Challenges of measuring the environmental footprint of Swedish food consumption

by Christel Cederberg | December 9, 2015
Much of the food that is consumed in Sweden is imported. What do we know about its environmental impacts?  Photo: PRINCE
Much of the food that is consumed in Sweden is imported. What do we know about its environmental impacts?

The global food-production system puts major pressures on local and global environments. For example, the agricultural sector as a whole is the largest land user on the planet, and in many places agricultural activity is associated with soil quality degradation, biodiversity loss and emissions of carbon dioxide from deforestation. Inefficient and excessive use of nitrogen and phosphorus as fertilizers leads to harmful emissions and can harm freshwater ecosystems, particularly through eutrophication.

Sweden imports a lot of food. Much of it takes the form of fruit and vegetables, along with coffee and tea, that would be difficult or even impossible to grow at our latitudes, especially during the winter months. In addition, while two decades ago, the meat consumed in the average Swedish household was almost exclusively produced domestically, in 2012 close to half of it was imported. As domestic meat production has been relatively stable over the years, these dramatically increasing imports reflect strong consumption growth (+58% since 1990).

Livestock are an important source of the potent greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide, adding to the high carbon footprints of meat and other animal products. Furthermore, practices and safeguards regarding the use of chemicals, particularly in the forms of pesticides and veterinary medicines, are unclear in many of the countries from which Sweden imports its meat and other food products.

There is growing consumer awareness in Sweden about the impacts, of food production and consumption, which has resulted in some changes in eating habits. For example, a recent study for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket), which is funding PRINCE, carried out by a research consortium including eight Chalmers researchers, showed that Swedish meat consumption, and meat imports, have recently started to decline; this reflects the fact that the ethics of meat consumption and production, including its climate impacts, has become a hot topic in recent years.
We still know far too little to measure the size of the environmental pressures exerted by Sweden’s food consumption, and the risks they imply. But we do know that food consumption cannot be overlooked if Sweden is to measure progress towards the Generational Goal in any meaningful way.

Investigating impacts of food consumption in PRINCE

The Chalmers team is leading work within PRINCE to develop indicators for environmental pressures from land-use change, non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophying substances from the food chain, and pesticides. Within the group, we have both broad and deep knowledge on these issues. Specifically, different team members have worked with methods for quantifying deforestation emissions, carbon footprinting of food products, especially animal products, and assessments of pesticide use and emissions.

We will be investigating current—and if necessary developing new—indicators that can be combined with trade values and/or trade volumes in order to illuminate the external environmental impacts of Swedish food consumption. A special challenge here will be to include agricultural pesticides in a larger chemical footprint. Data on pesticide use in different crops in different countries is patchy and inadequate, and methods for comparing different substances´ toxicity are not fully developed. The work will surely give us useful insights in how to continue future work in better assessing pesticide use in food production.

We will further investigate these topics in the case studies work under PRINCE, looking at some specific product groups. Examples of analyses we might do are comparisons of impacts of vegetable and animal food products, comparisons of agricultural commodities from different countries, and in-depth analyses of key commodity supply chains (e.g. beef, soy and palm oil, which are linked to much of the recent deforestation in countries like Brazil and Indonesia).

We believe that there is a strong appetite for the kind of information PRINCE hopes to uncover about the environmental pressures from Swedish food consumption – from consumers, policy-makers, civil society and the food industry. That makes the challenge of this work especially exciting. And for the research team, the very multi-disciplinary nature of the PRINCE project, drawing in researchers with such different backgrounds, is highly stimulating, not least for the opportunities it offers to extend our own knowledge. We very much look forward to getting to work.