19 item(s) found.

Farm to Fork: Updating Narratives About Agriculture

Farm to Fork: Updating Narratives About Agriculture

What if “agriculture” is no longer what it used to be when the CAP was developed in the 60s? If we agree on this point, then it is time to refresh the master narratives used to describe its role in society. This Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub (UKH) series consists of one teaser video and three video lectures exposing the presence of three elephants in the room when coming to the sustainability of agriculture. One longer publication resource is also available at the end of this webpage.

What is uncomfortable knowledge?

Uncomfortable knowledge is a concept introduced by Steve Rayner*. As Rayner puts it: “to make sense of the complexity of the world so that they can act, individuals and institutions need to develop simplified, self-consistent versions of that world”. The chosen, self-consistent narratives and explanations necessarily leave out some relevant aspects of the issue in order to remain simple and useful. In this situation “knowledge which is in tension or outright contradiction with those versions must be expunged. This is uncomfortable knowledge which is excluded from policy debates, especially when dealing with ‘wicked problems’”.

*Steve Rayner, 2012. Uncomfortable knowledge: the social construction of ignorance in science and environmental policy discourses. Economy and Society 41(1): 107-125.

What is quantitative storytelling?

Quantitative storytelling (QST), the systematic approach used to present material on the Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub, does not claim to present the “truth” about a given issue, nor that all the numbers used in the story are uncontested. When dealing with wicked issues, all numbers can always be calculated in a different way and narratives are always contested. QST simply presents alternative stories useful to check the quality of existing narratives and to enrich the diversity of insights about a given issue.


What challenges are faced by the Farm to Fork strategy?​ (1 min 57 sec)

The Farm to Fork strategy requires a deep reconsideration of the role of agriculture and the heavy dependence on imports by EU security. It is not sure that a pure technological solution will be capable of resolving the modern predicament.

Today EU agriculture is a specialized societal organ needed to feed the cities (6 min 46 sec)

Today EU agriculture is a specialized societal organ needed to feed the cities. Current economic drivers of agricultural change do not help rural development or protect agro-ecosystems. How did this come to pass? What form of agriculture is being practiced in Europe, and what does it imply for Europe’s metabolic profile?

Today EU agriculture is heavily and dangerously dependent on imports (5 min 40 sec)

Today EU agriculture is heavily and dangerously dependent on imports. Externalization and agribusiness can be understood as no good for food security and for farmers. Why is agribusiness so special, and what does it imply for relations between the production, consumption, import and export of agricultural goods? What does it imply for Europe’s agricultural workforce?

Today agricultural production is no longer the most relevant component of the food system​ (9 min 33 sec)

Today agricultural production is no longer the most relevant component of the food system. The characteristics of the initial phase of agricultural production are more and more irrelevant in determining the overall characteristics of the food system. What new role does post-harvest serve? How can we use that knowledge to inform dietary concerns?


Teams Involved

Saving Water in Irrigation

Saving Water in Irrigation

A Vargas, RJ Hogeboom & JF Schyns




Freshwater scarcity is a major global concern and irrigation is a key piece of the puzzle. Irrigation is crucial in dry climates where precipitation is regularly insufficient for plant growth, and it is typically required to maintain crop productivity during dry periods elsewhere.  Irrigated agriculture plays a fundamental role in the provision of food worldwide, generation of renewable energy, and economic development.  Simultaneously, irrigation is also one of the key drivers behind the depletion of freshwater resources, contributing to water scarcity.

In the European context, water scarcity affects 11% of the population and 17% of the territory (European Commission, 2007). The proportion of water withdrawals due to agriculture within the EU territory is around 45%, most thereof used for irrigation, where the southern European countries claim approximately two-thirds of the total (Eurostat, 2019). Figure 1 displays the concentrations of irrigated areas, expressed as percentage of irrigated area in relation to the total utilised agricultural area, where the highest, noticeably, are located in Southern Europe.

In the EU, irrigation practice is mainly governed by the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Where the WFD provides a basis to ensure the long-term sustainable use of water bodies across Europe, the CAP decidedly shapes the course of agricultural practices in Europe. The CAP seeks to integrate objectives of the WFD, and both policy documents have a clear bearing on water use in agriculture. However, a comprehensive integration of the two policies has not been fully achieved and the water challenges prove persistent. The major question that still stands, therefore, is how the EU can effectively save water in irrigated agriculture?

In this study, we set out to assess the consistency of a number of innovations that influence water savings in irrigation with various narratives in which they are embedded, within the context of the EU agricultural sector.  


Figure 1. Share of irrigated areas in utilised agricultural areas (UAA). Source: Eurostat (online data code: ef_poirrig).


Dimensions of water savings


To better understand water savings and how to achieve them, we highlight three different dimensions of water savings, following Hoekstra (2020) (see NEXUS TIMES publication in related work below), namely, production, trade and consumption. The nexus originated by irrigated agriculture in Europe requires solutions from all dimensions as it is expected that irrigation will continue to fulfil all of its functions while still sustainably managing Europe’s freshwater resources.

The production dimension focuses on the supply side. For crop production, it considers the intensity of application of inputs. Water-wise, it encompasses how water is applied to crops and its consequent impact on production.

The trade dimension focuses on the international trade in crop products, where water is traded in virtual form. Trade is an opportunity to release the pressures imposed on the water bodies, when production patterns are adapted by looking at where we can best produce certain crops from a water point of view.

A consumption dimension looks at the demand side, focusing on consumption patterns. It leaves the food supply behind and targets the consumers with the aim to reduce water consumption. There are two main strategies employed to reduce the water footprint considering a consumption dimension: dietary changes and reduction of food waste.


Innovations to achieve water savings


There are many innovations that have been developed with the potential to achieve water savings in agriculture. In the first place, agricultural management practices can significantly influence both crop water use and water productivity. In the second place, smart irrigation strategies can promote reductions in the application of water in the field - without significantly lowering yields. Moreover, there are efficient irrigation techniques and technologies that facilitate crop water uptake and reduce water use. Lastly, particular socio-economic responses can support water savings in irrigation as well, by steering changes in behaviour among producers and consumers.

It is worthy to keep in mind that while these innovations can achieve water savings, the potential to do so varies greatly, both in particular and combined. For example, on average, drip sub-surface irrigation and deficit irrigation are associated with the most considerable reductions on the BWF (Chukalla, 2015). However, a combination of the innovations thereof along with the practice of mulching is associated with even larger reductions, especially if the mulches are of synthetic origin. Figure 2 displays the potential reduction of the water footprint of a crop for different combinations of innovations.


Figure 2. Change in water footprints in different management practices. SSD stands for sub-surface drip, FI for full irrigation, DI for deficit irrigation, NoML for mulching practice, OML for organic mulching and SML for synthetic mulching. Source: Chukalla et al. 2015 (see related work below).


Effective adoption of particular water-saving innovations, nevertheless, depends on more than their water-savings potential alone. Uptake and acceptance varies as a function of the narrative or perspective one holds on the way crops should be produced and which role irrigation ought to play therein. Given the inherent complexity of interlinked water systems and the wide spectrum of narratives that exist, a careful understanding of both is crucial or order to make informed policy choices.


The five narratives of European crop production


Our analysis identified five overarching narratives that govern crop production in the EU. Each narrative assigns a specific role to water and irrigation, and hence promotes uptake of different water-saving innovations. The five narratives and their preferred broad innovation categories to save water in EU agriculture are:

  1. Food Security – Irrigation is a means to meet EU food demand. Innovations that increase yield and water productivity of food crops are the focus.
  2. Market Competitiveness – Irrigation is a means to increase the global competitiveness of the European agricultural market and improve the EU economy. Innovations that enhance market opportunities and maximize profit are the focus.
  3. Environmental Protection – Irrigation is a primary cause of the degradation of natural resources. Innovations to reduce the use of water are preferred.
  4. Circular Economy – Irrigation is a means to support a low carbon economy based on the production of biofuels. Innovations that support reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increase yield and water productivity of energy crops are the focus.
  5. Technological Optimism – Irrigation is a technological challenge that may boost crop production. Innovations based on the use of technology that maximizes irrigation efficiency and crop water productivity are the focus.


Results and conclusions


Since each narrative assigns a specific role to water and irrigation, it promotes uptake of different (sets of) water-saving innovations. We assessed the consistency within the different narratives of the selected innovations and their feasibility (external constraints – natural limits), viability (internal constraints – processes under human control) and desirability (implications for stakeholders). Table 1 presents part of the results from the assessment for feasibility and viability. Hereto, we inventoried a large number of innovations and described their potential to achieve water savings in irrigation using Quantitative Story-Telling as a method. We used various case studies and scenarios from literature and the results of a second stakeholder engagement to support the assessment.


Table 1. Main results obtained from the feasibility and viability check on the five narratives.


The results confirmed that the main goals and assumptions behind each narrative exert a significant influence on the uptake of a given water-saving innovation. Moreover, it was found that there are trade-offs in selection of particular innovations between the different narratives and that socio-economic innovations form an important part of any innovation mix.

The path towards effectively saving water in EU agriculture requires both clarity on the goals sought (here framed through the lens of dominant narratives) and coherence between these goals and the innovations that support them. The broad spectrum of goals currently portrayed by the CAP and the incomplete integration with WFD objectives illustrate such clarity and coherence is still lacking in EU policy. The increased understanding through this work on viable narratives and their preferred innovations contributes towards drafting more effective EU policies that help solve the persistent environmental challenges related to water.


Related Work


Teams Involved

The Water-Agriculture Nexus Issue

The Water-Agriculture Nexus Issue

The Magic Nexus team

In this latest publication we tackle governance of the nexus with a focus on water use in agriculture. An overarching theme is that of complexity– one cannot talk about comprehensive and robust agricultural policy without addressing the complexities involved -– including the need to take into consideration multiple factors at different scales, and the uncertainties involved in  administering any given solution to water scarcity challenges.  

In the first article, Violeta Cabello & Ansel Renner from the UAB in Barcelona look at indicators in agricultural water use, explaining why the current monitoring framework in the EU is insufficient to properly understand the links between agriculture and water resource use in Europe.

In our second article, David Romero Manrique from The Joint Research Centre in Italy uses the analogy of the mythological hydra monster to explain the paradoxes inherent in water scarcity governance in the Canary Islands - that is, that without first defining the problems, the wrong solutions can create even worse 'hydra head' problems.

Tackling related issues in the Canary Islands, we summarize the findings of a recent publication from the MAGIC project by Serrano-Tovar and colleagues who use a desalination case study to better understand water scarcity issues in agriculture – their results show that governance solutions are far from simple and require a comprehensive analysis of the multifaceted and complex multi-scalar components involved.

Finally, from our MAGIC team at the University of Twente, Joep Schyns and Arjen Hoekstra define different types of efficiency in agricultural water use, explaining that we need to pay more attention to the consumption angle for policy to really be effective in this area.

This thing called Land Use: Reflecting on a life in land use research

27 June 2019

This thing called Land Use: Reflecting on a life in land use research

Keith Matthews

The sign on the open plan door that I walk through on my way to my office says Land Use.  It has said Land Use since 1992 when I moved into our new building, opened to house the then five-year-old Macaulay Land Use Research Institute.  The sign has never changed, despite reorganisations, rebranding, reviews and mergers.  While there are no longer thematic departmental structures in the now James Hutton Institute, the sign still defines in two words an idea that profoundly shapes the professional and personal lives of a significant majority of the people who pass the sign each day.  It represents a community of practice with deep roots, but one which is, perhaps only now 27 year later, able to fully articulate the ambitions of the people who put the sign on the door.

To elaborate a little what this thing called land use research is I searched my book shelves for a vaguely remembered report I had been passed by a senior colleague from the Land Use Division on his retirement.  It has sat there largely undisturbed, surviving decluttering, as a piece of institutional history.  The report is a Review of Land Use Research in the UK (Birnie et al., 1995) and the contents are a fascinating time capsule which highlight what the original vision for land use research was and which allows readers today to reflect on how far their own state-of-the-art has advanced and how many of the problems faced in 1994 are still ahead of us now.

  • There is an increasing need to develop more coordinated research programmes in the future focused on major issues like sustainability. The wider rural socio-economy is generally a poorly researched topic …
  • The vision of agriculture as “the backbone of the rural economy “ is still prevalent […] this Review suggests that the rural economy a much more complex policy objective than is, for example, the wellbeing of agriculture.It raises issues […]that have seldom been considered together before.
  • Few scientific groups […] are capable of delivering across the range of disciplines involved. […] need to find ways of creating and nurturing such interdisciplinary groups if a coherent body of relevant knowledge, theory and expertise is to be developed.
  • […] for research to be classified as “land use science” […] it must seek explanation through an integrative, multi-disciplinary approach and preferably be focused on whole land systems[…] above the individual […] above the field”.
  • Little evidence of underpinning theoretical or methodological research that seeks either to develop a framework for integrated research of this type or develop a fundamental understanding of process.
  • There is the need to involve the user community in the research process where the output is specifically designed to support the policy process. […] little evidence of this […] little understanding of how this might be done […] far from clear how research findings are communicated […] to what extent research actually informs policy.

For the Hutton researchers in the MAGIC team our view would be that all the challenges identified above remain “live” issues but that projects like MAGIC are demonstrating progress and signposting ways forward.  The societal metabolism analyses pioneered by Mario Giampietro and others at UAB bring a theoretical coherence and analytical precision to the analysis of land use and provide a tractable way to make sense to the potentially overwhelming complexity.  Land Use research brings to societal metabolism analysis the insights of spatial analysis.  Yet even their combined scientific rigour still needs to be translated into outcomes and impacts.  Here the deliberative inclusive processes, crossing the science-policy interface using Quantitative Story Telling (QST) are key.  QST recognises that transdisciplinary research should strive to shape policy (colloquially speaking truth to power) but also that is must engage with and be shaped by stakeholders (post normal science).

The study of land use has never been more relevant with the recognition that the challenges faced by humanity are increasingly clearly not just socio-economic but also biophysical.  How populations cope with resource limits are old challenges, thought to have been consigned long ago to the text books of economic and social history (my first undergraduate lecture in 1985).  Yet whether Malthus proves to be wrong or not, may just depend on the temporal scale over which one considers the topic of land use.


Birnie, R.V., Morgan, R.J., Bateman, D., Potter, C., Shucksmith, M., Thompson, T.R.E., Webster, J.P.G., 1995. Review of land use research in the UK.  Part A: Executive Report. Report prepared on behalf of SOAFD under contract MLU/408/94., p. 26.

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)

Paying due attention to complexity in water governance for agriculture

Paying due attention to complexity in water governance for agriculture

The Magic Nexus team

In a recent publication from the MAGIC project, Serrano-Tovar and colleagues take a closer look at desalination, powered from renewable energy sources, used in water-scarce areas to support agriculture. The case study of reference is a project in the Canary Island of Gran Canaria, an island that depends on fossil fuel and food imports to supply its energy needs and food consumption. The case study reunites all the elements of the nexus: agricultural food production, its related water requirement met through desalination, and the energy required for water desalination. At first glance, the project seems to close the “nexus loop” by solving both the challenge of water supply in an arid region and of powering the desalination plant without fossil fuels. Upon closer inspection, it is far these specific solutions go and the answers that these technologies offer, due to the complexity of the environmental and socio-political problems encountered.

The study focuses on the company Soslaires Canarias S.L., which contributes to the irrigation of up to 230 ha of agricultural land pertaining to farmers of a local agricultural cooperative, which grow mainly fresh vegetables and fruits. The water derived from the desalination plant is stored in a reservoir, which acts as a strategic buffer element that allows for the use of wind energy (an intermittent energy source) by storing desalted water in periods when irrigation is not needed. Farmers have the option of combining the desalted water with other water sources. The water accounting is thus open: water from the desalination plant contributes to water supply to farmers, but does not cover 100% of the water requirement.

Figure: Contextualizing the representation of functional elements in relation to the socio-economic context (top) and environmental context (bottom).

The desalination system is connected to a wind farm, which contributes to the electricity demand of the desalination plant. The extent of this contribution is quite complex: wind power output depends on the strength and intermittency of the wind, which is variable. The wind farm does not provide power at maximum capacity year-round. Moreover, the desalination plant cannot use all the electricity produced by the wind farm at maximum power capacity. Hence, part of the electricity output of the wind farm is sold to the electricity grid and part of the electricity requirement of the desalination plant is obtained from the grid. Energy accounting is also open: the wind farm contributes but does not ensure the viability of the system.

Needless to say, the farmers only provide part of the fruits and vegetables used by the population of Gran Canaria. Therefore, the food flow is also open. In this case, the authors note that food production should be understood not only as contributing to food supply, but also as an economic activity that warrants access to the subsidies of the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union, especially when food crops are exported to other EU countries. The food flow acquires interest in economic terms, more than with regard to its contribution to food security.

Overall, although the integrated wind farm-desalination-farming system seems to tie in the various components of the water-energy-food nexus, the analysis shows that many loose ends appear through this nexus system. The challenge is not just a matter of missing data or insufficient models. As the authors argue, “the analysis of the resource nexus is extremely complex and requires the consideration of many factors and functional elements operating at different scales. This makes it impossible to adopt simple standard models (of the type ‘one size fits all’) that identify ‘optimal’ solutions and eliminate uncertainty from the results.” In other words, the nexus presents some irreducible uncertainties. Uncertainties suggest that there are limits to the governability of “nexus solutions”.



Serrano-Tovar, T., Suárez, B. P., Musicki, A., Juan, A., Cabello, V., & Giampietro, M. (2019). Structuring an integrated water-energy-food nexus assessment of a local wind energy desalination system for irrigation. Science of the Total Environment, 689, 945-957. Available in OPEN ACCESS!

Coupled monitoring of water and agricultural policies: The challenge of indicators

Coupled monitoring of water and agricultural policies: The challenge of indicators

Violeta Cabello & Ansel Renner

The integration of European water and agricultural policies is the subject of a long lasting debate. Within that debate, the importance of agriculture as the main driver of impacts on water bodies has been formally considered since the approval of the Water Framework Directive in the year 2000. Only recently, however, has the European Commission (EC) promoted alignment of water and agricultural policies in its Rural Development Programmes. One important step in that promotion was the creation of a joint working group between the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development and the Directorate-General for the Environment – a working group tasked with steering integration of the two policy domains (EC, 2017). Currently promoted strategies focus primarily on the optimization of contemporary water and agrochemical use practices at the farm level (Rouillard and Berglund, 2017). In the light of on-going experiments, how to better harmonize water and agricultural policies, what concepts and instruments to use in that harmonization and at what governance levels are questions that will be addressed in the years to come.

One policy instrument that merits more attention in the ongoing policy discussion is the coupling of monitoring systems. Monitoring is the process by which the implementation of policies is followed up and evaluated, usually through a set of quantitative criteria and indicators. Indeed, indicators are the main tool used by the European Commission in their assessments, partially because they enable the bottom-up aggregation of information from the scale of implementation up through to the continental level. Both water and agricultural policies have innovated in their monitoring systems by developing varied sets of indicators and measurement procedures. Yet, these systems are not integrated. The recent Common Agricultural Policy monitoring and evaluation framework includes indicators on water quality and availability, but those indicators refer to the national scale and lack any connection with the monitoring efforts associated with the Water Framework Directive. Therefore, by looking at the set of numbers provided, it is impossible to know why and how agriculture impacts water resources in Europe. In a previous article of The Nexus Times, Völker and Kovacic caution against the performative role of numbers in evaluating progress towards policy targets. That is, the way indicators are conceived has an effect in the way policy goals themselves are perceived. Once measurement procedures are established, Völker and Kovacic argue, they become more rigid and difficult to change. Therefore, it is pertinent to ask now what indicators and accounting procedures are relevant and needed in the process of harmonization of water and agricultural policies.

As part of the MAGIC project, we are prototyping a coupled water-food accounting system that connects farming system typologies to the water bodies they depend on. The following data dashboard shows an integrated set of environmental and socio-economic indicators using data from the province of Almería in southeastern Spain. In our prototype, we focussed on quantitative impacts on aquifers and diagnosed social-ecological patterns in the year 2015. That is, we explored and relayed crucial information over what farming systems are driving the various levels of aquifer overexploitation.

Figure 1 – An example of an integrated monitoring system of water and agricultural policies for the region of Almería in Southern Spain. Source: Cabello et al. 2019.

During our research, we learnt that it is key to both monitor impacts in relative and absolute terms and to place environmental pressures such as water withdrawal and fertilizer leakage in the context of their wider eco-hydrological system. For instance, in the analyses of indicators in Figure 1 we observed that high overdraft rates were observed in both high-volume and low-volume aquifers. While low aquifer recharge rates were a major driving factor, we also learnt that similar levels of aquifer impact can be driven by various mixes of agricultural system types each with different production and market strategies. Attending to social-ecological diversity, such as that provided by mixes of agricultural system types, appears as a key challenge for future policy reviews and integration efforts. Current efforts are bogged down by sparse agricultural data defined at relatively aggregate scales, an aspect which creates difficulty as far as integration with water data goes. Difficulties aside, the integration of water and agricultural policies is an urgent task highly relevant for the future health of the European environment. Moving forward, the advancement of a coupled monitoring system between water and agricultural policies will require public administrations to make a serious effort to produce coherent databases.



Cabello, V., Renner, A., Giampietro, M., 2019. Relational analysis of the resource nexus in arid land crop production. Advances in Water Resources 130, 258–269. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.advwatres.2019.06.014

European Commission. 2017. Agriculture and Sustainable Water Management in the EU. COMMISSION STAFF WORKING DOCUMENT. Available at: https://circabc.europa.eu/sd/a/abff972e-203a-4b4e-b42e-a0f291d3fdf9/SWD_2017_EN_V4_P1_885057.pdf

Rouillard, J., Berglum, M. 2017. European level report: Key descriptive statistics on the consideration of water issues in the Rural Development Programmes 2014-2020. Report to the European Commision. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/pdf/EU_overview_report_RDPs.pdf

The climate change policy challenge: Balancing the multiple roles of land use

The climate change policy challenge: Balancing the multiple roles of land use

Mike Rivington

Responding appropriately to climate change presents many complex challenges for policy makers and other stakeholders, especially when considering the use of land for mitigation and adaptation purposes. This because they represent additional burdens imposed on the biosphere on top of all the others. The capability and capacity of land to provide goods and services will also be affected by climate change impacts (e.g. changes in rainfall amounts and extremes (IPCC 2018a). These impacts will coincide with population growth and increasing demand for resources per capita. Further, the quality of available land has been and continues to be degraded. The recent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Global Assessment Report painted a stark picture of degradation of the worlds ecosystems and loss of biodiversity (IPBES 2019).

For climate change mitigation, afforestation and bio-energy crops are argued as having the potential to capture carbon and reduce the use of fossil fuels. This makes them an essential component of policies to achieve net zero emissions as they can offset emissions from sectors where it will be neither technically feasible nor economically viable to eliminate GHG emissions (van Vuuren et al 2011). Yet any plantation woodland expansion within the EU would need to be set against the substantial losses of old growth forests in the tropics. This creates an additional demand on land, adding to the developing conflicting requirements made on it at a time of the need for increasing food security.

Cutting through this complexity is the need for policy makers to understand “what are the required changes in balance between land uses needed in order to keep temperature rise below 1.5°C?”. This question has been explored in the Shared Socio-economic Pathways (SSPs) (Raihi et al 2017), and subsequent analysis of mitigation pathways (IPCC 2018b) to inform policy makers on opportunities for carbon dioxide removal. Figure 1 illustrates four alternative scenarios for the global land requirements for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and afforestation and the consequent reduction in the area of other land uses.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Land use changes (M ha) in 2050 and 2100 (in relation to 2010) in four socio-economic pathways (S1, S2, S5 and a Low Energy Demand LED) that are consistent in potentially limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C (IPCC 2018b).

All these 1.5°C scenarios have a reduction in area for food production, most noticeably in pasture, though much less so for the Low Energy Demand scenario (LED) (Grubler et al 2018). The reduction in crop and pasture areas are to enable increases in energy crops and forests. Such substantial changes in land use have very large consequences on existing land-based economies (e.g. the livestock industry) and societies and thus present complex trade-off issues. Add to this that there are difficulties of carbon accounting for such land used (e.g. see Nexus Times “Why it is so difficult to measure biofuel emissions”) and for competing land uses means the need to adequately frame and conduct analysis in a way that does not seek to “simplify out” or ignore the complexity.

To identify potential solutions to this complex set of problems (development pathways that lead to sustainability) within a Social Metabolism Analytical framework, it is helpful to use three key benchmarks:

  • Is the solution Feasible? Can the development pathway be achieved within the limits of available resources? Does it respect ecological limitations such as water availability restrictions and the need to maintain soil health? Therefore, is it physically feasible? 
  • Is the solution Viable? We in the EU currently solve feasibility problems by externalising them, e.g. by using imports, but what are the consequences of this? Will externalisation remain feasible during the period of transition to a new and sustainable state?
  • Is it Desirable? Does the pathway resolve some issues but not others, or compound other problems and therefore risk not achieving sustainability? What does it do for aims such as the Sustainable Development Goals?

These questions identify dependencies (e.g. risk of externalisation) that whilst trying to resolve one problem cause another. For example, in 2009 the EU set targets in the transport sector for renewables and the de-carbonization of fuels that lead to substantial investment in biofuels (Valin et al. 2015), the production of which were outside of the EU. Hence the development of the biofuels industry has driven the expansion of cultivated land (e.g. causing deforestation). This has posed substantial issues in carbon and environmental impact accounting (see Nexus Times “Meeting EU biofuel targets: the devil is in the detail”).

The details above have created a picture of a land use and climate change complex ‘wicked’ problem. It is yet unclear what a feasible, viable and desirable pathway solution looks like. What is clear, though, is that conventional economics-based approaches to cost benefit analysis, with limited risk assessment, single scale accounting and trade-off analysis whilst considering ecological and entropy limits, are inadequate to deal with such complex problems. Within the context of a deteriorating environmental state, growing resource demand and climate change pressures, land is a key medium through which to consider the food-energy-water nexus using a MAGIC Social Metabolism Analysis approach.


Grubler, A. et al., 2018: A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5°C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies. Nature Energy, 3(6), 515–527, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41560-018-0172-6

Harrison P. A., Hauck J., Austrheim G., Brotons L., Cantele M., Claudet J., Fürst C., Guisan A., Harmáčková Z.V., Lavorel S. et al. dans Rounsevell M., Fischer M., Torre-Marin Rando A., Mader A. (eds.) IPBES (2018): The IPBES regional assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services for Europe and Central Asia, Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services.

IPCC (20118a) Special report: Global Warming of 1.5°C. Summary for Policymakers.

IPBES (2018b) Rogelj, J., D. Shindell, K. Jiang, S. Fifita, P. Forster, V. Ginzburg, C. Handa, H. Kheshgi, S. Kobayashi, E. Kriegler, L. Mundaca, R. Séférian, and M.V. Vilariño, 2018: Mitigation Pathways Compatible with 1.5°C in the Context of Sustainable Development. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Masson Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.)].

IPBES (2019). Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science- Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo (editors). IPBES Secretariat, Bonn, Germany.

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Applying the nexus structuring space to characterize the EU food system

Applying the nexus structuring space to characterize the EU food system

Juan J. Cadillo Benalcazar & Ansel Renner

In the MAGIC project, an evaluative framework called quantitative story-telling (QST) was developed as a capable way of generating robust inputs on the science-policy interface. This article demonstrates the potential of that approach to characterize a flexible information space capable of supplying the structured quantitative data demanded by QST exercises. In this article, we focus on examples taken from an analysis of European Union (EU) agriculture.

In diagnostic mode, our analysis evaluated the current metabolic profile of the agriculture sectors of 29 European countries (the EU-27 plus the United Kingdom and Norway). In anticipation mode, our analysis then evaluated the possibility of a dramatic agricultural internalization for each of those 29 countries—what would be needed for near-complete self-sufficiency in foodstuffs, a crude look at downscaling planetary boundaries to the national level under the assumption that current imports become undependable. Across both analytical modes, a semantic interface referred to as the nexus structuring space was developed in which four lenses across four different descriptive domains were used. Fig. 1 summarizes the four lenses used.


Figure 1: Analytical representation of a modern agriculture sector, highlighting the macroscope (A), mesoscope (B and C) and microscope (D) lenses proposed by the nexus structuring space

When adopting a macroscope lens (symbol A in Fig. 1), multi-metric data concerning the absolute and relative sizes of the various societal sectors (the household sector, the manufacturing sector, the agriculture sector, etc.), as well as their respective metabolic characteristics, was generated. In our analysis, the macroscope gathered information on the end-uses of various foodstuffs and related those end-uses to more general societal consumption patterns. The mesoscope lens describes the dependence of the country under study on other social-economic systems. This dependence is evaluated in terms of how much of each agricultural commodity consumed is of local origin and how much is imported. In Fig. 1, two descriptive domains are identified for the mesoscope—symbol B describes the external dependency in terms of primary/secondary products while symbol C describes the external dependence in terms of live animals required to maintain animal production systems. The mesoscope thereby provides rich information relevant for discussions of food security and vulnerabilities to external factors. The microscope lens (symbol D in Fig. 1) describes the pressure exerted by local agricultural activities on the local ecosystem, differentiating between elements under human control (for example, fertilizers, human activity/labor, blue water) from those that are not (for example, green water, aquifers, soil). Finally, the virtualscope lens describes the characteristics of the “virtual” production processes that are required for the production of imported goods. The virtualscope is not visualized in Fig. 1 since, in practice, its characterization depends on the set of assumptions made. For example, the virtualscope can be understood from the anticipatory perspective of saving local biophysical resources (what would be needed for local self-sufficiency) or from the diagnostic perspective of pressure exerted on external social-ecological systems (outsourcing).

In diagnostic mode, the macroscope revealed substantial heterogeneity in the dietary profile of the EU countries, due mainly to a mix of cultural and environmental factors. In Portugal, for example, 21% of food consumed derives from animal products (in energy terms, fat products and marine/aquatic products not included). That same figure is 31% for Sweden. Similarly, 27% of the food consumed in Austria derives from grains, roots and tubers (in energy terms, again). On the other hand, grains, roots and tubers represent a full 46% of food consumed in Romania. The mesoscope suggests that when products are considered in terms of primary product equivalent, most of the countries assessed (20 out of 29) exceeded a 50% self-sufficiency level concerning plant products. That number of countries reduces by approximately half when analyzing animal products. When assessing animal feed (again, primary product equivalent), nearly all countries stand at less than 30% self-sufficiency. In anticipation mode, evaluating the possibility of a near-complete (90%) internalization of foodstuff imports by 2050—considering also population, diet and yield projections—the microscope and virtualscope lenses revealed that countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium would need to increase their agricultural area by 14x and 8x, respectively. In terms of NPK fertilizer usage, those same two countries would expect to increase application rates by approximately 90%. It should be stressed that these figures include in their consideration import for re-export, but also that the obverse (e.g. the elimination of high throughput agribusiness) would imply dramatic economic transformation in some countries.

The results obtained in our application of the nexus structuring space to agriculture in the EU illustrate—across a wide set of biophysical indicators—that the import of low added value agricultural products is an essential lifeline for the EU's contemporary agribusiness model. Our examples prove highly relevant when considering aspects such as the expected dramatic increase in global food demand by 2050 (putting strain on imports), the major agricultural demands being placed on EU agriculture by the European Green Deal, ongoing revision efforts related to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the uncomfortable fact that the CAP’s nine primary objectives currently imply several mutually antagonistic actions. The objective of "increasing competitiveness", for example, may likely lead to increased biophysical stress, which is antagonistic to the objective of "preserving landscapes and biodiversity". Our approach facilitates the integration of diverse perspectives by researchers and the development of policy-relevant indicators capable of informing the discussion between what is wanted and what can be done. More information can be found in Cadillo-Benalcazar et al. (2020) and Renner et al. (forthcoming).


Cadillo-Benalcazar JJ, Renner A, Giampietro M (2020) A multiscale integrated analysis of the factors characterizing the sustainability of food systems in Europe. J Environ Manage in press: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2020.110944

Renner A, Cadillo-Benalcazar JJ, Benini L, Giampietro M (forthcoming) Environmental pressure of the European agricultural system: An exercise in biophysical anticipation. Ecosyst Serv.

Balancing food production and biodiversity conservation

Balancing food production and biodiversity conservation

Akke Kok and Abigail Muscat

Agriculture causes some of the largest impacts of land use and is a key influence on biodiversity conservation. Agriculture has both negative and positive impacts on biodiversity. The conversion of natural land and changes in agricultural land use directly result in habitat loss and fragmentation. Also, agriculture contributes to environmental impacts such as climate change, that indirectly cause biodiversity decline. In contrast, agriculture is a major contributor to Europe’s biodiversity, through diverse farming traditions that have resulted in a wide range of agricultural landscapes. In aggregate, however, farmland biodiversity shows a rapid decline, due to changes in management such as intensification and industrialisation of agriculture. For example, populations of farmland birds have more than halved in the last three decades.

To effectively conserve biodiversity, we need to define what is biodiversity, and what targets to set. This is not a straightforward task. Defining biodiversity and setting targets relies, to a large extent, on stakeholder input and societal values. One stakeholder may wish to conserve a specific group of vulnerable or iconic species – such as meadow birds, whereas another focuses on generic conservation measures to reduce extinction risk across species within agriculture. Others may argue that it is better to produce food as intensively  as possible in a limited area, so as to spare other land from agriculture to conserve natural habitats, such as forest. Either way, creating or maintaining a suitable landscape for some species will potentially be less suitable for other species. Because it is not possible to boost all species everywhere while still delivering the provisioning services of food, fibre and increasingly energy, then one has to choose which landscapes and inhabiting species to conserve and to what extent.

The EU released the EU Biodiversity Strategy in 2011 to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020 (European Commission, 2011). To ensure conservation of biodiversity in agriculture, the target is to maximise areas under agriculture covered by biodiversity related measures under the Common Agricultural Policy. However, biodiversity assessments at EU level have so far shown that biodiversity loss has continued, and that more stringent protection is required to stop biodiversity decline.

To develop more effective  scenarios for biodiversity conservation on agricultural land, we interviewed experts and stakeholders in biodiversity conservation and assessed proposals for conservation in the Netherlands and France. More heterogeneous landscapes and more extensive (i.e. lower intensity) production were key in their priorities to boost biodiversity. Our scenario calculations suggested that measures to conserve a specific species or habitat, could be realized with a limited overall impact on the existing patterns of land use and food production, because measures only applied to a limited share of the land. Going to more extensive practices to mainstream biodiversity conservation throughout agriculture, however, would have a much larger impact on food production, because it would affect all agricultural production. Especially in case of a large reduction in food production, this could result in intensification of production or land use change elsewhere. Alternatively, a reduction in food production could be achieved by less food waste, less over consumption, and dietary changes.

In conclusion, there is an unavoidable trade-off between biodiversity conservation and food production. Therefore, conservation scenarios may have unwanted effects in regions other than the conservation area due to land use change elsewhere. More effective biodiversity conservation will depend on societal values and stakeholder input around land use. Targets are needed, but policy-makers should be aware of the process, values, frames, and narratives behind these targets.