2 Oct 2018

An exploratory comparison of the environmental efficiency of agricultural products

Research for the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL)

Every two years the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) publishes an Assessment of the Dutch Human Environment (Balans van de Leefomgeving). These reports discuss the state of the environment, nature and spatial development in the country. For the 2018 report, PBL wanted a better understanding of how the environmental efficiency of Dutch agricultural production compares with that in other countries.

An exploratory analysis provided some insight into this, although the quality of the available data and the specific contexts in each country made comparisons between countries particularly challenging. It is therefore important to emphasise that any interpretation of the outcomes of this study must be treated with considerable caution. It also means that no firm conclusions can be drawn from the study. However, the study did throw up a number of interesting observations. The study also underlines the importance of good monitoring and focusing on improving production systems.

Complex comparison

The context within which agricultural production takes place differs between countries and must be taken into account in the modelling and evaluation of environmental impacts. The availability and quality of the data also varies between countries. All in all, this makes a comparison between countries a complex task. For this reason, the study aimed to make comparisons as ‘fair’ as possible within the parameters of the study remit. A balance was sought between the use of a consistent methodology and the use of the best possible data. This meant, for example, that for the Dutch situation we used less specific data than were available in favour of prioritising the use of a consistent modelling method and data for comparisons with other countries.

Agricultural sectors

The following agricultural sectors were included: cow’s milk, fattening pigs, broilers, ware potatoes, wheat and tomatoes. Dutch production was compared with production in several other important European countries (Germany, France, Poland, Spain, Romania and Italy). The table below gives the various product-country combinations studied. The environmental factors investigated were land use, greenhouse gas emissions, N and P surpluses, ammonia emissions and production value.
The study made use of the life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology, which identifies the emissions during all stages of production.

Some observations

Without drawing any firm conclusions, the study did throw up a number of interesting observations:
  • In Dutch agricultural production, land use per unit of production is relatively low across the board compared with other European countries. This applies particularly to plant production and to a lesser extent to animal production systems.
  • In Dutch animal production systems, greenhouse gas emissions per unit of product are generally around average.
  • Levels of N and P excretion from Dutch pig and broiler production are relatively low. However, the relatively high concentration of livestock farming in the Netherlands (and relatively low level of manure exports) contributes to a relatively high nutrient surplus and greenhouse gas emissions in arable farming. The Dutch manure surplus would appear to be leading to a ‘greenhouse-gas-inefficient’ production system in favour of efficient land use.

Specific Dutch scenarios using ‘better’ data

To get a feel for how better information/data would affect the results for a country, we carried out test analyses for several Dutch products using better background data and emission factors. However, this did not always lead to a larger environmental impact. A few observations:
  • Ammonia emissions were lower in the ‘better data’ scenarios for all production systems.
  • For milk, ware potatoes and wheat production, the other environmental impacts in the ‘better data’ scenarios are also lower.
  • For pig and broiler production, levels of N and P excretion in the more specific scenarios are higher and the greenhouse gas emissions are comparable or higher.

Focus on good monitoring and implement improvements

It proved particularly difficult to make a fair comparison of environmental impacts between countries. In view of this, it would appear to make more sense to first focus on good monitoring and improving the existing production systems in one’s own country. If in the future more data of higher quality become available, a more meaningful international comparison can be made.

Meer informatie

If you have any questions about this study,
please contact Hans Blonk via hans@blonkconsultants.nl or call +31 (0)182 579970.