As European politicians make hesitant steps towards sustainable agriculture though reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), scientists assert that the main focus of agricultural research has shifted from production to assessing environmental impact and the quality of the whole production chain.
At a meeting in Turku, Finland on 4 July, 400 scientists underlined the important contribution that should be made by research to sustainable economic and environmental policy.
Consumer concerns often relate to food safety, animal welfare and care for the environment. Though European agriculture continues to pursue further mechanisation and technology, the congress highlighted organic production methods and precision farming as tools of sustainable development.
Support policy should also favour production suited to local conditions and improve the eco-efficiency of farms, maintained the scientists.
Professor Johan Bouma from Wageningen university argued that modern agriculture should respond to people's concerns. Scientists should be more involved in decision-making on environmental matters, said Bouma, who is also a scientific advisor to the government of the Netherlands.
Sustainable development must not mean merely coping with existing problems and tidying up after-effects, argued Professor Erik Steen Jensen of the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural university of Copenhagen. If all society's interest groups are to work towards the same goal, sustainability must be given an ethical dimension, he stressed.
Since everyone knows the risks of mass production, why would people not be willing to pay a bit more for organically produced foodstuffs? We need debate on a common set of values and more information about the environment we all hold in trust, said Jensen.
In Jensen's view, organic farming must be raised from its present marginal standing and recognised as a good production model. It is certainly not a complete solution, but as an option it should lead traditional farming in a better direction. In addition, there must be input in R&D on recycling and local production. Specifically, caution should be the watchword in adopting new technology, write the scientists, because society does not know enough about the effects of a new technology on the environment.
Precision farming uses nutrients more efficiently should be enouraged, ensuring that they end up on the table, and not polluting the environment.
Farmers should not be blamed for the problems, argued Research Professor Pekka Huhtanen of MTT Agrifood Research Finland. He said that the milk price subsidy system was an example of an economic instrument that diverts production from the sustainability principle.
In Finland it has resulted in overproduction, moved dairy farming in an ethically dubious direction, said Professor Huhtanen. Despite agri-environmental subsidy, the load on our water systems has not decreased enough, ever bigger units relying on purchased feed very easily leads to environmentally unsustainable nutrient circulation.
Speakers at the congress agreed that research should concern itself not only with production but with the whole economic and social system, including consumption and its environmental effects.