How can the environmental impact of our food be reduced? Agroscope calculated that the environmental impact can be improved if food is imported from countries of origin with especially environmentally friendly agricultural production systems. The avoidance of food loss and waste is even more effective in achieving this aim.
Food imports have a significant influence on the environment. If the Swiss agricultural sector reduces its production whilst consumption remains the same, resulting in the need for more imports, environmental impacts increase overall. This is because the improved environmental impacts within Switzerland often lead to more negative ones in the countries of origin of the imports. This is especially true if the production conditions are less favourable in other countries than in Switzerland, for example owing to water scarcity or deforestation.
Two measures for improvement analysed
There are, however, ways to reduce undesirable environmental impacts of the Swiss basket of agricultural products. Agroscope researchers studied two measures in greater depth: firstly, the choice of specific countries of origin for the imports where agricultural production is especially environmentally friendly, and secondly, the avoidance of food loss and waste along the value chain up to the consumer, which leads to fewer imports.
In addition to a review of the literature, the researchers used two scenarios to calculate the extent to which these two measures influenced environmental impacts. The first scenario extrapolates the current Proof of Ecological Performance (PEP) and the Direct Payment system up to 2025. The second models a more extensive Swiss agricultural system with lower production, in which pesticide use is largely dispensed with and livestock numbers are lower than at present. In both scenarios, the least-favourable 25% of import products are replaced by alternatives from other countries of origin, and food loss and waste is minimised.
Geographic factors and legislation matter for imports
The study confirms that both measures have a positive effect on food-related environmental impacts, but that they differ in terms of their effectiveness. Optimisations in the countries of origin of the imports have a positive effect on location-dependent environmental impacts in particular. Geographic factors such as water availability and the extent to which biodiversity is threatened are especially important. Depending on the scenario, impacts can be reduced by 16 to 27% here. For other environmental impacts and especially for foods of animal origin, this measure has a lower impact. The environmental-friendliness of a country of origin of imports is also determined by its legislation, which regulates inter alia which plant-protection products may be used.
No downsides to less food waste
By contrast, the avoidance of food loss and waste always has a positive effect, reducing the environmental impacts of the Swiss basket of agricultural products by 11 to 38%, and even up to 87% in the case of deforestation, without undesirable side-effects. Less food waste in animal-based foods reduces environmental impacts more markedly than less food waste in plant-based foods. Consumer behaviour also influences the environmental impacts of our food.
Policies and consumers can make a positive difference
In addition, the Agroscope study shows that even when both measures are implemented, an extensive agricultural system with lower domestic production exacerbates most of the environmental impacts of Swiss food. It also shows that possible improvements depend strongly on the policy framework as well as on consumer behaviour. The avoidance of food waste, for example, is possible along the entire value chain: each and every one of us can contribute here.
- ’Einfluss von Import-Herkunftsländern und Nahrungsmittelverlusten auf die Umweltwirkungen des Schweizer Agrarsektors’ (summary in English)