Environmental policy

Raimon Ripoll Bosch



The European Union (EU) has committed to ambitious goals, including the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement, and the global Aichi biodiversity targets, as well as internal ambitions on energy, climate and biodiversity. At the same time, the EU is a main global importer and exporter of agricultural products. This has raised concerns about the responsibility of the EU with regard to the problem of environmental burden shifting (e.g., externalization of land use, greenhouse gas emissions, contamination of soils and water, and/or biodiversity loss). Is the externalization of agricultural production and the related adverse environmental impacts aiding the EU in meeting its ambitious environmental targets?

In this policy case, we examined what would happen if the EU would internalize its food production to avoid environmental burden shifting. Is it possible for the EU to internalize the production of crops that are currently imported? Could environmental targets—and especially biodiversity targets—be met if the EU would internalize production? We explored the options for internalization of agricultural production and its impact on biodiversity for three countries that differ in import characteristics, land use and livestock production—Netherlands, France, Spain—and the EU as a whole.




The aim of this policy case was to perform a quality check on the dominant narrative(s) in the policy domain of environmental protection. A short-list of five narratives was obtained from an analysis of policy documents and discussed with policy-makers through interviews and focus group discussions. On the basis of their feedback, the following narrative was selected for further analysis through quantitative story-telling: 

“In order to reach sustainability goals, environmental impacts need to be externalized such as with regard to livestock, with many products being imported from South America. Hence, landscape protection and conservation happens at the expense of degradation of other regions of the world.”

For the quantitative analysis, the FAOSTAT database of production and trade in livestock and crop products was used to identify and quantify the main import and export crop and livestock products in the four case studies. We accounted for the net import (i.e. import minus export) or “consumption” of the top five imported products for each of the case studies. We also linked the “consumed” products to region specific yields to account for the additional land required to internalize production. This gives an impression of the magnitude of the trade, its associated land use, the role of livestock production, the (im)possibilities of internalizing these imports, and the impact internalization could have on biodiversity. To evaluate the consequences for biodiversity we used two indicators: Mean Species Abundance (MSA) (Alkemade et al., 2009) and Potential Disappeared Fraction (PDF) (De Schryver, Goedkoop, Leuven, & Huijbregts, 2010; Knudsen et al., 2017).


Main findings


We found that all countries studied are currently dependent on imports and exports of food/feed to maintain their agro-food system. All case studies show some options for internalizing food production (i.e. increase food self-sufficiency). However, there are large variations in their potential to internalize, and the consequences are, in general, detrimental to the environment.

The Netherlands, for example, imports large quantities of wheat, maize, soybeans and barley which are predominantly used for livestock feed. Internalizing the production of these four crops only would require an additional 2.4 million hectares (58% of the Dutch land surface). Converting the country’s grassland, forest and nature surface into cropland would not suffice to internalize this production, nor would that be socially or environmentally desirable.

Also for the other three case studies, the internalization of agricultural production would involve land-use changes associated with biodiversity loss. For France, substituting the current production of crops destined for export with the production of crops that are currently imported could be an option to internalize production. Nonetheless, this would still require the conversion of ca. 2.5 million hectares into agricultural land. In the case of Spain, the internalization of agricultural production would have to deal with imported products that are not grown locally. For instance, the import of palm oil could be substituted by the local cultivation of rapeseed, soybean or sunflower, but these are oil crops with comparatively lower yields. Producing the five main consumed crops (net imports) would therefore demand an additional 6.5 to 7.5 million hectares (i.e., 13–15% of Spain’s land surface). At EU28 level, the internationalization of the five most consumed products (net imports) would require a conversion of 4-6% of the land into agricultural land.

In all cases, agricultural land should be expanded, and most likely, at the expense of grasslands, shrublands or forests. That would be detrimental to biodiversity conservation targets. For the Netherlands, this would result in a significant biodiversity loss represented by an increase in the Potentially Disappeared Fraction (PDF) of 28% or a decrease in the Mean Species Abundance (MSA) of 14%. For France, sacrificing 14% of the wood and shrubland would also result in a biodiversity loss (2% drop in MSA value and 3% increase in PDF). Alternatively, converting grassland into cropland would mainly affect the PDF (increase by 4%) compared with MSA (a decrease of 1%). In Spain, for example, converting grassland into cropland would suppose an increase in PDF of 12% and a decrease in MSA of 3%. In the EU, converting 11% of the wood and shrubland, for example, would result in a loss of 2-3% biodiversity based on the PDF and MSA values.

The net internalization of most consumed products in the case studies would, however, have significant economic consequences, and in a sense, would be pointing to a complete “re-design” of the food system.




Although the four case studies are explorative in nature, they show that the current import of crop products implies the use of a substantial amount of land in other parts of the world. They also illustrate the complex interactions among the elements of the nexus—water, energy, food and biodiversity—involved in internalization. Based on our results, we conclude that internalization of agricultural production, based on current levels of import and export, would jeopardize commitments made to reduce biodiversity loss (among other environmental impacts). Prioritizing biodviersity commitments would imply a complete re-design of EU agricultural systems, from a commodity and market-oriented system based on profit to a self-sufficient system based on optimization (not maximization) of resources used.


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