Innovation in EU agriculture - European Union Committee Contents

Innovation in EU Agriculture

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

    "Sometimes we talk about agriculture as something very old and traditional: it is not competitive and we can forget it. We really don't understand how strategic agriculture will be in the future ... We have left the era of surplus and come to the era of scarcity. We need to refocus what an Innovation Union is. In my mind, agriculture is at the centre of an Innovation Union and the new global challenge."

Mr Paolo de Castro, MEP, Chairman, Agriculture Committee of the European Parliament[1]

1.  In the recent past, agriculture in the UK and in the EU has often been seen as one of the less interesting, indeed less important, parts of our economy. The systems of food production, distribution and retailing that have evolved in the Member States of Western and Northern Europe have provided consumers with growing ranges of food products, at cost levels which have been generally affordable.

2.  In the last few years, however, a realisation of the threats to this situation has grown. There are significant challenges which must be understood, and tackled urgently, if European agriculture is to keep pace with changing economic and environmental conditions. This includes the ability to play an appropriate role in supporting global food security.

3.  In March 2010, we published the report of an inquiry into the adaptation of EU agriculture and forestry to climate change.[2] The impact of likely changes in the climate over the next few decades is one of the major challenges to be faced by farmers in the EU: increasingly severe episodes of extreme weather are projected, including periods of drought alternating with storms and flooding. The implications will vary for the different parts of Europe. Our inquiry identified a number of steps which UK and EU policy-makers should take to strengthen the adaptation process: innovation in agricultural practice is a prerequisite for such steps to succeed.

4.  We launched our inquiry into innovation in EU agriculture in July 2010. The debate on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) after 2013 was already underway. In November 2010, the European Commission published its Communication on "The CAP Towards 2020: Meeting the food, natural resources and territorial challenges of the future";[3] legislative proposals for the CAP post-2013 are likely to come forward in the second half of 2011. In January of this year, we sent the Commission our comments on the Communication, taking account of concerns that had emerged through evidence received in our inquiry by that stage.[4] In April, we published a report on the EU financial framework from 2014,[5] in which we also expressed our views on the reforms needed to the CAP.

5.  In June 2010, the European Council adopted a new strategy for growth and jobs, the Europe 2020 Strategy, in which innovation is central. The European Council agreed that the CAP must play its part in delivering that strategy. In October 2010, the Commission published a Communication on the "Europe 2020 Flagship Initiative: Innovation Union";[6] the initiative envisaged setting up European Innovation Partnerships, one of which would deal with sustainable and productive agriculture.

6.  The Innovation Union initiative is intimately linked with the EU's research efforts, organised through the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for the period from 2007 to 2013. FP7 has a total budget of some €53 bn of which just under €2 bn are allocated to food, agriculture and bio-technology. In February 2011, the Commission issued a Green Paper "From Challenges to Opportunities: Towards a Common Strategic Framework for EU Research and Innovation funding",[7] to help shape decisions on the Framework Programme from 2014.

7.  We have taken account of other studies in developing our inquiry. In October 2009, the Royal Society published its report "Reaping the benefits: Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture".[8] More recently, in January of this year, the report of the Foresight project on "Global Food and Farming Futures" was published,[9] providing a stark exposition of the increasing pressures on the global food system from the projected rise in the world's population from 7 billion now to 9 billion in 2050. Our purpose has been to focus on the implications of these concerns for the future of EU agriculture.


Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture

The concept, which is often used in current debates about agriculture, was summarised by the Royal Society in its report on "Reaping the benefits" as meaning the process of increasing agricultural yields without adverse environmental impact and without the cultivation of more land.

8.  The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2010-2019 sets out projections for increases in agricultural production over the next decade in different parts of the world: in Brazil, an increase of more than 40% is expected; in the US, growth of between 15 and 20%; in Europe, the projected increase is about 4%.[10] The starting-points for these increases vary widely between countries, and European agriculture is undoubtedly a mature sector, with historically high levels of productivity, and with standards (for example, of animal welfare) which are not always replicated elsewhere. However, projections of this sort show that there is scope, and need, for the competitiveness of EU agriculture to be addressed if we wish to avoid the likely diminution of the EU's position as the world's leading trading bloc.

9.  The case for driving innovation through EU agriculture is not just about avoiding threats. The UK and the EU are seen as "a powerhouse of creating knowledge"; systematic research and innovation to improve farming will bring economic benefits to Europe, but this will also generate the knowledge to support "much of the innovation that low-income countries are going to require to meet the food challenges ahead".[11] We were heartened by the evidence which we received of high-quality research being conducted at institutes in the UK and elsewhere in the EU; these are highly valuable intellectual resources which must be maintained and exploited with understanding and forethought.

10.  This report looks first at the wider context for innovation in EU agriculture, notably the need for a strategic approach to food production, the theory of innovation and examples of agricultural innovation. We then look at the state of agricultural research, and its potential to help meet the challenges from climate change and other environmental pressures which the farming sector will confront in the coming years. We consider the key questions of how innovative knowledge should be transferred to practitioners, in the context of an approach which views the production and distribution of food and food products as a system encompassing farmers, processors and retailers. We deal then with issues of policy-making and regulation in the UK and EU.

11.  The members of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Environment Sub-Committee who conducted this inquiry are listed in Appendix 1, showing their declared interests. We are grateful for the written and oral evidence that we received for our inquiry; Appendix 2 lists the witnesses who provided it. We are also grateful to Dr Julian Clark, Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Birmingham, and Dr Jonny Wentworth, Environment and Energy Adviser in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, who acted as specialist advisers to our inquiry.

12.  The Call for Evidence that we issued is shown in Appendix 3. The evidence that we received is available online.

13.  We make this report to the House for debate.

1   Q 220 Back

2   8th Report (2009-10); HL Paper 91 Back

3   COM(2010)672 Back

4   See:  

5   13th Report (2010-12): EU Financial Framework from 2014; HL Paper 125  Back

6   COM(2010)546 Back

7   COM(2011)48 Back

8   See:  Back

9   See:  Back

10   See: ; and evidence from Mr Jack Bobo, US Department of Agriculture: Q 189 Back

11   Evidence from Professor Charles Godfray, Head of Department of Zoology, University of Oxford: Q 644 Back

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