KNOWLEDGE MAP Back to overview

An overview of insights on the (un)sustainability of the international food system.

Food & Sustainability

How does food production impact ecological preservability?

Global primary food production is associated with greenhouse gas emissions, land use, consumption of water and nutrients, loss of biodiversity and depletion of fisheries. These factors can reinforce each other in complex ways. See definitions. 

Greenhouse gases

Food production accounts for 14% of total emissions in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, emissions from primary food production (farming) have decreased by approximately 13% since 1990, as a result of successful manure policy, greenhouse energy savings and a declining livestock. However, the abolishment of milk quotas has caused dairy livestock to grow again by 6% since 2012.

CBS, PBL, Wageningen UR (2011), p. 1-2.

CBS, PBL, Wageningen UR (2015), p. 1-2.

25% of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from food production, of which more than half is caused by the production of meat, eggs, fish and dairy. Of these, cow milk and beef production are the largest contributor, as a result of methane emissions from cows or nitrous oxide (N2O) released from manure. But feed production (e.g. for broilers and pigs) also causes CO2 emissions because of deforestation for farmland and the breakdown of organic matter in peat soils.

Blonk, H., Alvarado, C., & Schryver, A. D. (2007), p. 20-24.

Land use

In the Netherlands, two thirds of the total land area is used for agriculture and pasture. Agricultural productivity per hectare in this country is among the highest of all OECD countries, due to fertile land and decades of agricultural innovation on a small landmass. Overall, about six million hectares are needed for Dutch consumption, 85% of which lie outside the borders. Most of this is in other Western European countries like Germany, but many also come from outside Europe, where crop yields per hectare are generally lower.

One third of the world’s land area is used for agriculture (not all of the world’s surface is suitable). Of this, three-quarters is used for the production of animal feed or as pasture for livestock. Beef has the largest land use, followed by pork, and lastly poultry meat. The reason is feed conversion: cattle convert plant energy and protein is relatively inefficiently into meat. For the average daily consumption of an EU citizen, 3 kilograms of feed are converted into 100 gram of meat and 800 gram of milk.

One of the components of animal feed is soy, which is attractive because of its high protein content. The vast majority of soy used in Europe is intended for animal feed and originates from South America, where grasslands have often been converted to farmland. Illegal expansion of agricultural land (mainly for livestock, fodder production or oil palm plantations) is estimated to have caused between 50% and 80% of global deforestation between 1990 and 2008, which leads to the disappearance of tropical rainforests. On the other hand, maintaining grasslands for raising livestock in turn may lead to soil erosion when grazing is too intensive.

PBL (2012b), p. 12.

PBL (2012a), p. 26.

PBL (2011), p. 12-13, 25, 160.

Brack, D. (2015), p. 3.

Water use

Large amounts of water are needed to produce food: 1 kilogram of potatoes requires 250 litres of water, compared to 15 500 litres for a kilogram of beef. 8% of the world’s water consumption is related to the production of livestock, which may lead to problems in areas with increasing water scarcity.

Hoekstra, A. Y., & Förare, J. (2008), p. 54.

Lundqvist, J., de Fraiture, C., & Molden, D. (2008), p. 11.


Food production is dependent on ecosystem services, such as carbon fixation, water purification and pollination. Declining biodiversity reduces the effectiveness of these services, and is therefore dangerous. Land use is one of the main reasons for global biodiversity loss, from inefficient use of land and the conversion of natural areas to agricultural land. Biodiversity is often expressed in Mean Species Abundance (MSA): the size of indigenous plant and animal populations with respect to the natural situation. Worldwide, the MSA has been measured at 70%, while in Europe this is less than 50%. In the densely populated Netherlands, MSA is only 15%. Although Europe lost much biodiversity due to increased human land use during the past centuries, biodiversity declines less quickly than elsewhere in the world, because of nature redevelopment projects.

See the Knowledge Map Natural Capital. 

Blonk, H., Kool, A., Luske, B., de Waart, S., & ten Pierick, E. (2008), p. 3.

CBS, PBL, Wageningen UR (2013), p. 1-2.

Agricultural resources

The fertility of agricultural land is to a large extent dependent on the concentration of nitrogen and phosphate since plants need these to grow. In the second half of the 20th century Dutch farmers were using more and more manure and fertilizers, thereby increasing the yield of crops. The resulting surplus of nitrogen and phosphate caused eutrophication of local ecosystems and waters. Eutrophication is the overflowing of an ecosystem with nutrients, causing algal blooms or other organic sprawl, negatively impacting local biodiversity. Acidification is the increased acidity of the soil or water surface, caused by nitrate leakage. Bacteria further convert nitrogen into toxic ammonia and nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. Partly thanks to regulation on manure disposal and emissions of nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia, as well as the amount of pesticides that ends up in surface water, has decreased significantly since 1990. However, the Netherlands is still the country with the highest nitrogen surpluses per hectare of agricultural land in Europe.

PBL (2014a), p. 20-25.

In the rest of the world, a shortage of phosphate is developing. Phosphate in fertilizers is obtained from phosphate rock, a finite resource stock of which 70% is located in Moroccan mines. Predictions indicate that phosphate rock may already run out in the next 50-100 years. Where intensive livestock farming produces enough manure to fertilize the land in Europe, this is not the case in (developing) countries, where much of the animal feed is grown. Therefore, the phosphate cycle is not closed globally. Worldwide, we also see a trend in the capture of nitrogen from the air and its fixation in the soil.

Cordell, D., Drangert, J. O., & White, S. (2009), p. 292-293.


As the European fishery became highly regulated in the 1990s, the catch declined, and Europe became dependent on fish imports. Fish caught in the North Sea today are much younger and smaller than those caught in 1980. Furthermore, only 20% of European fish is cultivated, while in the rest of the world this is 40%. Globally, the fish population declined by a quarter after 1950, and 80% of all commercial fish stocks are overfished or exhausted. ICES data shows that fishing regulation in Europe has caused fish stocks to recover steadily. Internationally, aquaculture is growing strongly, which is good news for wild fish stocks but can be a disadvantage when too much space is used or wild fish is involved as feed. Additionally, eutrophication and the increased use of antibiotics are factors that can have negative consequences on the sustainability of aquaculture.

PBL (2011), p. 20-21.

ICES (2015).