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German food imports leave huge 'footprint' abroad

Ian P. Johnson
June 6, 2020

Shipments of foodstuffs leave ecological "footprints" three times heavier in other countries than on Germany's own agricultural soil. This finding appears in a wide-ranging 'bioeconomy' study.

A combine harvester in a field
Image: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Germany enacts high ecological impacts on other countries by importing their foodstuffs and animal fodder, according to a pilot study compiled by University of Kassel and Thünen Institute scientists.

The authors defined five environmental 'footprints' caused by Germany's consumption of home-grown produce, as well as imports, including fish, as well as its exports — measuring biomass, land and water usage and climate impacts.

This year, Germany's agricultural footprint from locally-grown produce was put at just over 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres), extrapolating by the authors from baseline 2015 data.

Foreign foodstuffs imported into Germany caused a far heavier footprint, around 35 million hectares — more than triple the impact of its domestic farm-forestry sectors, in terms of production, processing, through to retailing and even catering.

The sector as a whole, said the authors, accounted for about 10% of Germany's total economic earnings, and in 2017 comprised 4.4 million employees, including persons employed in the manufacturing and restaurant-hospitality sectors.

Read more: Coronavirus pandemic changes eating habits in Germany

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'Hidden' impacts on primal forests?

Kassel professor Stefan Bringezu said especially significant was how Germany's demand for foodstuffs, fodder and bioenergy supplies abroad had added to "conversion" of primal forests and moorlands into croplands in recent decades.

And, one conclusion, he said, was that "we should bid farewell to the idea that as many mineral raw materials as possible should be replaced by renewable ones."

"The planet is too small for that. The future lies in the efficient combined use of biotic and non-organic resources," Bringezu concluded.

The study's indicators, intended for German decision-makers, industry, and consumers, said the study's lead scientist included for the "first time" measurement of foreign water usage impacts in regions where Germany sources its imports.

Germany 'consumes' foreign water in arid regions

"The largest quantities of irrigation water for German agricultural imports are imported in central Asia and Southeast Asia," the study went on, highlighting the cultivation of rice, cotton, wheat and fruits and vegetables.

Second-placed in water usage impact was the Middle East, where alone, Germany "consumed" around 61,000 irrigated hectares for imports of potatoes, tomatoes and pistachios, said the report.

Two-thirds of that German consumption took place in Iran, Egypt and Iraq, where "water stress" was especially high, said the authors. 

Read more: Germany heading toward drought amid coronavirus crisis: forecaster

Cereals as animal fodder, not porridge

Their wide-ranging study also concludes that 60% of Germany's cereals usage goes into animal fodder, for example, dairy and pork production, and only 17% of cereals are consumed directly as foodstuffs, such as flour, by human consumers. 

A third of all plant oils and fats in Germany were used in the energy sector while another 28% flowed into the so-called manufactured oleochemical products.

Certified ecological farming had boomed to 31,713 units in recent years, amounting to 12% of all agricultural businesses or 9% of Germany's agricultural land area.

Vegan steak from a 3D printer

'It won't get greener'

Kathrin Hartmann, author of a new book in German entitled "It won't get greener" accuses Germany — especially within the EU — of "fatally" offloading its environmental costs from foodstuffs overseas.

In March, she wrote that Germany "theoretically" had land enough to be 90% self-sufficient, instead of being the "third-largest" foodstuff importer.

In terms of production and exports, Hartmann said, agriculture in Germany was focused on meat and dairy production that currently occupied "two-thirds of the agricultural area, while fruit and vegetables grow on only one percent."

Read more: Cheap meat hard for German farmers to swallow

Four-fifths in farming and forest

According to the Federal Environmental Agency, more than half (50,8%) of Germany's total land area of 357.582 square kilometers is used for agriculture. 

Another 30.0% is forested or used for wood production, with urban spread and traffic infrastructure using 14.4%.

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Catchwords: environmental footprints, bio-economy, agriculture, water usage, Germany, foodstuffs, fodder, Stefan Bringezu, Kassel University, Thünen Institute.