Europe could farm a third less, go pesticide-free–and still feed itself

If Europe slashed its food production by more than a third, and stopped using pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, it would still generate enough food to feed its citizens. Crucially, these shifts would come with huge environmental savings as greenhouse gas emissions would decline, and regional biodiversity would simultaneously go up.

These research findings–which aren’t peer-reviewed–are provided by a French sustainability think-tank called the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations. They began with a question: what level of food production is actually required to meet the nutritional demands of Europeans? And what would happen if yield-boosting pesticides and fertilizers were taken out of the equation?

Even if Europe cuts its crop yields by 30% on average, reduces the production of animal products by 40%, and replaces pesticides and fertilizers with sustainable farming methods, the researchers discovered that it would still produce enough food to feed the 530 million people who will live there by 2050.

Much of this boils down to the study’s more realistic assessment of how much food Europeans really need. By comparing official recommendations for a healthy diet with actual food consumed in European countries, the researchers showed that there’s a huge excess of unnecessary production on the continent–which could then be curtailed to limit agriculture’s environmental impact.

When combined with a continent-wide phase-out on polluting fertilizers and pesticides, this more frugal production scenario would, by 2050, slash greenhouse gas emissions from Europe’s food sector by between 36% and 45%, compared to 2010 levels.

Part of this decline would be owing to the reduction in animal-based products, because Europe would therefore import much less soybean-based livestock feed, reducing the extent of global deforestation that’s driven partly by soybean farming. Greener farming methods within Europe itself–such as restoring natural soil health in place of synthetic fertilizers, and incorporating trees, hedges, and ponds onto farmland–would also boost the regional biodiversity of insects and birds, which have declined rapidly in recent decades in Europe and elsewhere.

The study shows that the environmental benefits resulting from shifts in production would be mirrored by improvements in human health, too. According to the researchers, European diets currently contain too little fruit, vegetables, and fibre, as well as double the protein, and three-times as much sugar as global nutritional guidelines recommend. Tuning agricultural production to meet the requirements for healthier diets may also be one way to bring down the rising rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity on the continent, the researchers suggest.

The change they’re proposing “unquestionably marks a shift away from what we eat today,” they admit in their report. But the motivation–better human and environmental health–should be ample justification for these altered tastes.

And even so, there is some small, surprising comfort in this future scenario. The researchers found that reduced local consumption in Europe would actually free up a larger share of production for some of the continent’s most famous exports: cheese and wine. Cheers to that–and the environment.

Poux, et. al. “An agro-ecological Europe: a desirable, credible option to address food and environmental challenges.” IDDRI. 2018.

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