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Agriculture and Horticulture

Agriculture and horticulture in numbers


Agriculture accounts for only a small part of gross domestic production (GDP) in Europe, and it is considered that the overall vulnerability of the European economy to changes that affect agriculture is low (4). However, agriculture is much more important in terms of area occupied (farmland and forest land cover approximately 90 % of the EU's land surface), and rural population and income (5).

Vulnerabilities Belgium

If local temperatures do not rise by more than three degrees, climate change will have little impact on agriculture in Belgium, according to all scenarios for the 21st century (1,2). Up to around 2-3°C, yield reduction tends to be compensated for by the fertilizing effect of increased CO2 concentration for most crops. Carbon dioxide also improves the efficiency of water use in plants, and increased temperatures are favorable for some crops such as maize. However external events such as heavy rains and the probable spread of diseases and exotic animal and plant pests may also have a yet unknown significant (negative) effect (14).

For Flanders, the financial losses (of agriculture) will be moderate between 0.1% and 4.1%, depending to which climate Flanders will evolve in the future. If the agriculture adapts itself to this climate changes the losses will decrease from 0 % to 0.4% (1).

In the 21st century social economic factors and agricultural policy will remain the main drivers for agricultural developments in Belgium as long as temperature rise stays below 3⁰C (2).

Wetter winters

In the lower parts of Flanders (and the Netherlands) agriculture will suffer from higher water levels and salt intrusion (due to sea level rise) in the 21st century. Because of this, water quality will deteriorate and the costs for water treatment will increase. In the higher parts, water shortages will occur more often. In areas with erosion, such as the Flemish Ardennes or the loamy soils of Haspengouwe, the increase of precipitation will cause even more erosion. More intense rainfall will make it more difficult for farmers to work the land with their heavy machinery (3).

Drier summers

Heat waves and drought are a particular concern. The warm summer of 2003 did not, however, result in lower yields in Belgium, probably because the drought was not severe enough during the growing season to have a significant impact. Nevertheless, the repetition of such events during the early summer and with an increased intensity may adversely affect yields in the future (1).

The pressure to recycle water will increase and closing the water and nutrients cycle will be a basic activity of agricultural and horticultural businesses, and animal husbandry (3).

Higher temperatures

A rise in mean temperatures tends to lower the yields of many crops. This is mainly a consequence of faster plant growth, resulting in more rapid maturity and reduced accumulation of organic matter. Up to around 2-3°C, this yield reduction tends to be compensated for by the fertilizing effect of increased CO2 concentration for most crops (1,2). Climate projections for the middle of the 21st century (2031–2050) indicate that the impacts on maize and winter wheat in Belgium are generally positive (15). Winter wheat benefits more than maize from the projected climatic changes due to its stronger response to elevated [CO2] (15).

A slow but significant reduction in the organic carbon content of most agricultural soils has been observed in Belgium. Although this is mainly a consequence of intense farming, increased temperatures also contribute to the decomposition of the organic matter in soil. This may affect the availability of water to plants and the fertility of soils, thus contributing to a reduction in yields. Recent progress in agricultural policy promoting the upgrading of organic matter in soils, along with balanced use of mineral fertilizers, are helping to mitigate this problem (1).

Pests and diseases

A concern is the probable spread of insect pests and diseases from southern countries (1).

The world food system in 2080

The world food system in the twenty-first century has been assessed, under various future scenarios of population, economic growth and climate change, addressing the questions: what are the likely impacts of climate change on the world’s agricultural resources? How do climate impacts compare to socioeconomic pressures over this century? Where and how do significant interactions arise? According to the authors, a fully coherent, unified data and modelling system has been used for the first time (13).

For the developed nations under all climate projections an expansion of potential land suitable for crop cultivation in 2080 with respect to 1990 was predicted, mainly in North America (40% increase over the 360 million hectares under current baseline climate); northern Europe (16% increase over current 45 million hectares); Russian Federation (64% increase over 245 million hectares) and in East Asia (10% increase over 150 million hectares) (13).

Model results indicated that agriculture in developed countries as a group would benefit under climate change. Agricultural GDP mostly increases in the Former Soviet Union (up to 23% in scenario A2); while only Western Europe loses agricultural GDP, across all GCM scenarios. Model results indicated decreases in agricultural GDP in most developing regions, with the exception of Latin America (13).

According to these scenarios the developing countries will become more dependent on net cereal imports. Climate change will add to this dependence, increasing net cereal imports of developing regions by 10–40% across GCM climate projections (13).

Vulnerabilities Europe - Climate change not main driver

Socio-economic factors and technological developments

Climate change is only one driver among many that will shape agriculture and rural areas in future decades. Socio-economic factors and technological developments will need to be considered alongside agro-climatic changes to determine future trends in the sector (5).

From research it was concluded that socio-economic assumptions have a much greater effect on the scenario results of future changes in agricultural production and land use then the climate scenarios (7).

The European population is expected to decline by about 8% over the period from 2000 to 2030 (8).

Scenarios on future changes in agriculture largely depend on assumptions about technological development for future agricultural land use in Europe (7). It has been estimated that changes in the productivity of food crops in Europe over the period 1961–1990 were strongest related to technology development and that effects of climate change were relatively small. For the period till 2080 an increase in crop productivity for Europe has been estimated between 25% and 163%, of which between 20% and 143% is due to technological development and 5-20% is due to climate change and CO2 fertilisation. The contribution of climate change just by itself is approximately a minor 1% (9).

Care should be taken, however, in drawing firm conclusions from the apparent lack of sensitivity of agricultural land use to climate change. At the regional scale there are winners and losers (in terms of yield changes), but these tend to cancel each other out when aggregated to the whole of Europe (7).

Future changes in land use

If technology continues to progress at current rates then the area of agricultural land would need to decline substantially. Such declines will not occur if there is a correspondingly large increase in the demand for agricultural goods, or if political decisions are taken either to reduce crop productivity through policies that encourage extensification or to accept widespread overproduction (7).

Cropland and grassland areas (for the production of food and fibre) may decline by as much as 50% of current areas for some scenarios. Such declines in production areas would result in large parts of Europe becoming surplus to the requirement of food and fibre production (7). Over the shorter term (up to 2030) changes in agricultural land area may be small (10).

Although it is difficult to anticipate how this land would be used in the future, it seems that continued urban expansion, recreational areas (such as for horse riding) and forest land use would all be likely to take up at least some of the surplus. Furthermore, whilst the substitution of food production by energy production was considered in these scenarios, surplus land would provide further opportunities for the cultivation of bioenergy crops (7).

Europe is a major producer of biodiesel, accounting for 90% of the total production worldwide (11). In the Biofuels Progress Report (12), it is estimated that in 2020, the total area of arable land required for biofuel production will be between 7.6 million and 18.3 million hectares, equivalent to approximately 8% and 19% respectively of total arable land in 2005.

The agricultural area of Europe has already diminished by about 13% in the 40 years since 1960 (7).

Benefits from climate change

At higher temperatures the production of maize will increase. The yield of most other crops will not increase. The introduction of crops from the Mediterranean may diversify the options (vegetables, fruit, cereal).

For Belgium, the change of crop yield in 2080 referred to 1990 has been estimated based on several combinations of models and scenarios; the outcomes show an increase ranging from 5.3% - 18.7% (6).

Adaptation strategies

Adaptation measures such as changes in crop choices, changes in sowing dates, improved humus content of agricultural land and possibly irrigation, may help reduce the severity of climate change impacts (1). Up to a warming of 3⁰C agriculture in Belgium will have no major difficulties to adapt to climate change (2)

The storage capacity of fresh water in the lower parts should be increased to compensate for the increased salt intrusion. Closure of the water and nutrients cycle is a major challenge for agriculture in the urban area of Belgium. The options for agriculture will increase by integrating water management and food production. At present, Flanders depends on fresh water from  the Walloon provinces. This dependence will increase due to climate change if Flanders does not succeed in increasing its capacity to store fresh water in winter time (3).

Adaptation strategies - The world food system in 2080

The world food system in the twenty-first century has been assessed, under various future scenarios of population, economic growth and climate change. Results suggest that socioeconomic development over this century will greatly alter production, trade, distribution and consumption of food products worldwide, as a consequence of population growth, economic growth, and diet changes in developing countries. Climate change will additionally modify agricultural activities, probably increasing any gaps between developing and developed countries. Adaptation strategies, both on-farm and via market mechanisms, will be important contributors to limiting the severity of impacts (13).

At the global level simulation results indicate only small percentage changes from the baseline reference case with respect to cereal-production. It is suggested that two levels of adaptation considered in the simulations, i.e. autonomous adaptation at the field level, such as changing of crop calendars and cropping systems as a function of climate; and market adjustments at both regional (re-distribution of capital, labour and land) and global (trade) levels, can successfully combine to reduce otherwise larger negative impacts (13).

Additional climate change pressures may arise, however, by changes in the frequency of extreme precipitation events such as floods and droughts, which may diminish the capacity of countries to adapt, especially in poor tropical regions (13).


The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for Belgium.

  1. Ministry for Social Affairs, Health and Environment (2009)
  2. Van Ypersele and Marbaix (2004)
  3. Gabriëls (2005)
  4. EEA (2006), in: EEA, JRC and WHO (2008)
  5. EEA, JRC and WHO (2008)
  6. EEA (2003)
  7. Rounsevell et al. (2005)
  8. UN (2004), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  9. Ewert et al. (2005), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  10. Van Meijl et al. (2006), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  11. JNCC (2007), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  12. European Commission (2006), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  13. Fischer et al. (2005)
  14. National Climate Commission Belgium (2010)
  15. Vanuytrecht et al. (2014)

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