15 April 2019

Investigating the global cropland footprint of EU non-food imports

Palm oil, soya, and ethanol, are among the most used plant-based resources in the production of a variety of everyday products ranging from cosmetics and fuel, to plastic straws. The results of a study by researchers from IIASA and the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU) shows that Europe imports about 65% of its raw materials for non-food products from abroad – and demand continues to grow.

© Dusan Kostic | Dreamstime.com

© Dusan Kostic | Dreamstime.com

Plant-based oils for non-food purposes are in high demand: 10.9 million hectares of fertile agricultural land, cultivated to produce crops (i.e. cropland), are managed specifically to meet European requirements of the bioeconomy. The larger share of this land, 6.3 million hectares (about three quarters the size of Austria or about 5% of the EU’s total cropland) is managed outside the EU.

The study, conducted by IIASA researchers in collaboration with colleagues at the WU, Stockholm University, and the University of Bonn, investigated the origin of agricultural resources for products consumed in Europe. The results show that two thirds (65%) of the cropland required to grow plant-based resources for non-food products come from other continents – often from tropical regions. In the food sector, Europe’s demand for cropland resources from abroad has also been increasing, but it is much lower at 15%.

Most of the plant-based resources for usage in Europe are sourced from Asia. After cotton (1.7 million hectares mainly from India, China, and Pakistan), palm oil ranks second with about 6.4 billion liters of palm oil harvested on an area of about 1.6 million hectares a year. This is brought to Europe either as unprocessed palm oil, or in the form of processed goods such as biodiesel, detergents, soaps, cosmetic products, or candles. In addition, Asia supplies rubber (e.g. for car tires), of approximately 1.3 million hectares of agricultural area and coconut oil of 0.7 million hectares, while 1.9 million hectares of agricultural areas outside the EU are used to produce feed for livestock production to supply leather and wool for consumption in Europe. Europe also sources maize-based ethanol from the USA to add to petrol.

Sylvia Tramberend, an author of the study and researcher at IIASA, explains: “In a post-fossil age, when climate change stays below the Paris agreement of 1.5 degree Celsius, the bioeconomy will inevitably play a key role. Globalization will very likely continue and further teleconnect consumers with distant natural resources such as fertile land, water and forests. New monitoring schemes and novel environmental policy measures are needed when a bio-based economy should achieve its goals across multiple sustainability targets, clearly formulated in the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals.”

A previous study with IIASA contribution on the ‘Impact of EU consumption on deforestation’ has shown the key role of oil crops in contributing to deforestation of natural tropical forests. The current study, again, finds that vegetable oils used for biofuels, detergents, lubricants and polymers, contribute more than one third to the non-food cropland footprint of the EU. More than half of it is from cropland resources abroad, primarily the Asia-Pacific region. Sylvia Tramberend argues: “As a consumer, I want to use products that meet sustainability standards in Europe and other regions of the world. As a scientist, I know we need more research and data to disentangle complex global supply chains and connect them to multiple sustainability criteria. Multi-stakeholder efforts like the ‘Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials’ are moving in this direction.”

The authors used an innovative method for the calculation of the agricultural production area footprint between 1995 and 2010 by employing a global land-flow accounting model (LANDLFOW) that tracks product flows of agricultural products in physical units along international trade routes. A global economic model (EXIOBASE) was integrated in a complementary manner to map industrial value chains.

The authors conclude that Europe plays a crucial role in determining global developments in the growing bioeconomy as it is today the biggest consuming region of non-food biomass produces (measured in cropland area) and also the largest net-importer. “The contribution of the bioeconomy to sustainability will only unfold if production standards meet globally implemented environmental and social sustainability standards. This needs a broad discussion on less resource intensive consumption patterns, multiple competing demands for biomaterials from various sector of the bioeconomy, livestock consumption patterns and health, and multi-functional agriculture including its contribution to the preservation of the environment and biodiversity. If badly managed, trade can exacerbate environmental problems. If properly managed, trade can help to source raw materials from regions where natural resources enable sustainable production patterns.” says Tramberend.

The study was compiled with the support of the German Federal Environmental Agency and is part of the research program FINEPRINT of the Institute for Ecological Economics at WU which finances global resource flows and the associated environmental impacts.


Bruckner M, Häyhä T, Giljum S, Maus V, Fischer G, Tramberend S, & Boerner J (2019). Quantifying the global cropland footprint of the European Union’s non-food bioeconomy. Environmental Research Letters (In Press) [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15820]

This article has been adapted from a press release sent out by the Vienna University of Economics and Business Press Office.

Print this page

Last edited: 15 April 2019


Sylvia Tramberend

Research Scholar Water Security Research Group - Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program

T +43(0) 2236 807 401

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313