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Europe's land dilemma

Posted 26/10/2011 by sevans

The big talking point at the annual European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology (EFIB) in Amsterdam last week was feedstocks, more specifically whether there will be enough biomass to meet burgeoning food and energy needs and where it will all come from. Europe’s problem is that it already can’t produce enough food to support the more than 500m of us who live within its borders.

According to a report this month by environmental group Friends of the Earth, Europe’s land import dependency, Europe presently is the continent most dependent on ‘imported land’, with nearly 60% of the land to meet its demand for agricultural and forestry products being located on other continents. The report points out that six of the top 10 land importing countries/regions are European – Germany, UK, Italy, France, the Netherlands and Spain – while the EU average land consumption is 1.3ha/capita, compared with countries like China and India that use less than 0.4ha/capita.

Meeting the EU’s renewable energy targets will add to the burden. The European Commission’s stated goal is to achieve no net land take by 2050, yet if Europe is to achieve its 10% quota for renewable transportation fuels, this would require an extra 5.2m ha or 0.7% of the world’s land, said European commissioner Andreas Pilzecker, speaking at the EFIB event. While the Commission expects that Europe could potentially double the amount of biomass it produces by 2020, Pilzecker added that this increase will be almost entirely reliant on agriculture since forest biomass is already at capacity without damaging biodiversity.

However, proposed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reforms – aimed at making any future agricultural productivity gains more sustainable - have sparked concerns among Europe’s farmers about their ability to meet future food and energy needs.

‘The amount of land available for EU agriculture is limited for one reason or another, and it’s getting worse,’ said Pekka Pesonen of the European Farmers-European AgriCooperatives organisation (COPA-COGECA), adding that Europe is the only continent where forest cover has increased in recent years.

Pesonen is particularly exercised about the CAP proposal to make 30% of the ‘direct payment’ income for farmers dependent on environmental criteria – which includes leaving 7% of land fallow to protect biodiversity. ‘Where we disagree with the EC is how we address the issue of land use,’ Pesonen argues: the big question is ‘can we produce the same amount of food on 93% of the land?’

Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy editor

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