Reducing Agriculture’s Ecological Footprint

A new study published in Food Policy and reported in this week’s EU science policy digest; ‘Science for Environment Policy’, suggests that subsidies from Governments could play a key role in helping to reduce the ‘ecological footprint’ of food production.

Taking a case-study approach, focusing on Australia, the authors examined the energy inputs needed to produce food. The aim of the study was to identify the main pathways by which the human demands on ecosystems: the ecological footprint, relating to food production could be reduced. Demands on food production will only increase into the future as the human population grows; creating stresses which will be exacerbated by climate change.

The researchers analysed water and energy inputs, along with agrochemical energy inputs in the form of fertilisers and herbicides, needed to grow a number of crops. All inputs were converted into KWh per hectare to allow comparison.

The results show that wheat production is more efficient than rice production in terms of water and energy inputs and the ratio of agrochemical energy to total energy. However, rice has the highest financial return: a benefit to production which it will be difficult to overcome in terms of changes to crop growth. The authors find that the most effective way to lower the ecological footprint of food production would be to increase energy efficiency and boost water productivity. Changing cropping patterns and crop varieties could play a role, and would also impact on agrochemical inputs needed.
Furthermore, the researchers propose that Government subsidies for technology to improve efficiencies could play a key role in ameliorating the ecological footprint of the food chain.

Khan, S., Khan, M.A., Hanjra, M.A. et al. (2009). Pathways to reduce the environmental footprints of water and energy inputs in food production. Food Policy. 34: 141-149.