Slow population growth could see Europe become net food exporter

Europe’s slowing population growth could see the continent become a net food exporter, but only with a significant change of direction in EU agricultural policy, say landowners.

Members of the European Landowners’ Organisation (ELO) claim that policies focused on productivity increases could allow the EU’s farmers to take greater advantage of the region’s good soils, even climate, and world-class, third-level food researchers.

At a recent conference in Dublin entitled ‘Creating productivity with the land we currently farm’, the group warned that the EU27 was drifting into a “lost decade” due to misguided policies.

Agricultural economist and CAP adviser to the ELO, Prof Allan Buckwell, said that in theory the EU could become a systematic net exporter of agricultural commodities as the EU had some real competitive advantages&. But for this to happen there had to be a real change of direction in EU agricultural policy, he said.

“The reason for current EU thinking is due to the fact that the EU population rose by 65m in the past 40 years, but in the next 40 years the comparable figure will be 11m,” Prof Buckwell said. “This will mean a smaller rise in demand for food in the EU over the next 40 years and we are looking at a lost decade ahead.”

Dr Nicholas Bielenberg, president of the Irish Landowners’ Organisation, said that despite recent increases in prices of farm outputs, farmers were struggling to make a real return from farming as costs have increased faster than commodity prices.

He said: “We must pursue productivity growth with a new passion as this was the key to fighting rising prices, hunger and global warming while at the same time making farming more profitable.”

Formed in 1972, the ELO is a network whose aim is to better understand, explain, and influence EU decisions. It aims to ensure rural areas are developed in a way that balances economic activity with conservation of the rural heritage.

Prof Jimmy Burke of UCD said that from the 1850s to 2002, global agriculture production had kept pace with population increase. However, since 2002 demand has outpaced supply, and commodity prices are rising, and are likely to continue to rise.

He said: “The theoretical wheat yield potential for Ireland is in excess of 20 tonnes per hectare, the highest in the world, so there is still a lot to be done to increase yield productivity from current levels.

“This is important, as expanding the global land area used for agriculture must be minimised as this option will contribute more to global warming than global manufacturing and transportation combined. At present, 40% of the world’s population live in urban areas and this is predicted to increase to 70% by 2050.”

Prof Burke said it was essential the organic wastes produced in cities be recycled back onto the land as this was needed to rebuild organic matter levels and to supply the phos-phorus needs of farming.

Phosphorus is a finite resource, so we must encourage recycling of organic wastes because it is cheaper and will greatly lengthen the lifespan of this crucial global resource, he added.

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