Outsourcing pollution: Food imports are displacing UK and EU carbon emissions

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

"Most European countries become net displacers of environmental impact, ” wrote the researchers.
"Most European countries become net displacers of environmental impact, ” wrote the researchers.

Related tags Greenhouse gas

The UK is ‘outsourcing’ carbon emissions to its European neighbours and further afield as its food self-sufficiency decreases substantially, according to new research.

Tracking the environmental consequences of food imports is far from easy, but researchers in Scotland and Austria have managed to do just that.

Focusing on the UK, they have calculated the global impacts of the country’s agricultural trade. “The UK is currently importing over 50% of its food and feed, whereas 70% and 64% of the associated cropland and [greenhouse gas emission impacts], respectively, are located abroad,”​ the researchers concluded.

These results imply that the UK is increasingly reliant on external resources and that the environmental impact of its food supply is increasingly displaced overseas, they added.

The same is true of the EU as a whole. “European countries not only have an efficient agricultural system, but also a high level of consumption. Because imports have a high resource intensity compared with exports, most European countries become net displacers of environmental impact.”

Good news and bad

In 1987, about half the UK’s carbon was emitted overseas, but by 2008 this had risen to 62%. South America and the EU take on the biggest share of the UK’s food trade emissions – 18% and 15% respectively. A fifth of the UK’s calories come from the EU.

The findings​, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface​, are good news for UK farmers: yields and reduced reliance on fertilisers have seen domestic emissions fall. They’re also handy for politicians: emissions accounting and, in turn, targets are often product-based rather than consumption-based.

The picture for developing countries is more complicated: they rely on trade with the UK and EU but bear the brunt of the environmental damage that production can create.

Stimulant crops

Take crops like tea, coffee and cocoa, which come from outside the EU. “[Our] analysis suggests that the supply of stimulant crops is increasingly responsible for a large land appropriation abroad, and associated greenhouse gases from land use change,”​ the authors noted.

Much of the focus, when linking food to climate change, has focused on livestock. Soy is critical protein feedstock for EU farmers, but the bloc is currently only 30% self-sufficient for protein production. This heavy reliance means the EU’s food sector remains vulnerable to both price and availability as demand for livestock, and thus soy, in Asia balloons.

Some countries, like Finland​, are looking at other protein sources. Another option is to reduce consumption levels of meat – which has health and environmental benefits. The researchers calculated that if Europe reduced livestock production by half, the use of imported soy would drop by 75% and the EU would become a net exporter of basic food commodities.

The UK could also theoretically be self-sufficient, they said. However, consumers are not likely to go cold on things like coffee or chocolate anytime soon, and there remains high demand for meat across Europe.

The major food companies will also have to play their part, ensuring that production is sustainable. Deforestation is accountable for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, for instance.

The industry has been slow to act on sourcing responsible soy, according to WWF. However commitments by the likes of Unilever​ (to source soy, beef and palm oil from regions that have ambitious climate and forestry initiatives in place) during the Paris climate talks​ ​last month were welcomed.

Indeed, the findings have important ramifications for UK and EU policy on climate change mitigation. It is not enough to consider only the domestic environmental consequences of food production, said lead author Henri de Ruiter from the James Hutton Institute and the University of Aberdeen, who used a novel approach to quantify the environmental consequences of UK food imports.

Trade statistics, for example, don’t always report the place of production.“According to official trade statistics, Britain imports bananas from Europe, which must be re-exports because Europe does not produce bananas. We were able to develop an approach where we could identify the source countries and calculate the local cropland footprint, as well as the greenhouse gases emitted.”

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