Applied Geography: Principles and Practice: An Introduction to Useful Research in Physical, Environmental and Human Geography

By Michael Pacione | Go to book overview

19

The de-intensification of European agriculture

Brian Ilbery


CONTEXTUAL SETTING

European agriculture has undergone substantial restructuring in the post-war period and, while both Western and Eastern Europe experienced forms of agricultural intensification between 1950 and the 1980s, the direction of change has since been quite different. In Eastern Europe, this has been based on a return to private farming. The transition has not been easy, and many structural problems still confront the agricultural sector, not least the re-creation of landed property rights and the development of an efficient market system of agricultural production (Repassy and Symes 1993; Ilbery 1998). Controlling agricultural output has thus not been a priority, which is in contrast to Western Europe, where the emphasis since the mid-1980s has been on a post-productivist farming system. The objective has been to de-intensify agricultural production through extensification, diversification and farming in more environmentally beneficial ways (Ilbery 1992; Battershill and Gilg 1996; Evans and Morris 1997). This chapter therefore focuses on the applied characteristics of, and problems associated with, the de-intensification of agriculture in Western Europe.

Government policy, enacted through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), has been the main catalyst of change in European agriculture. Prior to the mid-1980s, a productivist ethos based on the principles of efficiency and rationality was engendered through high levels of government support for farming. A system of guaranteed prices stimulated farmers to maximise production, irrespective of market demand. As a consequence, agricultural systems became more intensive and specialised, and farming became more spatially concentrated in ‘core’ farming regions such as the Po valley, Paris basin and East Anglia (Bowler 1985a and b).

Each of the three dimensions of productivist agriculture—intensification, specialisation and concentration—was accompanied by what Bowler (1985a) described as secondary consequences (Table 19.1). For example, rising indebtedness and declining farm incomes occurred as farmers became trapped on a ‘technological treadmill’ (Ward 1993). Second, overproduction of many agricultural products increased as both efficient and inefficient farmers were encouraged to intensify production. Third, farmers took an exploitative rather than conserving attitude towards their natural resource base, creating a number of environmental disbenefits. These included the pollution of air, soil and water courses, the removal of hedgerows and woodlands, the drainage of wetlands, and the ploughing of moorland and herb-rich permanent grasslands. Finally, productivist agriculture polarised farm-size structures and further exaggerated spatial inequalities in farm types and farm incomes. Regions became overspecialised on particular crops or livestock, as for example in the production of table wine in the Languedoc region of Mediterranean France, where attempts to de-specialise and diversify agriculture were only partially successful (Jones 1989).

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