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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.