The analysis indicates that many aspects of European agricultural systems are not yet sustainable when considered over the long-term and against planetary boundaries, i.e. through a Nexus perspective. This is especially true in terms of pressures on the environment and consequences such as soil conservation and water quality, but also seems likely in socio-economic terms, as in the long-term unviability of business models.
Imported farming inputs, such as livestock feed, have a footprint associated with land use change, including deforestation, high rates of water use and harm to agro-ecosystem biodiversity in trade partner countries. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has evolved to include concerns for the multiple dimensions of sustainability and the coupled climate and biodiversity crises, hence may be regarded as a ‘nexus’ policy with its own social, economic and environmental goals, which, together, influence progress in other policy domains. However, CAP subsidies continue to be associated with farming systems with high environmental footprints, especially more intensive forms of livestock farming and arable farming. Improving policy coherence is recognised as essential to achieving Agenda 2030, but it remains a significant challenge.
The EU cannot achieve its sustainability goals solely by focusing on farms and agricultural methods, hence the need to understand and potentially intervene in all aspects of the agri-food system, from processing to retailing, exports and consumption. The interconnected policy trade-offs and governance challenges are a sustainability policy ‘nexus’, intersecting different biophysical domains. New approaches to generating, appraising, communicating and using knowledge about complex social-ecological systems are needed, especially to highlight partial framings, externalities, and potential unintended consequences. Knowledge gaps and research needs range from work on policy change and coherence, governing complexity to achieve just transitions, and analysing as well as presenting complex systems.
There are also clear and feasible ways to improve EU data collection processes to better support biophysically-grounded sustainability assessments of both farm systems and the wider agri-food supply chain. The proposed Farm Sustainability Data Network (EU Farm to Fork Strategy) should include data collection in terms of physical quantities as well as financial values–especially for the crop protection products and energy use, disaggregated by the existing geographical and sectoral frameworks. However, enough is known already to instigate change, without waiting for new data or methods. The current strategy of incremental change is insufficient for safeguarding sustainability and achieving policy goals formally adopted both by European-level institutions and their Member States. Failure to achieve sustainability objectives will eventually jeopardise ecosystem services on which human societies depend, through climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation.
This report reinforces the calls for radical changes in CAP and other policies, and suggests that specific plans to achieve Agenda 2030 objectives are necessary, challenging assumptions that existing policy instruments will be sufficient by themselves. To achieve this the whole agro-food system perspective of the Farm to Fork agenda needs to be complemented by specific instruments.
This report’s methodological approach is an innovative combination of quantitative analysis combined with policy research engagement, in a transdisciplinary process called ‘Quantitative Story-Telling’(QST), which combines European-level data in terms of their metabolic funds and flows, an approach called ‘Societal Metabolism Accounting’(SMA).
While the results of this study are in line with messages from previous studies, the distinct contribution is an overview of European systems that also allows exploration of specific places or sectors, a coherent approach that can encompass both environmental and socio-economic issues, and the potential to appraise policy or other options for change, as well as diagnosing existing situations. Given the urgent challenge of achieving sustainability within and beyond Europe, these insights will hopefully assist in motivating and achieving change.
EU Horizon 2020 Porject: MAGIC Nexus
Contributors: Matthews K.B. (Hutton), Blackstock K.L. (Hutton), Waylen K.A. (Hutton), Juarez-Bourke A. (Hutton) Miller D.G. (Hutton), WardellJohnson D.H. (Hutton), Rivington, M. (Hutton), Hague, A. (Hutton), Fisher, D. (Hutton) Renner, A. (UAB) Cadillo-Benalcazar, J. (UAB), Schyns, J. (UT), Giampietro, M (UAB).
You can download the full report here.