The European Crop Protection Agency (ECPA) organised its second “Hungry for Change” conference in Brussels last Thursday 11 April.
The meeting brought together nearly 250 people from all walks of life to discuss progress since the first Hungry for Change conference in late 2011. A short plenary session was followed by four break-out discussions focussing on Biodiversity, Food, Health and Water.
I moderated the biodiversity and agriculture session, and was joined by Paul Speight from DG Environment and Patrick ten Brink from the Institute of European Environmental Policy (IEEP), soil scientist Donald Reicosky formerly from the US Department of Agriculture and Patrick Wrixam from UK, who is a Board Member of the UK organisation promoting sustainable agriculture (LEAF) and the President of the European Initiative for Sustainable Development in Agriculture (EISA). There were very interesting and complementary presentations from the four panellists followed by a rich discussion with good involvement from the audience. The previous evening the two Patricks, Don and I had already met over dinner and talked about some of the key issues.
We all agreed that agriculture and biodiversity need to work together as they “feed” off each other. Productive agriculture needs a healthy environment and rich biodiversity depends on good agricultural management practices. One cannot survive without the other.
We talked about long-term global sustainability goals and how good agricultural practice will eventually result in a better world for the generations to come. But we also accepted that this will take time, and we realise that it is difficult to align these long-term goals with short-term local agricultural production targets. We came to the conclusion that economic incentives are essential to encourage farmers to embrace nature conservation, but Patrick Wrixon ensured me that the will is there.
I learned from the following case study: a farmer is involved in an incentive scheme to support public access to some of his fields, which means material and time involvement from him and his staff. Currently he is being paid for this. The scheme is coming to an end, and there is no money to extend the incentive payments. Will he continue to provide public access without compensation for the inconvenience, or will he simply close off his fields?
It made us reflect on the fact that economic drivers determine what farmers are doing, as they are effectively Small and Medium Enterprises. If we want the agricultural sector to play a serious role in nature conservation, we need to recognise and compensate farmers that help to protect these ecosystem services. In order to reach our goals, we should secure public payments for public goods and private payments for private goods.
Don guided our discussions to soils and we all agreed that sustainable soil management is fundamental to productive agriculture, rich biodiversity and climate change mitigation.
This is a win-win-win situation, but there are currently no financial incentives in Europe to encourage soil protection. The EU does not (yet) have a soil framework policy or a soil directive, and it is left to the Member States to decide how to deal with soil management.
During the evening dinner and throughout the conference, we talked about communication, recognising that this is one of our biggest challenges. We stressed the need to enhance the understanding of our political, social and industry leaders, but also realise that we need to educate each other. Participants to the conference told us that this is not a new issue, and that communication has been identified as a key issue in earlier discussions. Using lessons learned from case studies, changing from negative to positive news stories, simplifying the messages and avoiding jargon are all good ways to raise awareness.
Patrick Wrixon stressed that taking people out on the farm, in the field is the best way to make them understand what farming is about, and he told us about the great success of the open farm Sunday in the UK. I do not know if this is something that other countries do as well, but it seems a very good way to expose non-farmers to the farming life.
Finally, we were asked what advice to give the crop protection industry, and we responded that the companies have to accept that productive agriculture is not only dependent on chemical application, and there are other, organic measures available. Agro-forestry, integrated farm management and organic pest control are all measures that could and should be used in conjunction with the application of agro-chemicals.
We also made the point that the industry should be open to discuss alternative approaches, and not be afraid to engage new partners. The Hungry for Change conference was cited as a very good example of sincere stakeholder engagement. The fact that the Executive Director of the European Food Safety Authority, Mme Geslain-Lenéelle, gave the key-note presentation was a clear indication that ECPA is serious in its plans to talk to other parties.
Last, but certainly not least, we stressed the need for more money to be invested in R&D for new, safe, better products. This is an issue that I feel strongly about, and I was pleased that the recent debate about the effects of pesticides on pollinators was mentioned several times during the conference, and the industry was urged to look for suitable alternatives. I also encouraged further research on the short-term and long-term effects of these chemicals on pollinators, and mentioned that IUCN has established an independent task force to carry out such a study under joint direction of its Commission on Ecosystem Management and its Species Survival Commission.
This was a good day for stakeholder involvement, a good day for open discussion and a step in the process of change for the crop protection industry.