Is EU agriculture carbon-efficient?

A relatively new argument being used to justify support for agricultural production in the EU is that reductions in EU food production would be made up by increases elsewhere where less efficient production systems exist and thus would result in a heavier carbon footprint. This raises the question whether this statement is factually correct and what do we know about the relative carbon efficiency of production systems in different parts of the world?

Part of the difficulty in answering this question is that there is not yet an agreed methodology for measuring the carbon emissions of a particular foodstuff. Supermarkets in some countries have begun to experiment with carbon labels which purport to give consumers some idea of the carbon footprint of the product they are buying. However, in many cases these measurements are limited to the distance travelled by the product from farm to shop – so-called food miles.

It is by now well established that food miles are a misleading indicator of a product’s carbon footprint (The UK DEFRA commissioned a useful report on this issue in 2005). Not only is distance itself just one of the many inputs which determine the overall carbon footprint – for example, it makes a huge difference whether the transport is by sea or by air – but the energy used in transporting the final product has been shown to be a relatively small part of the overall energy input (and therefore carbon emissions) required for its production.

From the relatively small number of studies completed to date, it appears that in some cases – cut flowers from Kenya and lamb from New Zealand exported to the UK – EU production requires more energy than its overseas competitors.

This may not always be the case, however. If expanding beef production in developing countries requires deforestation to create more pasture land, then on a life cycle analysis basis grassland beef production in the EU may be much more carbon efficient.

I wonder if a synthesis article yet exists which summarises the state of knowledge on this issue?

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One Response to “Is EU agriculture carbon-efficient?”

  1. Greg →
    September 14, 2009 at 19:11 #

    ISO is now working on a standard that will set guidelines for how carbon footprints should be measured, including in agriculture.