Water is a vital part of European food production. Some 44% of total water use in Europe goes to agriculture, with up to 80% in some regions. But with climate change and a rising global population, pressure on the natural resource is increasing. Aware of the challenges ahead, the European Commission is implementing short and long term actions to improve water usage in agriculture.
Speaking at a European Policy Centre event on water and agriculture in Europe on 28 September 2017, Commissioner Phil Hogan explained that “farming and food production are water-intensive industries, so if we want to meet the global demand for more and better food, we need to continue to develop production systems and technologies to make agriculture more productive and efficient, but also greener and more resource-efficient”.
The Commission’s agriculture and rural development department is already acting on water usage primarily through the common agricultural policy. Part of this policy, the cross-compliance mechanism – which links direct payments to compliance by farmers to basic standards on the environment, food safety, animal and plant health, animal welfare and maintaining land in good agricultural and environmental condition – sets a baseline for agri-environment measures, which encourage a sustainable water usage.
The so-called greening measures that are part of the direct payments for farmers also contribute to sustainable water preservation. By obliging farmers to follow certain measures such as the establishment of ecological focus areas and permanent grassland, they protect biodiversity – including water – through limiting the use of pesticides in those areas.
In addition, rural development programmes, funded by the European agricultural fund for rural development and managed by member states themselves, are designed around six priorities, one being the promotion of resource efficiency. Therefore these programmes, as highlighted by Commissioner Hogan, “can do important work to support environment and climate action, Water Framework Directive-targeted measures, knowledge transfer, and especially investment support.”
Through other EU research and innovation funds such as Horizon2020, support is given to projects using new technologies to improve the water supply. Phil Hogan mentioned a few examples at the conference: “we have invested in new technologies such as robots measuring water consumption in wine production, 3D sensors to measure plant growth, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for precision agriculture applications such as water stress monitoring, detection of nutrient deficiencies and crop diseases.”
Back in February 2017, with Commissioner Hogan back with Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella together announced the establishment of a task force on water, aiming to boost investment and spread best practices to improve water sustainability in European agriculture. As a follow up to this task force, a knowledge hub on water and agriculture is being set up, and is planned to be fully operational by the end of 2018. As Phil Hogan explained during his intervention, “this knowledge hub will link and integrate existing sources of information and generate new knowledge as well. The information will be widely accessible via an internet portal. It can therefore be used by the Commission, by member states’ administration, as well as by stakeholders to identify the most pressing problems in order to develop targeted and tailor-made policy tools offering solutions in the field of water and agriculture.”
Insisting on the necessity of making information accessible, Commissioner Hogan also announced that a platform for on-farm nutrient management is being established. The platform will be directly accessible for farmers, to enable informed decisions on nutrient requirements and it can “have the positive knock-on effects of boosting water use efficiency and emissions reduction”.