Danube Watch 2/2021 - Agriculture: The Future of Danube Farming

Agriculture: The Future of Danube Farming

A Basin Built for Agriculture
Agriculture is an important component of the economy in many Danube countries since the geographical and climatic conditions in large parts of the Danube River Basin (DRB) are particularly favourable for agriculture. More than 50% of the territory within the basin is utilized for agricultural cultivation. Agronomic conditions are especially favourable for maize (corn), soybeans, sunflowers and other thermophilic crops besides the ordinary cereals. In the Western regions of the Danube River Basin, agriculture plays a key role as the local supplier of commodities that are further transformed into food (mainly milk and meat products, fruits and vegetables). In the Eastern regions, agriculture is one of the most important employers in rural regions.

Socio-economic challenges of agriculture
Although agriculture is substantially subsidized by the European Union (EU) and the national governments, the sector is facing socio-economic challenges. Despite the high share of land being cultivated, agriculture is not among the strongest economic sectors in the DRB. The share of the agricultural sector in the total national Gross Domestic Product of the EU Member States (MS) is not significant (less than 5%), whilst non-EU Member States have a share around and above 10%. In many regions the intensity of agricultural production is low due to the less favourable economic situation. In areas where land productivity is low, farmers are often facing difficulties, as agriculture in these regions may not be competitive at all. In many Danube countries, a larger number of farms tend to be smaller in size, working on a few hectares. Typically, these farms are highly dependent on EU or national subsidies, and often such smaller subsistence farms have limited capacity to comply with strict and ambitious cultivation and environmental provisions. These regions are often threatened by land abandonment, poverty and social exclusion, and don’t always have the benefit of integrated and powerful advisory systems, which form key instruments for reaching and supporting farmers elsewhere in Europe.

Environmental concerns
Water-related environmental concerns are also of great relevance to agriculture. Agriculture needs large amounts of clean water to satisfy the increasing demand for high quality food. However, intensive agriculture may cause quality and quantity problems of surface- and groundwater by pollution, over-abstraction and inappropriate land management. Additionally, nutrients have been released from agricultural areas of the DRB in significant amounts during recent decades, and nutrient pollution has even been identified as one of the significant water management issues in the DRB. Currently, about 20% of the surface water bodies are at risk of failing good ecological status/potential by 2021 due to nutrient pollution, for which agriculture is one of the main sources alongside other sources such as urban areas or municipal wastewater. The ultimate recipient water body of the Danube is the Black Sea which, being the world’s most isolated sea, is highly sensitive to eutrophication. Back in the late 1980s, nutrient loads transported by the Danube to the Black Sea peaked, triggering a serious eutrophication problem in the north-western shelf.

Nevertheless, river loads entering the Black Sea have been significantly dropped in the last decades, as measures have been implemented for agriculture throughout the DRB. As of 2018, on more than 60% of the areas of the DRB, strict rules on manure and fertilizer application are being implemented. Out of the agricultural areas of the DRB, 70% are determined for direct financial support and 20% receive additional subsidies for implementing environmentally friendly measures (only in EU countries of the DRB). In the last two decades, more than €90 billion was spent to support farmers and finance effective environmental measures and methods (best management practices). Direct payments amounted to ca. €78 billion, and support of agri-environmental measures reached ca. €17 billion. Thanks to these measures implemented in agriculture, but also as consequence of low agricultural intensity in several Danube countries, the nutrient surpluses (gross balance) of the agricultural fields are rather low or even negative in many countries indicating a lack of nutrient inputs which is compensated by the soil stocks accumulated over the previous years.

However, the severe eutrophic conditions of the late 1980s may well arise again if wastewater treatment and agriculture are not managed sustainably in the catchment area. Moreover, nutrient emissions frequently represent unutilised losses of soil nutrient resources, which have to be supplied by external inputs in order to sustain the required production rates.

With regard to water quantity, both water scarcity and drought situations are emerging issues in the DRB and will likely become more intense, longer and more frequent in the future. Serious drought periods hit the Danube region in 2003, 2007, 2011, 2012, 2015 and in the period of 2017-2020, affecting different water-dependent economic sectors, vegetation and the water resources. The estimated economic losses caused by the drought in 2017 for example, cost Danube countries more than €1 billion.

Making a Sustainable Future for Farming
To address these multi-dimensional challenges, agriculture and water management should be well aligned by coordinated strategies and joint actions to ensure the protection of water resources, the economic livelihood of the farmers and the production of high-quality food. However, at the regional scale of the DRB, a proper dialogue between the water and agricultural sector and coordinated policy tools have not been fully established yet. To tackle this shortcoming, Danube countries agreed in 2016 to begin a broad discussion process on water and agriculture, seeking the involvement of the agricultural sector throughout the process. The initiative was driven by the recognition that improving the socio-economic situation in the agricultural sector is a prerequisite for a successful implementation of agri-environmental policies. Water and agricultural policies should be designed and harmonised in a way that income losses for the farmers are minimised or compensated when implementing measures to protect water bodies. Policies should seek win-win solutions wherever possible. However, finding the way towards these objectives needs a paradigm change: policies should be shifted from the traditional, purely command-control type regulative enforcement to more balanced approaches, taking into account the perspective of farmers’ economic benefits. This new direction should be based on open dialogue, mutual trust and common understanding, which is expected to result in a willingness by both sectors to make certain compromises.

With this paradigm shift towards sustainable agriculture, the initiated dialogue set an ambitious objective of developing a sound guidance document on sustainable agriculture in order to support decoupling future agricultural development from both increasing nutrient pollution of surface and ground waters and prolonged water scarcity. Such an approach may contribute to achieving sustainable agriculture by balancing the economic, ecologic and social aspects of agriculture and rural development. The initiative is fully in line with the objectives of the European Green Deal, the current political momentum of aligning water and agricultural policies at the EU level and the stronger ambitions of the proposed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) post 2020 regarding environmental protection and climate change adaptation.

Our New Guidance Document
To achieve its ambitious goal, our recent Guidance Paper recommends sound policy instruments, financial programs and cost-effective agricultural measures to protect water bodies for decision makers in the agri-environmental policy field. It offers Danube countries support for the preparation and implementation of their tailor-made national agri-environmental policies, CAP Strategic Plans and relevant strategies of the River Basin Management Plans in good synergy. The recommendations provide the Danube countries with a framework to adjust their national agri-environmental policies. Our recommendations give specific advice on how to implement existing legislation more efficiently (e.g., Nitrates Directive, cross-compliance/conditionality of the CAP) while also helping countries better identify, target and finance additional measures going beyond legal obligations. Thus, the guidance should act as a sturdy strategic policy framework into which the Danube states are encouraged to integrate their individual national methods. It lays down the basis for designing cost-effective, targeted national measures according to national needs and conditions taking into account that no “one size fits all” standardisation could work in the DRB.

The primary focus of the guidance is sustainable nutrient management related to agriculture and rural land management. Nevertheless, Danube countries have recently declared that climate change effects, including water scarcity and drought, are to be considered as a Significant Water Management Issue in the DRB. Bearing in mind the strong linkage between the drought issue and agricultural water management, the scope of the guidance document has been extended to include the drought issue as well as nutrient pollution. Moreover, pesticide pollution related to agriculture is also an emerging issue to be tackled. Further editions can be expected to broaden the scope towards pesticides and other harmful substances.

The guidance document accompanied with a policy paper is available here:

Adam Kovacs is the Technical Expert for Pollution Control at the ICPDR Secretariat.

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