Within the context of the globalisation of agriculture, the challenge is to maintain the "regional model of agriculture," combining food production, protection of the environment and social objectives.
For thousands of years, farming systems and livestock breeds developed within local environmental conditions. Highly developed and integrated regional livestock farming systems evolved, with distinct local breeds of sheep, pigs, cattle and horses. These systems supported rich wildlife populations and generations of people. The common characteristics of these farm systems were that they were low-input, low-output, usually labour-intensive, and economically and ecologically sustainable.
A clear focus is needed on the full set of objectives for each rural region – agricultural, environmental and social – with policies as far as possible aiming to address their objectives in a direct and measurable way. Once a full set of objectives has been agreed upon for a rural region, it will be possible to assess more accurately the effects of each rural policy against these objectives, identifying possible areas of synergy, conflict or entrenchment. These are areas where a policy aimed at one objective may not directly oppose another objective, but more subtly reduce the uptake or effectiveness of other policies (as when agricultural support does not damage the environment directly but instead deters farmers from entering environmental schemes because they would lose too much subsidy income).
The pressures on the European sustainable agricultural model come from two sides: from the high productivity of farming in the US, and from the low labour costs in Eastern Europe and Asia. Logically this means that, with future worldwide price competition, Europe will be faced with the choice between either the American production structure (industrial agriculture) or Asian farm incomes. COPA (the European association of farmers' unions and cooperatives) is actively contributing to the debate on a third alternative. This addresses how the European model of family farming can be maintained, to offer European citizens and consumers better and more acceptable quality in terms of food and food production methods, as well as maintaining the rural ecological, social and cultural environment.
The European Forum for Nature Conservation and Pastoralism (EFNCP) brings together ecologists, nature conservationists, farmers and policy makers, and exists to increase understanding of the high nature conservation and cultural value of certain farming systems and to promote their maintenance.
There is a shift in favour of the integration of nature conservation into holistic rural strategies. The shift is firmly enshrined in international law through the Ramsar Convention, Bern Convention and Rio Convention. Within the EU, these are reflected in the Bird Directive and Habitat Directive. The Common Agricultural Policy reforms have made quite explicit the desire to develop environmental management as an objective of agriculture policy. But to be successful, this must be guided by a vision of the future rural countryside.