OECD Observer
Making farming more eco-friendly
News brief– March 2001

How much environmental damage is caused by agriculture? Quite a lot, though there has been improvement in some areas. The OECD's first international study of the state and trends of environmental conditions in agriculture since the mid-1980s gives a comprehensive picture.

On the one hand, there has been a reduction in the nitrogen and pesticide loadings in rivers, lakes and groundwater, and a decrease in the level of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in the past 15 years. But the report also warns that farming is having harmful effects on bio-diversity, habitats and land-scape features in some regions, while risks of further soil degradation and depletion of water resources persist.

While agriculture may be a small (and contracting) part of most national economies in OECD countries, it nevertheless accounts for around 40% of total OECD land use and 45% of water use. Its environmental implications are therefore considerable. Interestingly, organic farming has risen in many countries, particularly in Austria (where it accounted for about 10% of the total farming area in 1998), Sweden and Switzerland. Germany and Italy are the only G7 economies to show a marked increase in this type of farming; organic farming remains negligible (albeit growing) in the United States.

The report, which uses data that allows cross-country comparisons, shows that where agricultural and trade policies have lowered input costs, such as water charges, and raised crop and livestock output prices for farmers, this has tended to lead to environmental damage.

Policy reform to phase out the most distorting forms of support would help improve farming's environmental performance, the report says.


•OECD, Environmental Indicators for Agriculture- Volume 3: Methods and Results, 2001.

•OECD, Environmental Outlook, April 2001. 

©OECD Observer No 225, March 2001