and international organizations because of insufficient information don't know exactly how to put agriculture on a more sustainable track, or there are other prevailing interests preventing cheap, but "beginning of the pipe" environmental actions. As long as there is no answer on this question and concrete projects demonstrating good will to change the current neglectance of contribution that sustainable types of agriculture can offer to cleaner DB, we cannot even think about having "Schöne Blau Donau" again.
Darko Znaor
The author is guest researcher at Wageningen Agricultural University and advisor to Avalon Foundation.

EPrint Type:Newspaper or magazine article
Keywords:Organic agriculture; Yields in organic agriculture; Danube River Basin; Low-input agriculture; Organic farmers; Ecological farmers; Policy mechanisms promoting organic farming; Groznjan declaration;
Subjects:"Organics" in general
Farming Systems
Environmental aspects > Air and water emissions
Values, standards and certification
Food systems
Food systems > Policy environments and social economy
Environmental aspects
Knowledge management
Research affiliation: Netherlands
Netherlands > Other organizations
Deposited By: Znaor, Dr Darko
ID Code:26427
Deposited On:01 Jul 2014 08:36
Last Modified:01 Jul 2014 08:36
Document Language:English

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