Most of us are familiar with the term “carbon footprint,” which denotes the amount of carbon emitted by an activity or event. Personal carbon footprint calculators abound, and private and public enterprises continually seek new ways to lower their carbon footprints, thus demonstrating their commitments to a greener future. The concept of a carbon footprint has led to a number of other footprints, including water, food, and land footprints. Indeed, measuring and lowering footprints has become en vogue not only in sustainability circles, but also in government and industry circles as our increased interest in all things green has infiltrated marketing campaigns across the globe.
In March, Friends of the Earth Europe (FOEE) released a report investigating Europe’s land footprint, which is one of the highest in the world. They define a land footprint as “the land needed to produce all the products and services we consume.” The idea of a land footprint is vitally important because land is a clearly defined planetary boundary. The world has a limited amount of land, and an even more limited amount of usable land. The earth’s development of new land is an exceedingly slow process, whereas destruction and degradation of land can happen in an instant. If we cease to live within our land boundary, we face the dangers of production shortages, famine, large-scale migrations, and economic failure—not to mention decline of biodiversity and ecosystems.
One of the key messages of the report is that consumption is a major driver of land use. Every item we buy, from meat to laptops, has an embodied land footprint – the amount of land used to produce that particular item. This embodied land footprint consists of land used to grow coffee plants, or to mine lithium for batteries, or to grow cotton for textiles. For example, a cup of coffee requires an average of 4.3 m2 of land to produce, and a car requires 150 m2 of land from mining and production processes. Of course, the land on which coffee is grown continues to produce for years, and can be cultivated in harmony with the environment, whereas mining depletes a finite amount of resources. Different production processes certainly influence land footprints, and many industries are focusing on lessening their ecological impacts and reducing the amount of physical space needed for their production. Globally, meat products have the highest footprint (997 million hectares annually), followed by raw milk (620 million hectares annually). Think about it this way: it takes 75 ft2 of grazing land and land for growing animal feed to produce a single, quarter-pound hamburger. Importantly, all this land, which feeds both our physical needs and our consumption addiction, functions as a global commodity, imported and exported as a virtual good embedded in products.
In our globalized world, products are increasingly imported, bringing with them embodied land. Europe’s consumption habits far outstrip their land capacity, leading to significant land imports which are used elsewhere to grow, extract, or process goods for European consumption. Friends of the Earth Europe found that 40 percent of agricultural land required to satisfy Europe’s demand for products is located in other regions of the world. (And the report focuses only on crop production and livestock farming, ignoring forestry and industrial land use, which, if incorporated, would surely make the results even more disturbing.) Within Europe, the largest net importers of agricultural land are Germany and the United Kingdom. Grazing land, oilseed, and wheat are the largest contributors to embodied land.
This increased appetite for goods contributes to land grabbing in other regions of the world, particularly in places with ambiguous or uncertain property rights, or where natural resources can be taken by the state and sold to the highest bidder. Policies that on the surface seem to be protecting the environment and natural resources are having unforeseen and dangerous consequences. For example, the Renewable Energy Directive, an attempt to lower emissions from transport fuels, increases the demand for biofuels and exacerbates the land footprint issue, though its purported goal is an admirable one. Increased biofuel production is a dominant driver of land grabbing. Additionally, the European Union’s trade liberalization agenda, seeking access to cheap raw materials to keep its own export markets cheap and competitive, undermines developing countries’ abilities to protect their natural resources.
Beyond contributing to land degradation and overuse, Europe’s high consumption and dependency on foreign land leads to the loss of indigenous knowledge and livelihoods. For example, much of South America has devoted itself to producing animal feed to feed Europe’s cattle, leading to the clearing of tropical forests and the forced expulsion of natives. As the recognition of land limitations spread, a focus has been on increasing land productivity. Technological advances and the mechanization of farming, while increasing productivity, contribute to native job losses and indigenous communities losing their cultural histories as they are forced to adapt to rapidly changing technologies and development. Though industrial agriculture benefits from such advances, to the detriment of the environment, organic farming offers an alternative path to increased productivity, while accounting for local knowledge and environmental preservation.
Organic agriculture seeks to use years of local knowledge and ecological understanding to maximize profit while still preserving the balance of nature. Though results differs depending on crop type and farming techniques, organic farming can produce just as efficiently as can industrialized agriculture. FOEE argues for an integrated strategy to satisfy the world’s nutritional requirement: make agriculture in industrialized countries less intensive, using fewer inputs and producing and consuming less meat. In some developing countries agriculture can be enhanced by utilizing systems that respect the ecology, like agro-ecological methods, by combining traditional knowledge with technology. In countries with unfavorable land tenure conditions (where ownership is unclear or lacks legal recognition), inclusive and transparent agrarian reforms are necessary.
Recognizing that global land flows must be accounted for, a coalition has made a united call for European governments to lower the continent’s land footprint. The coalition, consisting of a variety of NGOs, individuals, and non-profits, have called upon individual countries and the EU to measure and report their land footprints, set land footprint reduction targets, incorporate land footprint analysis into new policies, protect customary and traditional land rights, and require large companies to report and reduce their land footprints. Specific policy options to reduce land use include: increasing organic agriculture; increasing local and regional material flows as opposed to global ones; reducing food waste; increasing recycling and reuse rates; abandoning biofuel targets; and individually, reducing meat and dairy consumption, and purchasing recycled products. Certainly nobody is suggesting that we cease cultivating land. When farmed, mined, and developed within its ecological capacities, land functions as a sort of renewable resource, nurturing life for years to come. The danger lies in the fact that high consumption rates are coercing people to simply increase productivity, discounting environmental degradation. Additionally, lands that traditionally have been sustainably farmed are increasingly being bought up by large corporations and governments and used for industrial agricultural and unsustainable extraction processes,threatening both the environment and indigenous livelihoods. However, if Europe and the rest of the world unites in a global effort to reduce land footprints, food distribution will become more equitable, soil quality will increase, local economies will improve, and environmental degradation across the world will be mitigated.