Portugal’s Food Footprint: How Sustainable Are The Portuguese?

André Gonçalves
2 de December 2020
Portugal’s Food Footprint: How Sustainable Are The Portuguese?

Is Portugal’s Food system sustainable?

One of the single largest reason for humans’ transgression of the key planetary limits is the global food system.

Worldwide, agriculture, forestry and other land use are responsible for 24% of global emissions. Inside it are practices such as crop cultivation, livestock practices and deforestation.

High meat and fish consumption is high in Portugal, according to a recent study from Galli et al (2020).

But also noticeable food wastage, and high urbanization level.

The team behind the study demonstrated food consumption in Portugal is the single largest reason (≈30%) why the Portuguese trespass the carrying capacity of Earth ecosystems.

Let’s take a quick closer look at some of this study’s main conclusions.

The Global Food System: A Systemic Problem

Throughout the 20th century, food demand has been largely met.

This was thanks to staple crop yields providing plenty of wheat, maize, soybean or rice.

But today’s agricultural practices put long-term food security at risk.

Soils are getting depleted.

Biodiversity is being lost at a rate of 150-200 species of plants, insects, birds or mammals a day. Entire ecosystems are at the risk of collapse. To name a few.

As if the above wasn’t bad enough, around 11% of the global population today suffers from chronic undernourishment.

On the other side of the spectrum, in 2016, there were 2 billion overweight adults. The unbalance in global dietary patterns is undeniable.

John Elkington (who coined the term triple bottom line) shared an interesting view on the book The Green Swans. That today more people have access to more calories, but these have worse quality.

We both know there’s a final piece in this story.

How our food system is screwed the answer is food waste.

Something only humans create since there is no such thing as waste in the natural world.

A Systemic Problem

According to Pauli Gunti’s book The Blue Economy, thanks to the Fungi Kingdom, mushrooms and other organisms recycle the nutrients of what we humans would call ‘leftovers’ back into the soil. The end of the story?

Roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption goes to waste.

The scientists behind the study say the issue of food security and distribution isn’t just one where the tech industry comes to save the day by turning efficiency into full power mode.

Rather, they argue, it is extremely important to study cities – the hotspots of the world population and the place of consumption for most (79%) .

It is important to look for and implement solutions for some of the food system problems.

Such focus includes understanding the internal trade systems and how to improve urban links with national, regional and local production.

What’s the case for Portugal?

Is Portugal a Sustainable Country? The Portuguese Food Footprint

Portugal has a high meat and fish consumption – in fact, the highest per capita food footprint in the Mediterranean.

Moreover, the country’s high levels of food wastage.

1 million tons of food waste per year.

It is a fact that 62% of its population lives in coastal urban areas, which made Portugal an interesting case.

The municipalities of Almada, Bragança, Castelo Branco, Guimarães, Lagos and Vila Nova de Gaia – which have recently joined forces in an innovative project, the Ecological Footprint of Portuguese Municipalities.

This municipalities were selected as case studies as they made data access easier.

Besides checking the specific food footprints of the citizens living in these municipalities, researchers also applied a policy framework.

This policy framework is to assess local food system policies and to understand critical policy gaps needed to facilitate the transition to more sustainable pathways.

The results?

The year is 2014. Despite a national resource availability – aka bio-capacity – of only 1.28 gha per capita, the average Portuguese demanded 3.69 global hectares worth of natural resources and ecological services – aka Ecological Footprint – to sustain their lifestyle and overall consumption pattern.

This means a consumption rate that’s nearly three times higher than what the country can support.

The Portuguese Food Footprint: A Risky Dependance On External Countries

The footprint results reveal that the Portuguese food system is deeply interconnected with, and reliant upon, food systems around the world.

In fact, Portugal is highly dependant on the availability of food resources from Spain, France, Brazil and Norway. Just to maintain stable access to food.

Results also show that food consumption in Portugal tends to protein-based food such as Meat and Fish and Seafood as opposed to Fruit, Vegetables, and Bread and Cereals, contributing to the country’s high food footprint.

Portugal’s great external resource dependency is worrying considering that many other European and Mediterranean countries are running ecological deficits and external resource dependencies too.

Within a global ecological overshoot setting in which the world’s ecological assets are being spent at a nearly 70% faster rate than they are regenerated.

The COVID19 outbreak raised awareness on the risks associated with food globalization. Together with the impact of climate disasters, some countrieseven experienced food shortages.

The need to build systemic resilience and bet on agri-ecological systems becomes increasingly clear and urgent.

The Gaps in the Portuguese Food System

portugal agriculture food sustainability

The researchers suggest investing in more robust datasets and assessment frameworks.

Moreover, local institutions need to work on their ability to fully implement their responsibilities regarding food production, transformation, distribution, consumption and waste creation.

And there’s also a local government gap in the sense that larger-scale approaches and multi-level co-operations are missing.

Researchers are suggesting that strategic local policies could also be re-framed.

This would include a greater focus on issues. Issues such as sustainable agriculture policies, food waste reduction and the spectrum of circular activities around food.

In this way, shifting to calories-adequate diets or changing consumer’s food preferences could lead to a reduction in the ecological deficit of Portugal .

This is ranging from 10% (via calories reduction) to 19% (via major decreases in seafood and meat consumption).

All in one, shifting dietary choices away from animal proteins and towards the consumption of more cereals, legumes or vegetables requires the development of national dietary guidelines, and not only local actions.

Does Portugal Have Sustainable Food and Agriculture Systems?

Because of their proximity and close interaction with relevant economic and societal actors.

Small cities like the Portuguese ones analysed in the study need to play a key role in promoting resilient and prosperous food systems.

Facilitating collaboration at different scales and sectors is therefore highly important to guarantee stable supply and access to food overtime for the Portuguese.

There’s high consumption of meat and seafood that considerably drives the Portuguese footprint.

Together with the fact that a large share of the Portuguese food Footprint is placed outside borders.

There’s the need for the creation of governance structures and specific policy interventions at a national and local level is remarkably important.

While food consumption should be a priority sector for intervention to shift unsustainable trends. There are holes in urban food policies within Portugal that undermine the country’s ability to take restorative action.

Therefore, facilitating a transition to sustainable national and local food systems in Portugal requires timely action.

Perhaps starting from those policies and initiatives that, without requiring major economic investments, would make the adoption of alternative dietary patterns and the strengthening of sustainable food governance possible.

Check our sustainability plan here .

[Image credits to Diogo Nunes, Orlova Maria and Photo by Karim Sakhibgareev on Unsplash]