Environmental protection has become an increasingly important item on the Austrian social and economic policy agenda. Due to the complex nature of the problems related to environmental pollution and the traditional distribution of public tasks among a number of regional authorities, measures aimed at protecting the environment are not only taken by the federal authorities, but also by Province governments and municipalities, all of whom make considerable investments.
Austria is one of the leading countries in Europe in the field of environmental policy. This was not only recognized by the OECD in its report on the environmental situation in its member countries; the report of the EU Commission on the accession of Austria, Sweden and Finland also clearly showed that environmental standards within the European Union were substantially improved due to the accession of these three new Member States.
In the fields of waste management, chemicals or air pollution related to boiler installations, the standards in force in Austria are very stringent by European comparison. The limits for airborne pollutants are also within the bandwidth of those applicable in Germany, Japan, the USA and Switzerland. Moreover, ecological criteria have increasingly been taken into account in agriculture. Thus the regulations in force for the use of pesticides and fertilisers, for instance, are very strict.
The objective of the Environmental Information Act is to enhance transparency in the field of environmental information and access to environmental data. Since 2003 Austria has been a party to the Aarhus Convention, under which Member States undertake to actively make information available to the public and to provide a comprehensive, computer-based information network for the collection of data on environmental protection. The Environmental Impact Assessment Act of 2005 provides for the assessment of direct and indirect effects planned projects may have on humans, animals and the environment. Austrian legislation is thus increasingly taking citizens’ health and environmental concerns into account.
As a result of the programmes implemented, the water quality of Austria’s lakes was raised to excellent levels. Implementing the EU Water Framework Directive, which undertakes a type-specific assessment of the ecological state of domestic bodies of water, Austria has amended its Water Act. In order to classify the system, a detailed, state-of-the-art computer-based documentation of all Austrian rivers and lakes was prepared.
Likewise, Austria attaches vital importance to safeguarding and improving the protective function of forests which is indispensable to a mountainous country. To this end, the Ministry of Agriculture in cooperation with the Federal Provinces elaborated a national concept for the rehabilitation of protective forests. This comprehensive programme is further complemented by the measures implemented by the Austrian Federal Forests. Moreover, the specific steps taken with respect to emissions of airborne pollutants also led to considerable reductions.
By adopting the Federal Constitutional Act for a Nonnuclear Austria, Austria renounced the use of nuclear energy. In this spirit Austria is advocating the creation of a nonnuclear Central Europe. At the international level Austria strongly supports strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency as a control instrument and advocates the increase of funds for nonnuclear energy research under the EURATOM programme. Austria’s efforts are aimed at ensuring that the nuclear power plants in the EU accession candidate countries are retrofitted to meet at least Western safety standards.
Management in harmony with nature
In Europe, healthy rural areas and resources invariably rely on a multifunctional system of agriculture that pro-actively serves society as a whole by fulfilling a wide range of functions. At the same time, farm-based agriculture is the best guarantor of an economic system committed to the principle of sustainability and able to meet the challenges of a modern closed-loop economy. Austrian agriculture has been consistently geared towards high quality and healthy products through Europe's most exacting agri-environmental programme. Farmers have thus become pioneers in Austria's ecological orientation. It is our aim to implement the principles of a socio-ecological system of agriculture also within the framework of the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union.
At the same time, agriculture is an indispensable part of Austria's overall economy as it provides comprehensive services in the interest of society. It is precisely the amenability of Austria's system of agriculture that offers a number of opportunities: Austria has thus taken on an increasingly acknowledged pioneer role among EU Member States in the management of natural resources. This distinct image is borne in particular by the high environmental standards that apply in production, the high percentage of organic farms, modern animal transport regulations, and the beauties of the Alpine Republic's landscapes safeguarded by farmers. The work of men and women farmers is what warrants the intactness of rural areas, having positive effects on the environment and nature.
Sustainable agricultural policy
The guiding principle of the socio-ecological agricultural policy has initiated the conservation of an economically sound and well-functioning farm-based system of agriculture and forestry in an intact rural area. Agriculture is an important vector for Austria's ecologisation. Agriculture and forestry build on the principle of sustainability and have taken a series of consistent steps in recent years. Agriculture and forestry rely on multi-functionality and the full cultivation of arable land, while agriculture provides a variety of services.
In spite of the radical structural changes over the past few decades, which have affected all spheres of life - while almost one third of all gainfully employed persons were still working in agriculture in 1960, the share of people working in agriculture amounted to 3.9 per cent according to the 2001 census - rural areas are still characterized by the close relationship of farmers to their native land and to nature which has developed over centuries. Holistic thinking, manageable units as well as socially and ecologically responsible action are important prerequisites in this regard. With its traditional and modern ideas, farming as a form of production and lifestyle provides vital impulses for society as a whole and creates continuity in rural life. This is exemplified by the commitment to using renewable raw materials, which has given Austria a leading position in Europe.
A holistic philosophy and a farming cycle as complete as possible, with a diverse structure, are the principles and prerequisites of successful organic farming. The natural resources of soil and water are used in an environmentally compatible manner and are preserved for future generations.
Austria is a renowned pioneer and trendsetter in organic farming. Approximately 16.2% of all agricultural holdings and about 19.2% of the farming area in Austria are organic. In 2010 the area managed according to the principles of organic farming increased by 3.9% or 20,038 hectare to a total of 538,210 hectares. The number of subsidized organic farms (21,728) rose by 4.1% compared to the preceding year. The market share of fresh organic products (without bread and bakery products) in food retail is 6.5%. In 2010 the domestic market for organic food increased by 18.7% compared to the preceding year.
Small-scale agriculture typical of Austria
There are approximately 187,000 farms in Austria, 37% thereof full-time. Small-scale farms (average 35 ha cultivated area) and family labor predominates. Non-farm income is a very important factor for farmers. Austrian agriculture contributes about 1.5% to the annual gross domestic product (GDP).
High-end quality food provided by Austrian food processors
Consumer demand for high quality is met by the Austrian food processors. Food is mainly processed by the food industry and food traders (e.g. butchers, bakers and millers, confectioners). In 2010 the food industry encompassed 229 companies with more than 26,000 employees and food trading (data from 2009) encompassed 3,700 companies with more than 44,376 employees. The Austrian food industry exports 2 out of 3 products in terms of value.
The key principles of organic farming:
- Lowest possible use of external energy sources: Organic farming, for example, excludes the use of artificial fertilizers, the production of which consumes large amounts of energy.
- Utilization of natural self-regulating mechanisms: Through diversified crop rotation, the promotion of beneficial animals and a vividly living soil as well as the use of suitable species and animal breeds diseases, pests and weeds do not become rampant.
- Nourishment of the soils instead of the plants: Soil nutrients are activated through careful soil cultivation and the application of compost.
- Fullest farming cycles possible: Farm waste products such as compost or organic manure (dung, muck, animal slurry) are recycled; if possible, no additional agricultural supplies are purchased.
- Protection of environmental resources: By taking all these principles into account, organic farming ensures a rather careful way of dealing with natural resources
- Uniform Community rules: EU Regulation no 834/2007 and EU Regulation no 889/2008 with implementing rules for organic farming lay down the Community rules for the production of organic farming products (production, control, imports).
Almost half of Austria’s federal territory is covered by forests. Forestry and the timber industry are important economic factors in Austria and secure many “green jobs”. Forests supply us with the environmentally benign, renewable resource of wood which is used as a substitute for fossil sources of energy; they offer us space for recreation, protect against natural hazards and, by storing carbon dioxide, contribute vitally to the fight against climate change. Thanks to the filtering function of its soil, forests also supply excellent spring water. The greater part of the Austrian forest is privately owned and thus represents an important source of income for many agricultural holdings. Moreover, forests offer habitats for animals and plants and therefore play a significant role in biodiversity maintenance. If we want to secure these services for future generations, we must use forests in a sustainable manner.
At the Second Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe, held in Helsinki in 1993, sustainable forest management was defined as follows:
“The stewardship and use of forests and forest lands in a way, and at a rate, that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality, and their potential to fullfil, now and in the future, relevant ecological, economic, and social functions at local, national and global levels, and that does not cause damage to other ecosystems.”
This definition, which is generally accepted in Europe, reflects the multifunctionality of forests and the striving for a sustainable development of nature and the economy. The Austrian forestry policy therefore pursues the principle of semi-natural forest management. The “Pan-European Criteria and Indicators for Sustainable Forest Management”, adopted at the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe, are used to assess the state and the development of sustainable forestry in Austria.
The 6 criteria:
- Forest resources – Conservation and appropriate improvement of forest resources and their contribution to global carbon cycles.
- Health and vitality – Maintenance of the health and vitality of forest ecosystems
- Productive functions of forests – Maintenance and strengthening of the productive functions of forests (wood and non-wood products)
- Biodiversity – Safeguarding, protection and appropriate enhancement of the biological diversity of forest ecosystems
- Protective functions – Maintenance and appropriate enhancement of the protective functions in forest management (in particular soil and water)
- Socio-economic functions – Safeguarding of other socio-economic functions and conditions
With an average annual precipitation of around 1,100 mm Austria is one of Europe’s most water-wealthy countries. The huge amount of precipitation corresponds to 92 km³ of water - about twice the volume of Lake Constance!
About 50% of the drinking water used in Austria is from groundwater resources, 50% from springs. Water is the most important foodstuff; agriculture, industry, trade and commerce as well as households need water. Water is used to generate energy; it is important for tourism, spare-time activities and recreation. Rivers, brooks and lakes provide unique habitats for numerous animals and plants. Water has a climate-regulating effect. After having been used, the waste water is treated, purified and returned to the water cycle via our rivers. But water is also threatening: It is an unpredictable force of nature which may entail high water and floods.
We are challenged to deal respectfully with this precious asset. It is obvious that the protection and sustainable utilization of the resource water for future generations must be a priority goal.