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Europe's dependence on foreign soil deepens, report says

Friends of the Earth says Europe is more dependent on land from abroad than any other continent. In a new report measuring "land footprints," the group warns that Europe's need for 1.5 times its land is untenable.

A soy plantation in Paraguay

Soy grown in South America is an important source of animal feed in the EU

Researchers have identified a new method to calculate Europe's formidable consumption levels. In a new report by the campaign group Friends of the Earth, countries' land footprints, not their imports, served as the basis for comparison.

Analysts discovered that when foreign territory was included, average land utilization in Europe equaled 1.3 hectares per person, compared to less than 0.4 hectares of land in countries like China and India.

Campaigners say the dramatic findings once again expose the true extent to which Europe's consumption levels are unsustainable.

"Europe is more dependent on 'imported land' than any other region in the world," said Kenneth Richter from Friends of the Earth.

Impact on the developing countries

An aerial view of cleared land in Paraguay used for soy plantations

The Friends of the Earth report looks at 'land footprints'

Richter warned that demand for land required to export products to Europe was damaging developing countries' attempts to boost domestic demand.

"This has a significant impact on the ability of people in poor countries, where this land is taken away from food production, to feed themselves," he told Deutsche Welle.

As the world's population grows from an estimated 7 billion today to an expected 9.3 billion by 2050, many fast-developing nations will require more of their own land for domestic consumption.

Environmentalists think Europe will have no option but to reduce its reliance on foreign land.

The Friends of the Earth report was commissioned following European Union calls for the continent's global land consumption to be measured.

The data is based on domestic land used in each country, plus foreign terrain utilized to produce food, fuel and clothes, minus any domestic land used in exports.

Spotlight on Germany and the UK

European countries account for six of the world's top 10 land importers. Germany and the United Kingdom were singled out as having the greatest demand, with approximately 70 million hectares of foreign territory used - almost two-and-a-half times the size of Germany. That's in addition to utilizing about 10 million hectares of domestic land.

Researchers point to the large-scale import of animal feed -particularly soy - from South America, which is required for meat production in both countries.

Animals affected by the clearing of rainforests in Paraguay

Dmand for land abroad affects developing countries

"What we would like to see is to feed these animals on home-grown feeds," Richter said. "This would result in an overall reduction of global meat consumption, and people would be eating better-quality meat, fed on domestic feed stocks."

While Friends of the Earth acknowledged that exports are hugely beneficial for developing nations, researchers say it often skews national priorities, leading to land-grabbing and less control over natural resources.

The report relies on figures dating to 2004, the most recent year for which such data was available. Further increases are expected when numbers from the last seven years are factored in, taking into account the massive rise of biofuel and biomass imports over the last decade.

"Europe has unsustainably high targets for the use of biofuels," said Richter, who is Friends of the Earth's biofuels campaigner. "There isn't enough agricultural land in Europe, so most of this is imported from overseas."

Campaigners want the EU to scrap those biofuel targets: "Lots of research has shown that these biofuels have a very limited role in actually reducing our impact on the climate," Richter added.

"Therefore it doesn't make sense to import large amounts of biofuels from overseas."

A range of changes needed

Campaigners also want to see land footprint measurements play a bigger role in helping create policies that reduce Europe's demand for foreign land. They have called on governments to back negotiations at the United Nations for stronger anti-land-grabbing guidelines.

Other recommendations include the need to reduce food waste and to encourage governments to promote investment in small-scale food producers.

A farm in Germany

Domestic land accounts for a small portion of German and UK demand

On the micro level, establishments like Watergate Farm, 50 kilometers north of London, are already doing their part to help reduce the UK's reliance on foreign land. The farm, which rears free-range and high-welfare turkeys, sells most of its produce to local butchers or consumers directly.

"Our customers are pleased that they can come directly to the farm, see where the turkeys have been reared, see where they've been produced and buy them straight from the farmer," said Alice Hunt, who joined the family farm after studying agriculture at university.

"Although it's quite large-scale, we keep a lot of turkeys - they're free-range - in barns freshly strawed each day," Hunt told Deutsche Welle.

"They have access outside, areas that they can wander. And that's our philosophy."

Author: Nik Martin
Editor: Gabriel Borrud

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