European Agriculture in a Globalized World – Expansion or Abandonment?

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Following the end of the Second World War, agriculture expanded and intensified rapidly in Europe. Today, agriculture is nearly 50% of the land used in the 27 European Union states (Stoate, et al., 2009), and continues to intensify in some areas. However, the breakup of the Soviet Union added the opposing dynamic of land abandonment of the large collectivized farms, which were just as intensive as Western Europe until their privatization in the 1990s (Václavík & Rogan, 2009). The future of European agriculture is not entirely clear, but points towards a gradual abandoning overall. However, that trend will not be universal since some areas may expand, especially in Eastern Europe. Moving forward, the dynamics of expansion/intensification vs. abandonment will continue to play off of each other, with consequences for ground pollution, biodiversity, and climate change.

Critical Statistics:
  1. Overall, there is likely to continue a gradual trend of agricultural abandonment across Europe. However, areas of expansion are also likely, especially in Eastern Europe where wages are lower and large tracts of land were abandoned following the fall of the Soviet Union. Continuing European subsidies for agriculture and a drive for food security will also help maintain a high agricultural presence on the European continent for years to come.

  1. The greatest influencing factors in future agricultural land cover/use change are globalization, government policy, and rural depopulation (Stoate, et al., 2009). Globalization is creating several conflicting dynamics for agriculture in Europe. For one, cheap and subsidized European food is in extremely high demand in the developing world. Conversely, the developing world is attractive to agricultural expansion (and thus possible abandonment in Europe) due to low wages and ample room for improvement in crop yields. European agricultural policy will also have a major impact on the trends of agriculture on the continent, namely the amount of subsidies granted and the effect of eastern European countries joining the EU. Another driver is depopulation, which will plague most of Europe for decades to come. Depopulation, especially in rural areas, is emptying out the countryside as people cluster in cities and may result in agricultural abandonment in those areas.

  2. Based on the results of models projecting land use change, the biggest drivers of agricultural abandonment seem to be increasing globalization and greater regulation (Verburg, et al., In Press). Conversely, the drivers of agricultural expansion are less globalization (more of a “continental” market approach) and weaker regulation. Based solely on these model results and depending on the course the European continent pursues in the next few years, agriculture as a whole will either continue its gradual slide or perk up again. The former seems more likely.

  1. Models developed by Verburg, et al. (In Press) show that three of the four IPCC global economic growth scenarios (see Figure 1) have agricultural abandonment as the predominant land use typology through 2030, the one exception being the “Continental Markets” scenario. However, to varying degrees, all of the scenarios showed agricultural expansion in Eastern Europe. This expansion could possibly be the result of farmland moving from west to east and increased demand globally.

  2. Carbon sequestration and increased natural biota growth will be positive consequences of agricultural land abandonment (Stoate, et al., 2009). Again using the four IPCC scenarios, Schulp, Nabuurs, and Verburg (2008) showed that forest/nature areas and recently abandoned lands will increase in three of the four scenarios while pasture and arable land will decrease (again, the exception is the “Continental Markets” scenario).

What is Next:
  1. There are two differing trajectories for the future of European agriculture.Abandonment means greater forest regrowth and therefore higher carbon sequestration—good news for those fighting global warming—along with fewer pollutants from fertilizer and animals pouring into water bodies. However, there are biodiversity and land degradation issues to consider. However, some areas will likely continue to expand, especially in the east of Europe.

  2. A forward-thinking policy of protecting natural habitats near farmlands (both expanding and abandoned) will be necessary to preserve the biodiversity of the continent.

  1. Koomen, E., Dekkers, J., & van Dijk, T. (2008). Open-space preservation in the Netherlands: Planning, practice and prospects. Land Use Policy , 25 (3), 361-377.

  2. Schulp, C. J., Nabuurs, G.-J., & Verburg, P. H. (2008). Future carbon sequestration in Europe—Effects of land use change. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment , 127, 251-264.

  3. Stoate, C., Baldi, A., Beja, P., Boatman, N., Herzon, I., van Doorn, A., et al. (2009). Ecological impacts of early 21st century agricultural change in Europe – A review. Journal of Environmental Management , 91, 22-46.

  4. Václavík, T., & Rogan, J. (2009). Identifying Trends in Land Use/Land Cover Changes in the Context of Post-Socialist Transformation in Central Europe: A Case Study of the Greater Olomouc Region, Czech Republic. GIScience & Remote Sensing , 46 (1), 54-76.

  5. Verburg, P. H., & Overmars, K. P. (2009). Combining top-down and bottom-up dynamics in land use modeling: exploring the future of abandoned farmlands in Europe with the Dyna-CLUE model. Landscape Ecology , 24, 1167-1181.