Agriculture must make more progress towards environmental sustainability

The environmental impacts of agriculture are still of major public concern, although in a number of countries detrimental effects have been reduced, according to a new report published by a major international governmental organisation.

According to Environmental Indicators for Agriculture – Volume Three: Methods and Results, published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), policy reform is needed to phase out certain damaging forms of financial support for agriculture, replacing them with better targeted measures. Although specific devices were introduced in the 1980s in many OECD countries, which are helping to reduce some of the harmful impacts of agriculture, it is too early to know the extent and permanence of these improvements, says the report.

Positive improvements in agriculture include a decrease of over 10% in both nitrogen and pesticide use in many European countries and Japan, combined with associated improvements in water and air quality. Soil erosion has declined in Australia, Canada, and the United States, together with other initiatives such as a shift towards using nitrogen management plans, integrated pest management and soil conservation. Improvements in natural resource use efficiency, technology, and farm management practices have also offset environmental impacts, according to the OECD.

However, in some countries, the situation has deteriorated, particularly with regard to the intensification of farming in Canada, Europe, New Zealand, and the United States, resulting in higher levels of nutrient surpluses, ammonia and greenhouse gas emissions. There is also growing competition for water resources between agricultural systems, other users, and ecosystems. A recent study found that olive production in southern Europe is causing desertification (see related story).

The OECD also points out that there is incomplete knowledge regarding some agri-environmental areas, such as the degree of groundwater pollution or depletion, and the human health and environmental risks associated with the use of pesticides.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie