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Time to slash Europe’s land footprint

woman walking in rice field
A rice field in Indonesia, the world’s most ‘land grabbed’ country Marc Veraart, under a CC Licence

Before Adam Smith penned The Wealth of Nations in 1776, a group of economists known as the Physiocrats laid the foundations for classical economic theory by describing land as the only source of wealth. Smith’s famous work, with its focus on the division of labour and the rise of the industrial economy, swept Physiocracy aside. Yet Physiocracy’s underlying principles – that life is ultimately dependent on the land’s ability to provide materials, absorb waste and renew itself – seem more pertinent than ever today.

Many of us are broadly aware of the damage our economic system is having on the planet and society. We know we are consuming too much and face an obesity epidemic, that we waste a huge proportion of our food, that our ecological footprint is well over the Earth’s biocapacity (it’s ability to provide all we need and absorb our waste), that global biodiversity has declined by 30 per cent since 1970, and, for what it’s worth, that we rank 41st in the Happy Planet Index. But such shocking figures slip in and out of our consciousness like an oil spill.

A combination of population growth, increased demand for food, biofuels, timber, minerals, financial speculation, and fracking has triggered a global rush for access to agricultural land. An estimated 82.3 million hectares has been bought up by foreign investors in developing countries over the last decade, equivalent to about 1.7 per cent of the world’s agricultural area. Meanwhile, the true scale of this land grabbing is unknown due to lack of transparency.

In Indonesia, the world’s most ‘land grabbed’ country, over 7.5 million hectares has been bought up, an astonishing 4 per cent of the country’s total land mass. Most of these land grabs are for export-oriented food and biofuel production, a large proportion of which are directly tied to the country of origin of the investors.

In other words, land grabbing by British businesses (equivalent to almost 3 million hectares) is intimately connected to resource overconsumption in Britain. Our insatiable need for food, energy and textiles, only a fraction of which can be satisfied within Britain, is encouraging businesses to buy land in developing countries.

Hidden Impacts, a new report, published by Friends of the Earth Europe, shows how Britain’s ‘land footprint’ – the amount of land needed to produce all the products and service we consume in a year – is almost twice as large its total land mass. Britain is effectively importing the equivalent of almost 27 million hectares of land (roughly the size of New Zealand’s total land area) to meet its resource consumption needs.

Europe imports the equivalent of around six times more agricultural land than it exports, relying on some 33 million hectares of land in China, 19 million hectares in Brazil and 12 million hectares in Argentina to supply its agricultural needs. It is estimated that if non-agricultural land such as forestry products were included, the European Union’s (EU) total land footprint would more than double to around 600 million hectares (roughly one and a half times larger than the EU’s total land area).

Such dependency on land resources means that the EU is in direct competition with the needs of local people on land elsewhere. As land resources become increasingly limited, competition for resources will no doubt add fuel to the flickering flames of conflict in politically or economically unstable countries which in turn can result in essential supply chains being disrupted.

A coalition of groups including Friends of the Earth, ActionAid, Birdlife, Biofuelwatch, Compassion in World Farming and European Environment Bureau, have united to call for European governments, and the EU as a whole, to reduce Europe’s land footprint.

Based on the findings of the Hidden Impacts report, Friends of the Earth and others are pushing for land footprints, together with carbon footprinting and others calculations, to be the basis for this measurement. They argue that in order for us to reduce the amount of land we depend on for our needs, we need to start measuring how much we use.

Clearer measures of resource use will lead to resource efficiency, reduced wastage, increased resource security and increased jobs in resource efficient industries. The power of land footprints is that they enable us to directly address the imbalance between our (pathological) consumption needs and the (ever decreasing) ability of the Earth to satisfy them.

Read more on this issue in New Internationalist’s May 2013 magazine which will be focused on land grabs.

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