To help inform the Baseline Study of SalFar, Professor Dirk Strijker, who holds the Mansholt Chair in Rural Development at the University of Groningen, gave an illuminating presentation at the University of Lincoln on half a century of change in Western European Agriculture.
Prof Strijker began by reminding the audience that agriculture and horticulture account for just 0.6% of the UK’s Gross Added Value (GVA) (2016). Although this is three-times larger in the Netherlands, 1.8% of GVA remains a very small share of the total economy. However, once food supply chains, environmental factors and wider rural development issues are considered, agriculture and horticulture remain very important sectors across Europe.
When thinking about new innovations, such as saline agriculture, it is important to set these in the context of longer terms trends. Prof Strijker explained how the introduction of levies and subsidies to protect a high European price for agricultural output saw a significant investment in technology to capitalise on the guaranteed income streams on offer. He also outlined the significant impacts of the MacSharry reforms in 1992 placing greater emphasis on environmental issues rather than continuing to subsidise higher and higher production levels.
As a tool for illustrating some of the changes among the EU-9 states (Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, UK) Prof Strijker used “Centre of Gravity” modelling which provides a weighted locational average of a variable. Firstly, analysis showed that the central point of Total Agricultural Land was moving in a north-westerly direction over the second half of the 20th Century as a result of new agricultural land being brought into production to the north-west, particularly in the UK and Netherlands, alongside the abandonment of land in southern Italy. When focusing on wheat production, the data also illustrated that the north-easterly direction of travel was more apparent in productivity rates, illustrating that the loss of productivity in the south of Italy was a precursor to land being taken out of production. The sharp leftward turn in 1970 represents the UK and Ireland joining the EU and the sudden increase in wheat production among their farmers. (Note: all 9 countries are included in the analysis for all of the years – this change is a the response of UK and Irish farmers to the new policy environment that guaranteed them higher prices for wheat)
By contrast, the pattern for tobacco told a very different story reflecting changing consumer tastes. Production initially migrated south-eastwards as a response to lower demand for darker French tobaccos but, more recently, this trend reversed in response to declining environmental and institutional productivity conditions in southern Italy.
Finally, Prof Strijker looked at the changing distribution of pig production across the EU-9. The story here is complicated by combinations of technological change and trade agreements. Starting in Hanover and based on potato-feed, the pig industry migrated northwards in response to improved mechanisation in barley and wheat production making these alternative feeds more cost effective. The subsequent shift to the present day dominance of Flanders and southern Holland was explained by the availability of new crops from outside of the EU whose prices were not subject to import tariffs which made locations close to global ports (Rotterdam and Antwerp) most efficient, as illustrated below.
With these very different factors contributing to significant changes in the patterns of European agricultural production across different sectors of activity, it is important to consider how emerging policy changes as well as environmental trends will continue to alter the baseline conditions for saline innovations. On the one hand, environmental changes appear to clearly support the argument that more agricultural land will become saline in future decades. On the other hand, the impacts of personal tastes and preferences, branding and agri-food policy are less certain and can be shaped by key actors engaging in saline innovations.
You can find out more about the SalFar project online.