The concept of a bioeconomy is being proposed by the European Union as a solution for the increasing environmental and societal challenges. Under the bioeconomy, the demand for biomass is expected increase greatly. Agriculture already plays a crucial role in providing the necessary biomass and research indicates that most of the increase in demand will have to be supplied land-based practices. However, agriculture has also been identified as one of the major contributors to climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss. As such, if agriculture wants to play a key role in providing the biomass for the future it will have to move away from its negative impacts.
Proven sustainable agricultural management practices already exist that mitigate or even reverse the degradation associated with present day agriculture. This research explores the impacts of a transitioning Estonia’s agricultural sector from a business as usual (BAU) to a sustainable agricultural management (SAM) scenario by comparing both scenarios in terms of economic performance (gross value added per hectare (GVA)) and biodiversity performance (high nature value (HNV) mapping). The projections of GVA per ha show a slight decline (-4,5%) under BAU and a strong increase (+120,5%) under SAM. As such, the calculations show that SAM is much more profitable compared to current agricultural practices in Estonia. In terms of HNV mapping, under BAU extremely high nature value (EHNV) areas coincide with areas that have inherent natural qualities whilst relatively low nature value (RLNV) areas are concentrated around the fertile soils which are intensively used for agricultural purposes. By contrast, under SAM the EHNV areas increase significantly with a web of such areas almost connecting across the country. As such, SAM contributes much more to a healthy living environment compared to present day agriculture.
At present, 6.6% of the total GHG emissions in Estonia can be attributed to agriculture production, making it the second most GHG intensive sector, with emissions from agricultural soils and enteric fermentation of livestock being the major contributors at 50% and 39% respectively (Estonian Ministry of the Environment, 2019). The major emissions from agricultural soils originate from soil carbon released through tillage and fertilizer application, two elements that are dramatically reduced or even eliminated through regenerative agriculture. Additionally, instead of housing livestock indoors, regenerative agriculture aims at maximizing grazing with the goal of increasing the total amount of carbon stored in the soil by never overgrazing. Together with no-till practices and year round living plants and roots in the soil, regenerative agriculture is able to sequester CO2 in agricultural soils. For temperate climates, regenerative agriculture sequestration rates range from 0.6 - 2.6 tC/ha/y, depending on the type of practices used. Assuming the same 35% of agricultural land, this results in a sequestration of 761 thousand - 3,3 million tons of CO2 per year.
IMPACT ON FARM PERFORMANCE
- More medium size farms, more work and income for rural area
Animal health and welfare
- Grazing animals - milk farms back to pasture
Production efficiency and meat quality
- Using dual purpose breeds for milk production
- Quality of grassfed/pasturefed
- Milk and beef is better for health and environment
Although sustainable agricultural management ( SAM) clearly outperforms business as usual (BAU), transitioning to such a scenario gives rise to challenges in a widespread need for knowledge transfer to farmers, access to diversified markets, transition finance as well as a potentially conflicting cultural and policy landscape. In terms of further research, there is a need to research an expanded set of indicators to identify potential trade-offs, and a pronounced need to test such theoretical results through field trails to assess their validity and the adaptation of SAM practices to better suit the Estonian context.