Europe’s livestock production is more and more intensive! - what does this mean?

So what does ‘intensive’ mean in terms of agriculture? 

“Intensive farming” is a term used in public debates about certain farming practices. It often implies farms with large numbers of animals and practices that maximise production output, while minimising production costs. It is also often indicated as being responsible for the bulk of environmental impacts from livestock production and biodiversity losses. However when you consider the scientific debate, the concept of intensification is not that straight forward[ref]Agricultural intensification: definition and controversies as regards biodiversity and food security https://biodiv2014.sciencesconf.org/47410/document[/ref]. So before engaging in conversations on livestock intensification, it is important to understand what intensification actually means. 

This can encompass any number of things: from intensive land use; intensive use of chemical inputs or farm machinery; intensive labour use; intensive use of technologies; use of feed and water resources; and the list goes on…

These different factors have different impacts on the environment, on biodiversity and on the social framework. In this direction, hydroponic systems or urban farming seen as positive in general media are advanced examples of intensive farming systems. At the opposite end, traditional farm system are also working with concepts like “sustainable or ecological intensification” with high ecological intensity, aiming to use natural processes and ecosystem services in an efficient way.

The merits and challenges of different farming practices including the practices classed as intensive are in reality very complex and, in the case of Europe, more diverse. 

“Livestock intensification” is not a systematic trend in livestock production in Europe

If we consider the basics of what can be classed as “intensification”, i.e. an increase in farm input intensity (including use of fertilisers, pesticides and purchased feed), can we observe a clear trend towards an intensification of livestock in Europe? 

Let’s take a look at the statistics…

Eurostat[ref]https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Agri-environmental_indicator_-_intensification_-_extensification[/ref], the European public agency for statistics, developed a methodology[ref]Purchased feed cost is divided by the feed price index in the country in the same year. This allows to develop a method where inflation and input prices fluctuation are deducted.[/ref] that could give first answers to this question. Farm input intensity was used as a proxy of agricultural intensification and was defined as the level of inputs used by a farm per unit of factor of production (in general land).Between 2004-2013[ref]Commission Regulation (EC) No 1242/2008 of 8 December 2008 establishing a Community typology for agricultural holdings https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX%3A32008R1242[/ref], the share of agricultural area managed by high intensity farms[ref]Higher expenditure than a 350 constant EUR/ha[/ref] kept a stable trend in the EU-28, except for the mixed livestock holdings (grazing and granivores) which increased by 8%.

For the EU – 28, the share of agricultural area managed by medium intensity farms[ref]Expenditure between 350 and 155 constant EUR/ha[/ref] for granivore holdings decreased by 4%, whereas the share of mixed livestock fluctuated around the 25% mark. For grazing livestock there was a steady decrease of 5%. 

For the EU – 28, the share of agricultural area managed by low intensity farms, increased in the case of granivore holdings and decreased by 3-4% in the case of mixed livestock holdings. The grazing holdings share increased, showing a tendency towards extensification.