12.08.2019 (physicsworld.com) - The European Union’s drive to expand its bioeconomy has environmental impacts that are unsustainable and occur largely on other continents, researchers have found.
“I’d like to make people aware of the tremendous pressure we put on the most valuable ecosystems on Earth—in the tropics, for example—by shifting from a fossil-based to a bio-based economy without changing our consumption habits,” says Martin Bruckner of Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria. “I am concerned that current environmental policies do no more than problem shifting.”
Seeking to promote “green growth” while reducing reliance on fossil fuels and petrochemicals, the EU’s Bioeconomy Strategy aims to increase the use of bio-based materials such as textile and oil crops. But while there are some environmental benefits to this approach, e.g. biofuels could help make transport less carbon-intensive, replacing resources with cultivated alternatives is not necessarily sustainable.
Bruckner and colleagues from Austria, Germany and Sweden combined two resource-use models to identify the origins and final destinations of a range of non-food agricultural products. The EU is both the largest consumer and net importer of embodied cropland, they found.
The results demonstrate a way to monitor the environmental effects of bioeconomic policies and could help the EU achieve its sustainable development goals.
Bruckner and colleagues set out to measure the EU’s non-food cropland footprint by tracking agricultural products from the field to the end consumer. They started with a biophysical model based on commodities and land-use data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Although this model follows food products all the way to their final form, it accounts for non-food products only until they reach the industrial processing stage.
To complete the last part of the journey, the team correlated the output of the biophysical model with a database detailing the supply chains of hundreds of products across dozens of countries. In this way the researchers determined the cropland embodied in a range of agricultural commodities, and linked the country of consumption with the country of origin.
Although not the most intensive user of cropland per capita, in absolute terms the EU relies more on imported non-food biomass than any other region. Non-food products consumed in the EU embody nearly twice as much land as the EU uses for non-food agriculture within its borders.
Much of this biomass is imported from tropical countries—Indonesia in particular—where agricultural development comes at the cost of deforestation and biodiversity loss. Although such regions suffer the environmental damage of resource extraction, they do not necessarily gain the full benefit of the trade, as a large part of the value is added by industrial processing in the EU.
Quantifying the footprint of non-food agricultural products could lead to development strategies that share environmental harms and economic benefits more equitably between countries. It could also suggest opportunities to replace environmentally damaging products with more benign alternatives, but this alone will not be enough to mitigate the effects of the expanding non-food sector.
“Replacing palm oil with domestic rapeseed oil, for example, would require three times the land area,” says Bruckner. “Instead of problem shifting we need to focus on reducing consumption levels. This will be the only way we can really make a difference, reduce pressure on ecosystems, and mitigate biodiversity loss.”