Water is an essential component of agri-food production. But while many fruits and vegetables are an excellent source of water, growing them often also requires significant quantities of water. Without sufficient, good quality and easily accessible water, European agri-food production could be under threat.
On average, 44% of total water use in Europe is on agriculture, reaching as high as 80% in some regions. With a rising global population and climate change increasing the risk of adverse climate conditions such as droughts, pressure on the natural resource is growing. This is why the European Commission has developed both short and long term strategies to ensure more sustainable water use.
European policy tools
Under the current common agricultural policy, the so-called cross-compliance mechanism contributes to a sustainable water usage by obliging farmers to meet specific agri-environmental targets, including for water, in order to receive their direct payment support. Other measures such as the establishment of ecological focus areas and permanent grassland also contribute to sustainable water preservation. They protect biodiversity, including water, through limiting the use of pesticides in those areas.
The common agricultural policy’s rural development programmes also play a role in promoting sustainable water usage. Funded by the European agricultural fund for rural development and managed by the member states in collaboration with the Commission, the programmes are designed around six priorities, one of which is the promotion of resource efficiency. There are many good examples from around the EU of European funding being put to good use in protecting water, for example the training session on small-scale water retention provided to 150 people in the Lodz region of Poland. With climate change, increasing the risk of droughts in Poland, the potential impact on agriculture there is significant, and the EU-funded project was designed to provide practical knowledge and methodologies for preserving water.
Innovating for water sustainability
EU research and innovation in the sector is also helping in making water consumption more efficient. Through funds such as Horizon2020, support is given to projects innovating and using precision farming to improve water usage. In La Mancha, Spain, overuse of water resources to irrigate agricultural nearly caused the groundwater basin to dry out. Since then a project has been set up to offer support tools for local farmers. One such tool, for example, allows farmers to estimate the water consumption of their crops while checking if it complies with the amount of water they are legally allowed to use for irrigation. Another tool, known as OPTIWINE, can be used to calculate the exact quantity of water to apply to vineyards, improving grape quality while reducing water consumption. The calculations are based on satellite data and data collected by weather, plant and soil sensors installed on the ground.
The European Commission is also looking at other means of ensuring sustainable water usage in the future. A task force on water has been set up with the aim of boosting investment and spreading best practices in European agriculture. The task force has already outlined the main threats to water quality and availability in the EU and, in partnership with the Commission’s science and knowledge service, is currently setting up a knowledge hub on water and agriculture. The hub is due to be fully operational by the end of 2018, and will link and integrate existing sources of information while generating new knowledge on every aspect of water use. The hub will be widely accessible via an internet portal.
The Commission is also working on water quality and sustainable farming via a joint initiative from the departments in charge of agriculture, climate action, and science and knowledge to create an EU-wide platform for on-farm nutrient management. This tool will compile information such as satellite data, soil sampling and land parcel information and will be directly accessible to farmers in order to help them take informed decisions on nutrient requirements. The hope is that the platform will eventually lead to a two-way data exchange between farmers and public authorities, supporting the implementation of a whole range of further environmental commitments.
With increasing pressure on water availability and quality, the European Commission will continue to encourage and invest in sustainable water usage in agriculture. In its Communication on the future of food and farming, published on 29 November 2017, the Commission has proposed a new way of working with member state to ensure funding is targeted to where it is needed most. For example, while sustainable water use targets might be set at the EU level, how these targets are met would be up to each national authority to decide based on their own specific circumstances. In the context of water and agriculture, this will allow EU funding to better respond to local needs.
To achieve more ambitious results, the future common agricultural policy will also continue to invest in and encourage research and innovation in the sector. With the implementation of “smart irrigation” technologies and nutrient management tools, water usage is already improving. The future policy will also ensure that the digital farming revolution reaches all EU farms.