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Farming in Europe: the changing landscape of food production 

Farming in Europe is evolving, confronted by a range of novel challenges and opportunities. From policy and innovation to profitability and consumer demand, here we explore the key examples and the solutions that require greater support.

25 Mar 2024
8 min reading time

Across Europe's diverse landscapes, where age-old traditions meet modern technologies, lies an agricultural system undergoing transformation. From the vineyards of France to the olive groves of Spain, and the wheat fields of Ukraine to the dairy farms of the Netherlands, farming in Europe is facing a myriad of challenges that are reshaping the way farmers operate and the food they produce.

At the forefront of these changes is the growing demand for sustainable and regenerative practices. With increasing awareness of environmental issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss, combined with the need to tackle health and food security related challenges, consumers are calling for food systems that prioritise food production methods that are good for people and planet. In fact, just over half of European consumers believe agriculture should return to more ‘traditional' farming methods for environmental reasons (1). This shift in demand is not lost on European farmers, who are well aware of the required change but are often grappling with how to adapt while maintaining economic viability and productivity.

Farming regulation and policy

One of the key challenges facing farmers across Europe is the resource required to comply with regulations set by the European Union (EU). While these regulations seek to promote sustainability and ensure food safety, some European farmers are expressing frustration at what they perceive as heavy administrative burdens with some feeling they are “drowning us in regulations." (2) Balancing compliance with regulations and the need for efficient operations remains an ongoing struggle for many farmers, but policy interventions such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) aim to alleviate this.

The CAP sets out to support farmers and improve agricultural productivity and profitability, ensure a stable supply of affordable food, promote jobs in farming, and help tackle climate change and the sustainable management of natural resources (3). A key element of the CAP is the income support mechanism which is designed to make direct payments to farmers to ensure their income stability and remunerate them for implementing and managing environmentally friendly farming practices.

However, the CAP and similar policies have been criticised as only contributing to farmers’ burdens. In response, the European Commission states “the EU regularly screens and simplifies the common agricultural policy to relieve farmers of red tape and unnecessary requirements.” (4)

European farmers must also compete with produce coming from new free-trade agreements with non-EU countries. “We have to deal with all these rules and yet we face competition from goods from outside the EU that simply aren’t produced in the same conditions,” said Emmanuel Mathé, a French farmer (2). To alleviate this competition, policy and regulation must be co-designed in a way that ensures all farmers are given a fair chance within the market that is both profitable and sustainable. The European Green Deal and Regulation on Deforestation-free products, for example, aim to ensure that produce and goods entering the EU market is of high standard and adheres to strict guidelines for environmental impact.

“We know there's a policy landscape which is not necessarily supporting positive outcomes as effectively as it could. There's room for policy to open up and allow those solutions to come through more quickly or create an environment where they can test and fail more quickly.”

- Richard Zaltzman, CEO of EIT Food (5)

Diverse landscapes, diverse challenges

The agricultural landscape is not uniform across the continent, and the challenges faced by farmers can vary significantly from region to region. In southern Europe for example, farmers often face challenges relating to water scarcity and droughts exacerbated by climate change. Farmers in northern Europe – which is generally associated with large-scale, highly productive arable or livestock production (6) – are confronted with unique challenges as they strive to ensure all livestock production is as sustainable as possible. But there are also commonalities that bind European farmers together, such as access to markets, fluctuating commodity prices, and labour or skill shortages.

“Every farm, every region, every climate and every soil has its own specific needs, criteria and cultural context. For large players in the value chain, there needs to be space to make regional specific changes.”

- Howard Koster, Farmer, Research & Education Officer, De Biesterhof

Business models for successful farming in Europe

Sharing knowledge and ideas is also key to supporting farmers in Europe, who are not alone in facing agricultural challenges. There is much to learn from other parts of the world and the modern agricultural business models and community structures that are already proving successful. For example, Australian farmers are largely transitioning to regenerative agriculture practices that focus on restoring soil health and enhancing ecosystem resilience and, despite annual fluctuations, Australia’s aggregate agricultural emissions have fallen over time (7). This largely reflects a shift to diverse cropping and the adoption of new technologies and management practices that lead to strong volume growth and lower emissions (7).

"I believe the reduction of costs allowed by knowledge on design and best practices is one the main tools to balance sustainability and productivity. I've co-designed a successful polycyclic forestry plantation and I'm actually working at different levels to scale my agroforestry model for flat arable land, adapting it to new market needs in my surroundings. Agroforestry will be an important resource for future agribusiness and for the mitigation of climate change effects. I'm embracing innovation by working on the agroforestry value chain in energy and soil carbon."

- Federico San Bonifacio, Italian farmer

On a recent trip to India, EIT Food Chief of Staff Dr Lucy Wallace met with farmers as part of Andhra Pradesh Community Managed Natural Farming (APCNF), which has scaled rapidly due to the prior establishment of women's support groups in the region. The groups are used as a foundation in which to support peer-to-peer empowerment and capacity development, which in turn supports more productive and equitable farming practices without the need for subsidies.

“We have a lot we can learn by looking at different regenerative solutions from around the world - specifically ones that have successfully scaled in different contexts. In order to scale you need people, so social innovations which provide a framework for scaling are absolutely key.”

- Dr Lucy Wallace, Chief of Staff at EIT Food

Business models are also evolving in response to changing consumer preferences and market dynamics. Direct-to-consumer sales channels such as farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) schemes are gaining popularity, with approximately 15% of EU farms selling more than half of their production directly to consumers (8). This can provide farmers with higher margins and closer connections to consumers, but also means farmers must often engage with marketing and customer management, on top of their already busy daily schedules. However, collaborative and digital platforms such as Agri Marketplace are enabling farmers to access new markets and diversify their revenue streams in quicker, more transparent and efficient ways.

Startups such as Agrain are also working to find new value in byproducts, generating a secondary market for farmers and producers. Agrain turns spent grains into nutritious and aromatic flours which can be used in further product development and recipes.

"We need more education in our new role, we need more time to adapt to changes, we need clear roles, and not constant changes. We need stability. In the farming business we work in the long term. We work for our communities. We work for the soil. And all this work needs time. What I want for Europe: Stability."

- Felix del Villar, Spanish farmer

“Farmers want to work respectfully with their soil, their crops and their animals, and they know the value of full resource usage. Farmers are probably the group of people who know the most about planetary health, and it would be good to let them propose their solutions. We rarely hear from them in the debate and, as a startup in the food space, it is our job to open this dialogue and assist them with new technical solutions.”

- Aviaja Riemann-Andersen, CEO & Founder of Agrain by Circular Food Technology

Innovation in farming

While tradition can provide a sense of identity and continuity for farmers, there is growing recognition in the farming community that ‘innovation’ is diverse and can take many forms.

From precision agriculture and digital technologies to agroecology and regenerative practices, innovation in farming is taking on new meanings. By harnessing this broad definition and feeling empowered to implement changes, farmers can increase efficiency, reduce environmental impact, and improve resilience to climate change.

"We need to be constantly training in new ideas, new machinery and new ways to be more sustainable. New technology is good, and it helps us in our daily work, but we must spend a lot of money and time in adaptation to this technology. Sometimes I feel that I'm not a good farmer if I drive an old tractor."

- Felix del Villar, Spanish farmer

The journey from conventional to organic is too big for certain farmers, whereas regenerative is more about the journey. It's about implementing more and more practices that replenish resources rather than depleting them. The narrative of regenerative agriculture is important in order to facilitate a larger share of farmers in making the move towards sustainable food systems.”

- Howard Koster, Farmer, Research & Education Officer, De Biesterhof

Funding the future of farming in Europe

While there is no one size fits all solution to the challenges facing European farmers, the finance sector has a crucial role to play in supporting their transition to more sustainable and resilient practices. Despite the importance of food production, farmers’ income is around 40% lower compared with non-agricultural income (3). We need to rethink the way we finance the transition, and we need to develop innovative financial mechanisms which do not place the burden on farmers.

The work of the Earthworm Foundation is a positive example that combines Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) to determine performance-based remuneration that practically assists farmers in the transition. The Earthworm Foundation puts data-driven impact measurement at the heart of their approach in order to provide funding across the agrifood value chain that has the most impact.

The €30 million Regenerative Innovation Portfolio from EIT Food, Foodvalley and the Food Collective seeks to demonstrate and deploy innovative, scalable regenerative agriculture solutions across Europe. Solutions are tailored to local contexts and with cross-sectoral collaboration across agrifood value chains, taking the pressure away from farmers alone. The Portfolio takes a landscape-level approach, considering collaborative interventions that can empower farmers and work alongside one another, rather than in isolation.

“By creating a collaborative community, the Regenerative Innovation Portfolio will generate and share learnings and experiences between landscapes which will help to foster more successful partnerships and innovation in the future and get all stakeholders in the landscape transition to play their role.”

- Marjolein Brasz, Chief Executive Officer of Foodvalley (9)

Supporting the transition to a regenerative food system

Farming in Europe is at a crossroads, facing both challenges and opportunities as it seeks to adapt to a rapidly changing landscape. By embracing and potentially re-defining innovation, fostering collaboration, co-designing policy, and streamlining the flow of finance, European farmers will be able to better navigate these challenges. Collectively, we can build a more sustainable and regenerative food system for future generations. As consumers, policymakers, and industry stakeholders, we all have a role to play in supporting the transition to a more sustainable and resilient agricultural future – in Europe and beyond.

Join our community to define your role in the future of farming in Europe and find out how EIT Food can support you.


References

  1. EIT Food Consumer Observatory: Consumer perceptions on agriculture: How different agricultural methods rank in the eyes of consumers
  2. The Guardian: ‘They’re drowning us in regulations’: how Europe’s furious farmers took on Brussels and won
  3. European Commission: The common agricultural policy at a glance
  4. European Commission: The common agricultural policy: Separating fact from fiction
  5. EIT Food Fight podcast: Regenerating the food system: a conversation with EIT Food CEO, Richard Zaltzman
  6. European Environment Agency: Environmental signals 2000: Agriculture
  7. Australian Government: Snapshot of Australian Agriculture 2024
  8. European Parliament: Short food supply chains and local food systems in the EU
  9. EIT Food: European food innovation coalition launches €30 million Portfolio to accelerate and scale regenerative agriculture
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