The specialisation and spatial separation of crop and livestock production is a strong driver of nutrient surpluses, which increase the risk of eutrophication. To address this well-acknowledged problem, we found scientific support for at least three pathways: moving nutrients, moving livestock, and changing our diets.
In this policy brief, we discuss farm structure from the perspective of specialisation and separation between crop and livestock production. These variables characterise agriculture in most of the Western world.
It is important to consider the potential contributions of farm structure to eutrophication, because agriculture is the single largest source of human-related nutrients to the Baltic Sea, contributing about 40% of total waterborne nitrogen inputs and 30% of total phosphorus inputs. In the catchment, most nutrients cycle through livestock; the majority of mineral fertiliser and livestock feed that is imported to the catchment is transformed into manure.
Regions with large numbers of livestock in relation to agricultural land often rely on imported feed because there is not enough local production. In these areas, proper manure management can be difficult because the amount of nutrients in livestock manure exceeds what local crops require. This situation can lead to over-fertilisation and nutrient surpluses, which increase the risk of nutrient leakage to the environment.
The problems linked to the present farm structure are well-acknowledged and can occur at both national and regional levels, but potential solutions are not widely discussed. As a result, farm structure has become the “elephant in the room” when it comes to identifying opportunities to reduce impacts of agriculture on eutrophication.
How did we get here?
Over the past century, agriculture changed dramatically, not just in the Baltic Sea region, but globally. Intensification, specialisation, and segregation have been enabled and driven by technological advances, such as synthetic and mineral fertilisers, pesticides, and fossil fuel-driven equipment. Additionally, governments have often actively encouraged this trend through agricultural subsidies and trade policies aiming specifically to intensify and expand industrial agricultural enterprises.
This structural development of the agricultural systems mirrors broader technological shifts in society and is producing more food for more people at relatively lower prices.
No quick or easy solutions
In the last three decades or so, environmental policy has tried to address nutrient leakage in agriculture and has influenced management practices. The Nitrates Directive, for example, is credited with reducing nitrogen leakage from agricultural land while maintaining or even increasing agricultural production. But so far, environmental policy has not led to reduced nutrient surpluses adequately enough to protect or restore water bodies.
After examining scientific literature, we identified three major pathways to address nutrient surpluses associated with the present separation between crop and livestock production. These pathways are not mutually exclusive and could produce other benefits as well, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving human health.