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From environmental concerns towards sustainable food provisioning. Material flow and food consumption scenario studies on sustainability of agri-food systems


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Risku-Norja, Helmi (2011) From environmental concerns towards sustainable food provisioning. Material flow and food consumption scenario studies on sustainability of agri-food systems. PhD thesis, MTT Agrifood Research Finland . MTT Science, no. 15. MTT Agrifood Research Finland.

PDF - Published Version - English

Online at: http://www.mtt.fi/mtttiede/pdf/mtttiede15.pdf


Agriculture is an economic activity that heavily relies on the availability of natural resources. Through its role in food production agriculture is a major factor affecting public welfare and health, and its indirect contribution to gross domestic product and employment is significant. Agriculture also contributes to numerous ecosystem services through management of rural areas. However, the environmental impact of agriculture is considerable and reaches far beyond the agro­ecosystems. The questions related to farming for food production are, thus, manifold and of great public concern. Improving environmental performance of agriculture and sustainability of food production, "sustainabilizing" food production, calls for application of wide range of expertise knowledge. This study falls within the field of agro-ecology, with interphases to food systems and sustainability research and exploits the methods typical of industrial ecology. The research in these fields extends from multidisciplinary to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary, a holistic approach being the key tenet. The methods of industrial ecology have been applied extensively to explore the interaction between human economic activity and resource use. Specifically, the material flow approach (MFA) has established its position through application of systematic environmental and economic accounting statistics. However, very few studies have applied MFA specifically to agriculture. The MFA approach was used in this thesis in such a context in Finland. The focus of this study is the ecological sustainability of primary production. The aim was to explore the possibilities of assessing ecological sustainability of agriculture by using two different approaches. In the first approach the MFA-methods from industrial ecology were applied to agriculture, whereas the other is based on the food consumption scenarios. The two approaches were used in order to capture some of the impacts of dietary changes and of changes in production mode on the environment. The methods were applied at levels ranging from national to sector and local levels. Through the supply-demand approach, the viewpoint changed between that of food production to that of food consumption. The main data sources were official statistics complemented with published research results and expertise appraisals. MFA approach was used to define the system boundaries, to quantify the material flows and to construct eco-efficiency indicators for agriculture. The results were further elaborated for an input-output model that was used to analyse the food flux in Finland and to determine its relationship to the economy-wide physical and monetary flows. The methods based on food consumption scenarios were applied at regional and local level for assessing feasibility and environmental impacts of re-localising food production. The approach was also used for quantification and source allocation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of primary production. GHG assessment provided, thus, a means of cross-checking the results obtained by using the two different approaches. MFA data as such or expressed as eco-efficiency indicators, are useful in describing the overall development. However, the data are not sufficiently detailed for identifying the hot spots of environmental sustainability. Eco-efficiency indicators should not be bluntly used in environmental assessment: the carrying capacity of the nature, the potential exhaustion of non-renewable natural resources and the possible rebound effect need also to be accounted for when striving towards improved eco-efficiency. The input-output model is suitable for nationwide economy analyses and it shows the distribution of monetary and material flows among the various sectors. Environmental impact can be captured only at a very general level in terms of total material requirement, gaseous emissions, energy consumption and agricultural land use. Improving environmental performance of food production requires more detailed and more local information. The approach based on food consumption scenarios can be applied at regional or local scales. Based on various diet options the method accounts for the feasibility of re-localising food production and environmental impacts of such re-localisation in terms of nutrient balances, gaseous emissions, agricultural energy consumption, agricultural land use and diversity of crop cultivation. The approach is applicable anywhere, but the calculation parameters need to be adjusted so as to comply with the specific circumstances. The food consumption scenario approach, thus, pays attention to the variability of production circumstances, and may provide some environmental information that is locally relevant. The approaches based on the input-output model and on food consumption scenarios represent small steps towards more holistic systemic thinking. However, neither one alone nor the two together provide sufficient information for "sustainabilizing" food production. Environmental performance of food production should be assessed together with the other criteria of sustainable food provisioning. This requires evaluation and integration of research results from many different disciplines in the context of a specified geographic area. Foodshed area that comprises both the rural hinterlands of food production and the population centres of food consumption is suggested to represent a suitable areal extent for such research. Finding a balance between the various aspects of sustainability is a matter of optimal trade-off. The balance cannot be universally determined, but the assessment methods and the actual measures depend on what the bottlenecks of sustainability are in the area concerned. These have to be agreed upon among the actors of the area.

EPrint Type:Thesis
Keywords:eco-efficiency, input-output modelling, food consumption scenarios, environmental sustainability, agriculture, food production, food consumption
Subjects: Food systems
Research affiliation: Finland > Luke Natural Resources Institute
Related Links:http://www.mtt.fi/english
Deposited By: Koistinen, Riitta
ID Code:18281
Deposited On:07 Feb 2011 10:01
Last Modified:07 Feb 2011 10:01
Document Language:English
Refereed:Peer-reviewed and accepted

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