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What are the tradeoffs in agriculture?

18 December 2017

What are the tradeoffs in agriculture?

The Magic Nexus team

Why is the MAGIC project specialized on the water-energy-food nexus? Because the nexus matters crucially for many EU policies! In this issue, we discuss some of the nexus issues that concern agriculture and the challenge of feeding an increasing population.

The nexus between agriculture and biodiversity is explored by zooming into the ‘land sharing vs land sparing’ debate. On the one hand, agriculture depends on biodiversity, for services such as pollination, soil generation, etc. On the other hand, agricultural expansion competes with biodiversity and land set aside for conservation.

The challenge of agricultural expansion matters not only for biodiversity, but also raises the question of internal boundaries: are there enough farmers to feed an increasing population? There is a link between the small amount of labour Europeans put into agriculture, and the consequences it has on the use of machines, fossil fuels, as well as imports. The EU imports almost four times as much food as China does, even though it has double the amount of arable land per capita. Diets, living standards, and people’s preferences are part of these internal boundaries.

The explicit inclusion of the nexus within policy-making allows for a better-informed analysis of progress towards EU sustainability goals. It does not mean, however, that the achievement of these goals becomes easier! In our last article, we take you through the first results of MAGIC’s analysis of policy narratives. The Common Agricultural Policy has the potential to be a force for change in strategies on water, biodiversity, climate change and wider rural economic development – but it is also dominated by big agro-businesses.

These articles are aimed at initiating a discussion on the importance of the nexus for agricultural policy-making. We welcome any comment and contribution to the discussion. You can either use our discussion forum (check out our post on CAP narratives!) or write to us.

» Read "The Nexus Times" Issue III - AGRICULTURE (December 2017)

The WEFE Nexus and the Common Agricultural Policy

The WEFE Nexus and the Common Agricultural Policy

Keith Matthews

The MAGIC Nexus project team has identified policy narratives that illustrate complexities and tradeoffs regarding the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the context of the water, energy, food and environment (WEFE) nexus.

The importance of the Nexus for the Common Agricultural Policy

The Common Agricultural Policy is increasingly having to reconcile sectoral interests with those of the wider population in the context of the water, energy, food and environment (WEFE) nexus.  The explicit inclusion of energy within this policy-making context allows for a better-informed analysis of progress towards EU sustainability goals. But this doesn’t mean that achieving these goals is easier. Nexus analysis highlights the dependence on substituting non-renewable stocks in the lithosphere and the degradation of quantity or quality of renewable resources in the biosphere.  Indeed, nexus studies tend to raise fundamental questions about the nature of society that can be supported long term within knowable biophysical limits.  Such studies also ask policy makers to look again at whether innovation-led, GDP growth is really the panacea for public policy (a narrative since the mid-18th century).  Given the EU’s commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, nexus studies that look across geographical scales can also highlight the nature of externalities and dependencies, assessing the consequences for the EU and other trading parties.

Importance of Common Agricultural Policy for the Nexus

In financial terms the CAP still dominates EU policy and provokes fierce debates between stakeholders both as part of the agreement of the multi-annual financial framework and coming to an agreement on how funds are used.  Co-decision-making with the European Parliament and trilogue processes with Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers have only added to the intensity of scrutiny and arguably to the complexity of the CAP.  The inclusion since 2003 of rural development within CAP (Pillar 2) means that the CAP is a key source of funding to underpin delivery of EU directives and strategies on water, biodiversity, climate change and wider rural economic development.  The CAP thus has the potential to be a force for change, but the shares of resources devoted to such activities, while increasing, remain small.  The finances provided by the CAP combined with the tariffs imposed on non-EU states by the Single Market combine to stabilise the EU agri-food systems.

Institutional and narrative evolution of the Common Agricultural Policy

The CAP as an institution with a long history (conceptually from 1957 in the treaty of Rome) has generated many narratives - some seeking to preserve the status quo and others seeking reform or abolition.  Indeed, almost from the inception of CAP, reforms have been proposed (e.g. Mansholt in 1962).  It is possible to argue, however, that at a fundamental level the CAP continues to transfer money from general taxation into businesses many of which enjoy incomes or capital wealth significantly beyond that enjoyed by citizens.  What has evolved are the number and diversity of narratives used to justify the continued operation of the CAP. Justifications include the promotion of innovation, efficiency, green-growth, a bio-economy, food security, food quality, food costs, poverty alleviation, social cohesion, environmental quality, ecosystem services, animal welfare, and climate change mitigation.  With so many justifications there is a danger that the effectiveness of the CAP cannot be rationally evaluated.

Disentangling the CAP Narrative Nexus

Within the H2020 MAGIC project the intention is, with Commission staff and other stakeholders, to critically re-examine some of the key underpinning assumptions or definitions in the nexus of CAP narratives.  The analysis seeks to assess CAP narratives in terms of their feasibility (within biophysical limits), viability (within the limits of socio-economic institutions) and desirability (their normative or distributive consequences) and to assess the degree of openness required (that is the resources beyond the control of Member States).  The latter is particularly significant since if the CAP combined with other EU institutions generate negative rather than positive externalities then it undermines the EU’s commitments the UN SDGs potentially perpetuating poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, extremism, conflict and mass migration.

Planetary boundaries and the global food system: what about the farmers?

Planetary boundaries and the global food system: what about the farmers?

Louisa Jane Di Felice, Mario Giampietro, Tarik Serrano-Tovar

Planetary boundaries are usually framed in terms of natural constraints on the ecosystem, but constraints linked to society’s organization, especially our workforce, shouldn’t be ignored.

Planetary boundaries have become a popular concept in sustainability, as a way to show the amount of stress that human activities and lifestyles are putting on the earth’s ecosystem. In 2009, a study conducted by a team of researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Center identified nine planetary boundaries of the earth system, ranging from ocean acidification and climate change to fresh-water use and land system change. The goal of the study was to define a “safe operating space for humanity”. Scientists worldwide agree that the EU’s current way of living does not fall within such a “safe operating space”: recently, over 15,000 researchers signed an article warning humanity against “the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising GHGs from burning fossil fuels, and agricultural production—particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption”.

Agriculture, as a big emitter of greenhouse gases and user of land, is central to boundary debates. It is also a complex topic for researchers and policymakers alike: looking at food systems from different perspectives shows how their complexity cannot be easily modelled or reduced to a single indicator of sustainability. Food systems are shaped both by production and consumption patterns, and these are in turn shaped by a variety of factors, which are constantly co-evolving, therefore making their evolution incredibly hard to predict. For example, food requirements are determined, among other drivers, by population structure and size, dietary preferences and culture. Untangling the mess of possible relations determining how the EU produces and consumes food is almost impossible, but in terms of sustainability some sort of simplification is needed in order to determine what possible boundaries will affect future food systems.

These simplifications, leading to assessments revolving around natural and ecosystem boundaries linked to agriculture, are valuable and necessary. This holds true not only from an academic perspective: the simplification of ecosystem constraints to planetary boundaries is also very powerful for communication purposes. However, while they might not convey strong images of glaciers melting and species going extinct, it is also important to consider the boundaries that arise when analyzing how society is structured, and how this structure shapes the way food is produced. In this sense, boundaries can be viewed not only as external to societies, depending on environmental constraints, but also as internal to the way we live, particularly in relation to how people use their time. In the EU, for example, if one looks at the total amount of hours available to the population, labour statistics show that 70% of working hours are used in the service sector. A very small percentage is allocated to food production, meaning that productivity must remain high. The internal societal and external environmental boundaries are, of course, related: there is a link between the small amount of work Europeans put into agriculture, and the consequences it has on the environment. Running an agricultural system with very few farmers means that manual labour is substituted with machines running on fossil fuels, and that most food is imported. The EU, in fact, imports almost four times the amount of food as China does, even though it has double the amount of arable land per capita. So the issue isn't that the EU doesn't have enough land to produce its own food, but that it doesn't have enough people willing to do it. 

The situation worsens when considering future trends: the EU has an aging population structure, which will lead to a reduced labour force and more people to be supported in the coming years. The diet is also changing towards a higher consumption of meat products. And yet, most people work in services. This is the famous service economy, but looking at the other side of the coin, by also considering imports, quickly shows how the service economy is little more than an import economy – the EU does not run our society on services, but it outsources its basic food and energy requirements to other countries.  So not only is the EU importing food, but it is importing food based on cheap and time intensive labour. This means that if the whole world were to produce and consume food the way the EU does, not only would it require more land, water and energy, but also (and crucially) more people willing to work as farmers. This was the norm in the past, but new norms are quick to re-emerge, and the notion of farming is so distant from the majority of the EU population that it has become imbued with an old-timey nostalgia - one that has little grounding in the reality of the business. From labour statistics, the amount of hours of agricultural work embodied in the food imported by EU is of around 80 hours per capita per year.  This quantity doubles the hours of agricultural work used in domestic production within the EU, of around 40 hours per capita per year. In simple terms, this means that the food imported by the EU needs a lot more work than what Europeans put into their own agricultural sector.

Discussions of the classic planetary boundaries of land use, water use, and other ecosystem constraints related to agriculture should run alongisde conversations about the way society is organized and functions. If not, by viewing agriculture only from an environmental perspective, one runs the risk of forgetting about who is producing the food. In fact, farmers are often left out of the equation when it comes conversations about sustainability and agriculture -  policymakers and  academics talk about climate smart agriculture, sustainable food systems, green farming and so on, but little mention is given to how these innovative systems will affect the labour fource, specifically farmers and rural communities. This is a big issue for Europe: a recent report by the EU showed how less than 6% of farmers are below the age of 35, and a worryingly high 30% are 65 and over. No matter how green, circular or climate-smart agriculture becomes, such advances will be useless if there is no one to take care of the land and little regard for the preservation of rural communities. And moving towards a service economy by outsourcing food production to the rest of the world may work at the EU level, but looking at the problem from a global scale leaves little room for manoeuvre, and reveals societal planetary boundaries that may be just as pressing as the ecosystem ones.

For more on whether adding agricultural land has become a burden on Europe, watch this video taken from the 2017 UAB MOOC on socio-ecological systems held by Mario Giampietro.

The land sharing vs. land sparing debate: Options to ensure food security while preserving biodiversity

18 December 2017

The land sharing vs. land sparing debate: Options to ensure food security while preserving biodiversity

Raimon Ripoll Bosch, Akke Kok and Evelien de Olde

Global agricultural production is increasing to meet our food needs as the world's population grows - but how can this expansion be reconciled with environmental concerns such as biodiversity loss and cultural practices?

The human population is expected to increase to 9.7 billion people by 2050. The increase in the number of people, combined with their increased wealth, is expected to increase the overall demand for food, and especially for animal feed (Godfray et al., 2010).

To meet the increasing demand for food, agricultural land has been expanded (at the expense of other land uses, such as grasslands and forests) and/or intensified (to increase the productivity of crops and livestock per unit of land). It is expected that the trends of expansion and intensification of agricultural land will continue. Agricultural expansion and intensification, however, create controversy and raise concerns about the impact on the environment, biodiversity and ecosystem services other than food supply (such as pollination, carbon sequestration or maintenance of cultural landscapes, among others).

In recent years, there has been an increasing debate about how to ensure food supply while reducing the impact of agricultural production on biodiversity. Agricultural land already occupies nearly 40% of earth’s terrestrial surface. Further expansion of the agricultural land seems undesired, as it increases environmental impacts and conflicts with nature preservation. Increasing land use efficiency by means of intensification has boosted agricultural production, but has also been associated with detrimental effects to the environment and biodiversity decline.

The concepts of land sharing or land sparing have been posed as solutions to increase food production and maintain biodiversity. Land sharing means that food production (usually at lower intensity and yields) is combined with biodiversity conservation on the same land. An example of land sharing strategy are the European Union’s agri-environmental schemes, meant to compensate potential loss of income by farmers that mitigate detrimental effects of intensification on biodiversity (Michael et al., 2016). Land sparing implies a segregation of agricultural land (usually at high intensity production, with high yielding varieties) and protected areas for biodiversity or nature conservation. An example of land sparing strategy are protected areas, which are geographically delimitated and legally protected, to preserve biodiversity and nature, and the associated ecosystem services (Michael et al., 2016).

A key question remains whether land sharing, or land sparing can host higher biodiversity while ensuring food supply. Some studies argue that increasing productivity of both crops and animals would reduce the total land needed for agriculture and spare land for nature conservation purposes (Phalan et al., 2016). In contrast, other studies claim that nature inclusive agriculture can satisfy the increased demand for food while promoting biodiversity. For instance, traditional farming practices in Europe (currently declining) are inherently linked to provision of many public goods and conservation of biodiversity (Tscharntke et al., 2012).

The interdependence of agriculture and biodiversity is complex and not always well understood (Tscharntke et al., 2012). There may not be a simple answer in the dichotomy land sharing vs. land sparing. Indeed, agriculture can be a driver for biodiversity decline through pollution or habitat destruction, but can also contribute to biodiversity enhancement through creation or preservation of habitats, and through the maintenance of local breeds and varieties. Ultimately, agricultural production depends on biodiversity and the continued provision of ecosystems services. Biodiversity, moreover, can enhance the resilience of systems, including agricultural systems. The loss of biodiversity, therefore, has far reaching effects, as can influence the supply of ecosystem services and ultimately affect human well-being. The way forward may be to understand where and when land sharing or land sparing is the better alternative to ensure food security while preserving biodiversity.


Godfray, H.C.J., J.R. Beddington, I.R. Crute, L. Haddad, D. Lawrence, J.F. Muir, J. Pretty, S. Robinson, S.M. Thomas, and C. Toulmin. 2010. The Challenge of Food Security. Science 327, 812-818. doi:10.4337/9780857939388.

Michael, D.R., Wood, J.T., O’Loughlin, T., Lindenmayer, D.B. 2016. Influence of land sharing and land sparing strategies on patterns of vegetation and terrestrial vertebrate richness and occurrence in Australian endangered eucalypt woodlands. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 227 (2016) 24–32.

Phalan, B., Green, R.E., Dicks, L.V., Dotta, G., Feniuk, C., Lamb, A., Strassburg, B.B.N., Williams, B.R., zu Ermgassen E.K.H.J., Balmford, A. 2016. How can higher-yield farming help to spare nature? Science 351 (6272), 450-451. DOI: 10.1126/science.aad0055

Tscharntke, T., Y. Clough, T.C. Wanger, L. Jackson, I. Motzke, I. Perfecto, J. Vandermeer, and A. Whitbread. 2012. Global food security, biodiversity conservation and the future of agricultural intensification. Biological Conservation 151, 53–59. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2012.01.068.

VIDEO: How should we conceptualize 'food'?

19 December 2017

VIDEO: Is agriculture just about food production?

19 December 2017