In the shadow of global conflict, post-pandemic shocks and a worsening climate crisis, how are EU farmers embracing sustainable, climate-safe agriculture?
To be a farmer today is like playing a game of Risk in which the human-driven permacrisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, conflict and Covid-19 work together so that the rules constantly change and it’s almost impossible to win. Take, for example, the recent chaos around chemical fertiliser shortages in the EU caused by Russia’s continued onslaught on Ukraine, or the unprecedented prolonged heatwaves that destroyed crops across Europe in 2022, resulting in billions of dollars of damage and a major loss of income for farmers.
Sustainable and regenerative agriculture is foundational for a climate-safe, resilient food system that benefits farmers, people and the planet. While some farmers are embracing sustainable and regenerative agriculture in the EU, widespread adoption remains a challenge.
An array of possibilities but no “one size fits all” solution
The modern farmers is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, soil scientist, data analyst, advocate and technician rolled into one. Some farmers in the EU already embrace sustainable resource-saving practices that also improve on-farm productivity, such as working with tools that enable precision and digital agriculture, engaging in techniques such as integrated pest management (IPM), and switching to no-till, low-chemical, soil-strengthening regenerative farming that helps lock carbon in the ground.
“There is not one thing that can work for everyone, but there are a number of possible solutions,” explains Diana Lenzi, President of the European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA).
Jens Hartmann, Bayer’s Regional Head for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) for the Crop Science Division, echoes this sentiment. “Our farmers’ solutions don’t follow a one-size-fits-all recipe. We provide tailored solutions that are fit for purpose to each context’s peculiarity,” says Hartmann. “Our understanding of farmer-centricity means exactly that. Tailoring solutions to all farms and farmers, regardless of size or scope.”
Transitions to sustainable or regenerative agriculture carry both a knowledge and capital cost and, as Lenzi points out, farmers do not generally choose their vocation to join the wealthy 1 per cent. “You normally have to make a huge investment, even in changing your machinery, to move to regenerative agriculture,” says Lenzi. “That means completely changing your farm. What farmers need to be sure of is that there will be a return on this investment.”
Smaller farms, which represent the vast majority (90 per cent) of the EU’s agricultural holdings, are particularly vulnerable to external shocks, yet often lack the access to capital and resources required to shift to more sustainable and regenerative practices.
According to a recent study commissioned by Vodafone, 26 per cent of European smallholder farmers surveyed believe increased input costs threaten the future of farming, compared with just 11 per cent of respondents working on large farms. When asked about their general feelings about the future of farming, 64 per cent of smallholder farmers express a negative emotion, whereas 69 per cent of large-scale farmers hold a positive view. Despite these disparities, 96 per cent of all farmers surveyed in Europe said that increasing sustainability practices on their farm is important. The majority of European farmers (88 per cent) also agreed that technology has a critical role to play.
“On sustainable, climate-safe practices, we believe in the value of data analytics and precision farming, such as through our Climate FieldView™ technology,” says Hartmann. “It allows farmers to advance their seeds’ performance in correlation to yield databases to help better management of operations and optimisation of outputs, sustainably. Climate Fieldview is currently the largest digital farming platform in the world.”
Lenzi agrees that technology is important, but says that it needs to be accessible and affordable. “Technology helps: precision farming could help farmers use pesticides more efficiently, thus limiting use, and help reduce water and on-farm waste,” says Lenzi. “But if that type of equipment is out of budget for a farmer, especially for a young farmer, then we have a tool, but it’s not helping the farmer transition to sustainable or regenerative agriculture.”
Co-creating solutions, forging knowledge networks and alleviating risk
Both Lenzi and Hartmann agree that better communication and collaboration between a range of players – including policymakers, ag companies, researchers and farmers – to “co-create” sustainable, practical and flexible solutions is necessary to scale climate-friendly farming across Europe. “We exchange with farmers at every step of the process when it comes to developing, creating and providing sustainable solutions for them and their specific context,” says Hartmann.
Knowledge-sharing networks are one crucial way for hesitant farmers to dip their toes into sustainable or regenerative farming and to link up with other key food-system stakeholders for “co-creation.” Lenzi says: “Peer-to-peer knowledge networks show farmers that there are other people with similar problems who are working on solutions. Then there’s this buzz of excitement that grows.”
Hartmann highlights Bayer’s own farmer network: “Our farmers share best practices through our ForwardFarming knowledge sharing platform that fosters dialogue and showcases on-farm sustainable practices,” he says. Engaging with these communities can also show farmers how transitioning to more sustainable or regenerative farming can help alleviate risks from future shocks that could affect farm resilience and farmer income.
“Digital farming enables traditional farmers to take part in an entirely new business model that helps reduce farmers’ risk,” says Hartmann. “Our new farming programmes [for example] align incentives and build true partnerships with our customers in sharing the risk across the entire crop production system.”
This article was first published on FT.com