Living beyond sustainable levels: The EU-27 demands from nature exceed the region’s biocapacity and are primarily driven by food consumption

The way food is provided to and consumed by Europeans represents the largest share (≈ 30%) of their Ecological Footprint. Designing, implementing and enforcing policies across each stage of the food supply chain is needed, to advance towards the EU Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategy.
Published in Earth & Environment
Living beyond sustainable levels: The EU-27 demands from nature exceed the region’s biocapacity and are primarily driven by food consumption

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We live in a world of persistent global ecological overshoot, as human demands for nature exceed the regenerative capacity of ecosystems. The food we produce, trade, consume and eventually dispose as waste, is a major driver of pressure, contributing to the transgression of planetary limits.

Consumers do not usually have full knowledge about the environmental impacts associated with the food they consume, while there is widespread concern among food systems scientists and researchers about the need to shift the way food is produced and consumed to drive a global transformation that benefits the health of both people and the planet. Policy-making can be informed by these analyses at multiple spatial levels (regional, national, city-level).

Our new study - bringing evidence on the role of food in driving our Ecological Footprint, while unravelling the extent to which biocapacity (i.e., biomass and ecosystem services) for food consumption originates from within or outside the EU - aims to provide insight into getting sustainable food on our plates. Our research indicates the need for designing, implementing and enforcing policies across different sectors that promote and support food system transformation. The study points to the need for urgent policy interventions across food production and consumption, and the associated environmental impacts along the supply chain. This is needed to advance towards the EU Green Deal and the Farm to Fork strategy, which ambitiously put the EU at the forefront of the climate change challenge and the transition to a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy.

Food systems are broken
Food systems generate a number of pressures on ecosystems at the global level. This includes land use and land use change, water depletion and pollution, biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) – from farm to fork and disposal. To put this into perspective, the food sector accounts for about one third (and up to 37%, according to the IPCC) of human GHG emissions.

In the EU, supply-side changes alone are likely to be insufficient to make the food system sustainable in the terms described by the Farm to Fork Strategy. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine have made the dependency and vulnerability of EU food systems markedly clear, limiting the EU Strategic Autonomy ambitions and putting food security at risk.

Understanding the Ecological Footprint of food in the EU-27
A team of food system experts and sustainability scientists – coordinated by Global Footprint Network’s researchers – have investigated the Ecological Footprint (i.e., the appropriation of biological resources and ecosystem services to support consumption patterns) of the EU-27 and unraveled the contribution of the food component vis-à-vis the policy targets of the EU Green Deal and the Farm to Fork strategy. Understanding the evolution of the Food Footprint in the decade 2004-2014 (the most updated due to data availability) enabled researchers to track the impact of societal trends (namely dietary patterns) on the environment. Alternative policies and interventions, and their potential outcomes are also described. The methodology used consisted of an Ecological-Footprint-Extended Multi-Regional Input-Output (EF-MRIO) approach, accounting for demand, supply and trade, and considering multiple externalities.

Over the period analysed, the Ecological Footprint of the residents of the EU-27 region constantly exceeded the region’s biocapacity. In high income countries, where food systems are highly globalised and dietary preferences are converging into a Westernised diet, food typically represents the biggest share of the Footprint at the per capita level – compared to goods, housing, mobility and services. This stands true also at the EU-27 level, where household food consumption in the period 2004-2014 represents 28%-31% of the total Ecological Footprint, appropriating over half of the region’s biocapacity. The study points out that a protein transition away from beef meat, under current production practices in the livestock sector, would help reduce the Food Footprint, as would eliminating food waste.

EU-27 Ecological Footprint by consumption categories (left) and biocapacity by land types (right) in selected years (2004-2014). The EF consists of 5 major categories: food, goods, housing, personal transportation and services. Food, in turn, includes a number of food typologies, i.e., bread and cereals; milk, cheese and eggs; fruit; meat; plant-based oils and fats; vegetables; non-alcoholic beverages; fish and seafood; animal-based oils and fats; sugar, jam, honey, chocolate, confectionery, alcoholic beverages; food products not elsewhere classified (n.e.c.). This classification is based on the United Nations Classification of Individual Consumption According to Purpose (COICOP) coding system. BC consists of 5 land types: cropland (for the provision of plant-based food, feeds, and fiber products), grazing land (for the production of animal products); fishing grounds (for the production of fish products); forests (for the production of timber and other forest products, and for CO2 sequestration); and built-up surfaces (for the provision of shelter and other urban infrastructures).

Moreover, about a quarter of the biocapacity needed to provide the food being consumed within the EU-27 region originates from non-EU countries. This means that food consumption in the EU is substantially dependent on food production outside national borders. The increase in intra-regional trade also reflected into a growing share of Food Footprint that is reliant on intra-EU biocapacity, amounting roughly to two thirds of the total.

EU-27 Food Footprint (FF) by food macro-categories (right column), appropriated ecological assets (central), and food origin (left) in 2014. 

Beyond the EU food system
Some of the insights provided by the results of the study go beyond the EU-27 and can be applied to other geographic contexts around the world. Although the analysis is limited by the resolution imposed by a large pan-European assessment, it can serve as a starting point to (1) guide remedial actions along the full supply chain of food systems, (2) inform the development of policies and actions at multiple governance levels, both nationally and regionally, and (3) favour multi-sectoral and cross-scalar policies for a more efficient science-policy interface.

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