17 item(s) found.

Saving Water in Irrigation

Saving Water in Irrigation

A. Vargas, R.J. Hogeboom & J.F. 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.

Riahi K., D.P. vanVuuren, E. Kriegler, J. Edmonds, B.C. O’Neill, S. Fujimori, N. Bauer, K. Calvin, R. Dellink, O. Fricko, W. Lutz, A. Popp, J.C. Cuaresma, Samir KC, M. Leimbach, L. Jiang, T. Kram, S. Rao, M. Tavoni (2017) The Shared Socioeconomic Pathways and their energy, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions implications: An overview. Global Environmental Change 42, 153-168. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.05.009 

Valin, H., Peters, D., van den Berg, M., Frank, S., Havlik, P.,Forsell, N. and Hamelinck, C. (2015) The land use change impact of biofuels consumed in the EU. Quantification of area and greenhouse gas impacts. https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/Final%20Report_GLOBIOM_publication.pdf

van Vuuren, D. P., Edmonds, J., Kainuma, M., Riahi, K., Thomson, A., Hibbard, K., Hurtt, G. C., Kram, T., Krey, V., Lamarque, J. F., Masui, T., Meinshausen, M., Nakicenovic, N., Smith, S. J., & Rose, S. K. (2011). The representative concentration pathways: An overview. Climatic Change. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-011-0148-z



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.

What if healthy diets had a hidden cost?

What if healthy diets had a hidden cost?

Violeta Cabello & Tarik Serrano

Europe consumes around 200 million tonnes of fruits and vegetables (F&V) annually, which is about 12% of the total biomass consumed in our continent. This volume has steadily increased over the last decades, a consumption pattern that is a sign of the healthier and richer dietary habits and lifestyles of Europeans. However, these habits need to be met with increased production, which is not feasible everywhere. Contrary to other crops such as cereals or tubers, most F&V require high irrigation levels and warm weather conditions for growing. This is the reason why most of F&V production in Europe is located in Southern European countries which also tend to have conditions of lower water availability. Therefore, the increase of F&V production is usually associated with impacts in water resources availability and aquatic environments, challenging the water management in these regions.

The fact that northern European F&V consumption is to a large extent sustained by southern countries' production is nothing new. We have recently witnessed the empty sections of vegetables in UK supermarkets due to weather vagaries limiting the supply capacity of Spain. However, how much water are they saving thanks to the externalized production? Let’s look at the two major importers, UK and Germany. Whereas Germany imports only 36% of the F&V it consumes, it saves an amount of water equal to 23% of the total water used for irrigation in agriculture in the country. The UK is even more impressive: 60% of F&V consumed within the country are imported, accounting for 34% of the total water used in agriculture in the country (meaning that 12 times more water is imported virtually than used for F&V production within the country!). If these countries were to produce what they consume, they would have to either significantly increase their water availability, or take it from other uses. Both alternatives have trade-offs.

How does the picture look like in their mirror countries, the net exporters? Well, 36% of F&V production in Italy is exported and in Spain it reaches up to 52%. This trade is translated into 4,125 million cubic meters of water exported virtually from those countries, a share of 14% of the total water used for irrigation. Whereas the share might not look dramatic at the national scale, there is a sharp contrast when looking at regional differences with most production concentrated in water scarce areas. For instance, the arid province of Almeria in Spain exports virtually around 85% of the water it uses, causing a heavy impact on the already strained local aquifers.

The conundrum is that neither Northern countries can produce what they consume because of climatic constraints, nor can Southern countries maintain their production patterns if they want to manage their water resources sustainably. It is not surprising then that European policymakers face a huge challenge in harmonizing water and agricultural policies to solve this nexus problem.


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.