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Humans have engaged in agriculture — the use of land for plant and animal cultivation — for more than 10,000 years. Fertilisers, irrigation, mechanisation and genetic engineering have all increased harvests in order to support unprecedented population levels. Recently, however, the true environmental costs of such techniques have become clearer, and the Earth is paying the price.

Agriculture is the human manipulation of ecosystems to cultivate or raise organic matter (crops or livestock). Some forms of manipulation are aimed at increasing the volume of production (e.g. fertilisers, irrigation and genetic modification), while others (e.g. insecticides, herbicides and fences) help reduce the loss of crops to pests and weeds.

The basis of agricultural production is the process of photosynthesis — that is, the formation of organic substances from inorganic elements with the help of light. Sunlight is the main source of energy for agriculture, and it is a free and virtually inexhaustible resource. Nevertheless, agriculture consumes a great deal of energy derived from fossil fuels, water and other renewable and non-renewable natural resources.

In recent decades, the nature, structure and forms of agricultural practices have changed considerably. The widespread use of chemicals and the intensification of agricultural production methods began in the mid-20th century. These changes have been prompted by various factors, including the way in which agricultural products are distributed, processed and consumed, along with the progressive globalisation of agricultural markets; the introduction of genetic and other technological developments; and shifts in national and international agricultural policy.

Agricultural activities have many significant environmental impacts:
  • The conversion of pristine land for agricultural use has led to the loss of characteristic habitats and biodiversity, as well as to significant soil erosion. Soil compaction, erosion and reduced fertility are partly the result of excessive mechanisation.
  • The intensive use of fertilisers has adversely affected groundwater and caused the eutrophication of surface water, which includes the destructive growth of algae.
  • Intensive animal husbandry leads to the production of methane and ammonia, which pollute the atmosphere. The immense quantities of liquid manure produced by farms has become an acute waste disposal problem.
  • Intensive irrigation and drainage practices contribute to water scarcity and to the loss of wetlands that have an important regulatory function in hydrological systems.

Agriculture not only affects the environment, but is itself affected by the degradation of the natural environment. Plant growth can be affected by acid rain, which is caused by increased concentrations of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, increases in ultraviolet solar radiation, air pollution and climate change.
In principle, the genetic material of any organisms — whether bacteria, soybeans or human beings — can be artificially altered in order to increase their size, improve their resistance to disease, or bestow on them some other genetic advantage. Many people believe that GMO technology can play an important role in boosting agricultural production. Turnips, maize, potatoes and sugar beets are the most common genetically modified crops in Europe.

However, there is intense controversy surrounding the release of GMOs into the environment. Once a GMO has been released, it might prove more successful — that is, better fitted to survive — than its natural counterparts. The repercussions of such competition are both unpredictable and irreversible.

In most European countries, members of the public are generally sceptical about genetically modified food and GMOs. There is strong support for labelling, public consultation, and more comprehensive regulation and monitoring. Apart from food safety, concerns have been expressed about adverse impacts on the environment and biodiversity.

The potential risks of GMOs for biodiversity are the object of ongoing research. Public awareness needs to be raised in order to ensure well-informed dialogue and a balanced decision-making process.

During the past few years, citizens and governments have become increasingly interested in developing more sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture. Consumers are demanding healthier and higher-quality products.

Organic farming is growing in popularity as people begin to recognise the damage that intensive agriculture can cause to public health and the environment. Consumer demand for alternative products has risen rapidly.

However, organic farms produce smaller yields, which results in higher prices. Many European countries have established a framework for the production and labelling of organic products.

Various measures can be introduced in order to reduce the environmental burden of agriculture, such as:

  • applying less-intensive farming methods;
  • reducing pesticide and fertiliser use;
  • decreasing the number of cattle per hectare;
  • transforming arable land and pasture into meadows;
  • planting and maintaining hedgerows;
  • maintaining woods or copses;
  • undertaking intensive reforestation; and
  • switching to organic farming.
After World War II, almost all European states began to introduce mechanisms to support the development of agriculture, including price controls, subsidies, and the promotion of scientific and applied activities. This was done in order to enable farmers to produce bigger yields. However, the success of the measures has led to environmental problems such as groundwater contamination and the destruction of plant and animal habitats. The European agricultural sector features a wide range of production units and products, and it also produces a wide range of environmental impacts.

The privatisation of state and cooperative agricultural enterprises in most countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) led to the emergence of two types of farms, with a large number of small, family-run farms existing in parallel with large cooperative, corporate or state-owned farms. Agriculture was plunged into deep crisis during the transition to a market economy. The range and quantity of animal products were reduced, as consumers generally preferred to buy cheaper products imported from other countries, and at the same time the country's foreign markets disappeared. In most CEE countries, the number of cattle, sheep and goats fell by half, and grain production decreased by more than a third compared to 1989 levels. Recently, however, most CEE countries have gradually increased their agricultural production. Lower numbers of livestock and de-intensified agricultural activities have helped to reduce pollution levels, and fewer pesticides and chemical fertilisers are used in CEE compared to Western Europe.

Accounting for 7.5 percent of the total GDP in Belarus, agriculture is one of the country’s most important economic sectors. Around a quarter of the population live in the countryside, although the proportion is shrinking from year to year. About half of the working population live in rural areas. The nominal gross average wage in the agricultural sector is approximately 66 percent of the average wage in Belarus, the lowest among all sectors of the economy.

Natural conditions and processes

The territory of Belarus is characterised by a variety of natural conditions and soil formation factors. There are 13 genetic soil types. The main ones are podzolic soils, which occupy about 2 percent of the territory. They can be found throughout the country but are more common in the southern and south-western parts. Sod-podzolic soils, used mainly for cultivation, are found throughout the country and cover 45.1 percent of the territory. Marsh soils and floodplain soils cover 11.5 percent and 7.2 percent of the territory respectively.

Agricultural development is based not only on natural resources, but also on natural processes, which is why agriculture is largely dependent on terrain, climate and weather.

  • Belarus is located in the temperate climate zone, between a marine and continental climate. It is classified as a risk zone for agriculture, as there are significant fluctuations in temperature, in the duration of the growing season, and in average precipitation.
  • Until recently, there were three agro-climatic regions in Belarus — the northern, central and southern. The borders of these regions have now shifted 80 to 120 km to the north, and a new zone, the Palessie, has emerged in the south. These changes have altered the crop structure. Crops that thrive in heat and late-ripening varieties are now more abundant, more land is available for maize cultivation, and the cultivation of vineyards is now possible. All this is due to the impacts of climate change.

According to 2010 data, resources used in the agricultural sector in Belarus comprised:

  • Mineral fertilisers (196 kg per hectare of agricultural land, and 284 kg per hectare of arable land). Most fertiliser is used in sugar beet production (1,497 kg per hectare of sown area).
  • Organic fertilisers (9.1 tonnes per hectare of arable land). Most fertiliser is used to grow potatoes (54.5 tonnes per hectare).
  • Water (107 million m3, or about 8 percent of total water consumption). Of this, 7 million m3, or less than 1 percent of the total, was used for irrigation.

Economics of agriculture

Belarus has a great deal of farmland, with 0.9 hectares of agricultural land per capita compared to a global per capita average of 0.12 hectares. Agricultural land covers 43 percent of the country’s surface, with arable land comprising 30 percent of the total area.

The agricultural sector in Belarus is developing mainly along the lines of intensive and large-scale production. The aim is to achieve maximum productivity through the wide use of chemically synthesised substances (pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, growth stimulants and fertilisers). This kind of production requires significant subsidies, and approximately 60 percent of agriculture in Belarus is state subsidised. The state also regulates the prices of agricultural products.

Compared with other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, animal husbandry in Belarus is quite highly developed: it ranks highest in terms of milk and meat production, and second highest in egg production. Belarus exports meat, dairy products, potatoes, and sugar and confectionery items.

Agricultural production in 2011 reached BYR 35.613 trillion (approximately EUR 2.6 million) — 55.2 percent from crop farming and 44.8 percent from livestock husbandry. According to 2011 data, 46.2 percent of farmland was used for growing cereals and legumes, 37.9 percent for hay and silage, 9.6 percent for industrial crops, 6.0 percent for potatoes, and 1.3 percent for vegetables.

According to the Land Code, all agricultural land is state property and is allocated to agricultural producers. Citizens have the right to lease up to 2 hectares of land for small-scale private farming and may own up to 1 hectare for private production.

Citizens of Belarus are engaged in various forms of agricultural production. According to 2010 data:

  • Agricultural cooperatives (formerly collective and state farms) occupied 86.2 percent of arable land in Belarus and produced 64.5 percent of the country's agricultural output. They were principally engaged in the cultivation of cereals (93.6 percent of total production), flax (99.6 percent) and sugar beet (98.6 percent), and also produced most of the country’s meat (86.8 percent), milk (86.5 percent) and eggs (67.7 percent).
  • Peasant farms accounted for 1 percent of agricultural production and occupied 1.3 percent of the land.
  • Private households in both rural and urban areas, as well as horticultural associations, produced most of the potatoes (86.9 percent) and vegetables (81 percent) in the country.

Environmental aspects of agricultural development

The Chernobyl accident — As a result of the Chernobyl disaster, about 23 percent of the total area of Belarus was contaminated. The high levels of radioactive isotopes in this area led to the withdrawal of 265,400 hectares from agricultural production. In the long term, most of this land will remain excluded from agricultural use because of high levels of contamination.

Reclamation — The expansion of agricultural land has long been a priority of land policy in Belarus. Most of the new agricultural land has been reclaimed by means of drainage. One of the consequences of draining peat soils is that they erode, subsequently altering the hydrological regime over large areas and damaging both natural and agricultural ecosystems. The intensive use of drained peat soils in agriculture leads to their degradation and destruction.

Erosion — Economic and environmental damage caused by erosion is expressed in the form of annual losses of nutrients and declining soil fertility, as well as the pollution of rivers and water bodies. Annual surface runoff per hectare comprises an average of 10–15 tonnes of solid-phase soil, 150–180 kg of humus, up to 10 kg of nitrogen, 5.4 kg of phosphorus and potassium, and 5–6 kg of calcium and magnesium. Soil that loses humus and nutrients to erosion becomes less fertile. On highly eroded soils in Belarus, crop yields are 40 percent lower on average. Yields of row crops are 60 percent lower, flax yields 50 percent lower, and yields of perennial grasses 30 percent lower. Soil erosion may also be caused by crop rotation or inappropriate land management. A total area of 556,500 hectares, or 6.3 percent of agricultural land in Belarus (8.7 percent of total arable land), is subject to erosion.

Loss of biodiversity — The encroachment of agricultural ecosystems onto adjacent areas is a direct consequence of the application of intensive methods of agricultural production. Farmland structures do not mirror the natural landscape. Fields occupy large areas, often on vulnerable slopes that are exposed to wind and water erosion. Agricultural landscapes provide virtually no habitat for wild plants and animals. Agricultural activities in Belarus have brought a number of animal populations to the brink of extinction, including the common hamster and spotted suslik (a type of Eurasian ground squirrel). Bird populations have also suffered, with the common partridge, corncrake, Eurasian curlew and black-tailed godwit now endangered. Inappropriate mechanical ploughing has led to a decrease in the number of meadow species. On the other hand, some unused agricultural land is being transformed into cultivated forests.

Climate change — Agriculture is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions, but at the same time agricultural production is suffering from the impacts of climate change, which include the increased frequency of extreme weather events. Experts have identified positive impacts for agriculture in Belarus as a result of global warming, including longer vegetative periods and benefits for thermophilic species and varieties in northern regions.

Pollution of surface water and groundwater — Intensive groundwater contamination occurs near livestock farms and warehouses where fertilisers and pesticides are used or stored, as well as on farmland where mineral and organic fertilisers are used. Elevated levels of pollutants have been recorded at depths of 14 to 16 m. Agriculture is the main source of nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) pollution. Excess nutrients cause eutrophication and lead to the disruption of aquatic ecosystems. Livestock farms, most of which are not equipped with treatment facilities but carry out excessive applications of mineral and organic fertilisers, are responsible for more than 50 percent of nutrient-polluted wastewater. About 11 percent of drinking water sources in Belarus do not meet sanitary requirements. They are mainly contaminated by nitrates, which are associated with agricultural activities. The contamination of wells is a serious problem.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — It is mandatory in Belarus to label all products containing GMOs using prominent red lettering. It is illegal to use GMOs in the production of baby foods. In addition, the State Committee for Standardisation of the Republic of Belarus has introduced the voluntary labelling of products that do not contain GMOs, and an appropriate design for the label has been approved. The National Coordination Biosafety Centre operates under the Institute of Genetics and Cytology, an institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus.

Organic farming — Until 2012, organic farming methods were practised by only a handful of farmers, hobby gardeners, or the owners of small plots. However, a number of scientists and non-governmental organisations have recently made efforts to promote organic agriculture and to provide information to professionals and members of the public. In 2012, the Council of Ministers adopted Resolution No. 639 on the Development of Organic Agriculture. Among the planned activities are the development of national legislation, the establishment of a certification authority and labelling regime for organic products, and the development of relevant research programmes.