The world is facing a severe dilemma—how to feed the population sustainably in the future [1
]. Global population is expected to exceed 9 or even 10 billion by 2050 [4
], and this creates a tremendous pressure to provide enough food for everyone. In many parts of the world, natural resources for food production are already scarce [6
] and unevenly distributed, especially relative to the population.
Mekonnen and Hoekstra [8
] specified that in general, the highest water scarcity occurs in areas where the population density is high or agriculture is heavily irrigated, or both—often combined with low natural water availability. Around 4 billion people are facing water scarcity for at least some time of the year [8
]. On average, the global water footprint for an average consumer was around 1385 m3
, of which the water footprint related to consumption of agricultural products was 92% (total virtual water 1274 m3
, of which green and blue virtual water contribute to 1032 m3
) over the years 1996–2005 [9
]. Therefore, food production is the key focus point in tackling water scarcity.
Existing studies have shown that international trade often leads to global water savings (see e.g., [10
]), and thus can also be used as a measure to lower the overall pressure on natural resources. The same applies locally: A recent study by Porkka et al. [17
] shows that a majority of the sub-national areas facing scarce green-blue water resources, increased their food imports to secure the local food supply. It has been estimated, that since the mid-1980s to 2009, the percentage of world food production that is internationally traded on international markets rose from 15% to 23% [18
Use of key natural resources for food production has exceeded sustainable limits (see e.g., [6
]). At the same time, measures, such as diet change, a reduction of food losses and a yield gap closure can, if used together, sustainably increase the global food availability by 100–200% [6
]. Kummu et al. [23
] found that in Europe and Northern America, among the measures mentioned above, diet change plays a key role in increasing food availability without increasing resources use. This is due to a high share of animal products in the diets, and hence these diets have several times higher resource use per unit of nutrition produced than plant-based diets (see, e.g., [24
In addition to the global overviews, there are local studies about the agricultural land use efficiency comparing the outsourced and (re)localized production to meet the domestic food demand (see e.g., for the UK, Reference [28
]; Sweden, Reference [29
]; USA, Reference [30
]; Finland, Reference [31
]). However, not much is known about an export potential of specializing water-intensive production to countries with an abundance of natural resources.
In this present study, we take a different angle to increase the understanding of food production and study the reallocation of global water resources. To the best of our knowledge, we conduct the first detailed study about the reallocating global water resources by specializing water-intensive cattle production in water-rich areas, and turning that into virtual water exports to potentially easing global water scarcity. We build scenarios based on reallocations potential in domestic land use combined with domestic diet change towards lower water intensity. We acknowledge that the global, and even local, food system forms a complex net that has multiple economic, environmental and social aspects to consider. Our study focuses on the environmental and natural resources perspectives, providing knowledge about the possibilities of reallocation that can be used as a foundation for further research focusing on, for example, economic feasibility or social acceptability.
We aim to form a better understanding of practical actions that can be done at the national level towards more sustainable global food production. Kummu and Varis [32
] presented data showing that in the northern latitudes, water resources are rich and populations low. We chose Finland as our case study, since it is a typical northern country with the presented characteristics of rich water resources and low population [33
]. Still, Finland annually imports a considerable, and increasing, amount of water-intensive products [35
]. Finland’s external water footprint is 47%, and a majority of it is caused by agricultural production [36
]. While importing virtual water, Finland is also outsourcing negative environmental impacts. Sandström et al. [37
] discovered, that over 93% of the land use related to biodiversity impacts of Finnish supply, is external [37
]. However, Finnish natural resources are underused [38
], and there is potential to decrease imports of arable food crop commodities to Finland by domestic production. Sandström et al. [31
] studied, that the replacement of imported rice, soybeans and rapeseed with domestic crops, would reduce embedded blue water requirement by up to 16% and green water by almost 30% of the total crop related virtual water imports [31
]. As complementary to the current national studies, our research focuses on increasing Finland’s virtual water net exports related to cattle production.
We focus on cattle production for four main reasons. First, the global water footprint of bovine meat is very high with an average of 15,415 l kg−1
]. Thus, cattle production should be in close focus in redesigning food systems for water efficiency. Second, the rich freshwater resources in Finland are underused for agricultural production [41
]. Third, there are agronomic and environmental needs to diversify arable land use in Finland, to which leys and pastures, as well as domestic protein feeds, would contribute positively [42
]. At the moment, Finland is a net importer of bovine meat [43
], although its prerequisites are met to increase domestic cattle production and to become a net exporter. Fourth, Finns consume animal products, especially red meat, beyond national [44
], regional [45
] and international [46
] dietary recommendations. Currently, it is part of the national food policy to reduce meat-based meals by increasing the proportion of plant-based meals [47
Therefore, we hypothesize that Finland has a potential for, and multiple benefits to be gained from, a strategic specialization to water-intensive cattle products for exports as a contribution to a globally fair share of limited water resources. Further, we hypothesize that shifting towards a more sustainable diet would increase this export potential.
After presenting the motivation for and aim of this study in Section 1
, Section 2
focuses on introducing the relevant materials and methods used to test our hypothesis. Since our study focuses only on one country, we provide the main benefits and limitations for cattle production in Finland already at the beginning of the paper. In Section 3
, we present how our scenarios would impact the land use in Finland and abroad, and the potential for Finland to export virtual water. We then discuss the benefits and disadvantages of cattle production in Finnish and global contexts in Section 4
. We also acknowledge the limitations of our study while making suggestions for future studies. Finally, we draw our conclusions in Section 5
Based on these results, we argue that on top of efforts in reducing water use by conventional methods (e.g., food loss reduction, yield gap closure, improved irrigation efficiency), water consumption could be directed to areas with a surplus of water, and exported as virtual water to relieve water demand in areas with water scarcity, for example. In this study, we assessed Finland’s potential to increase virtual water net exports by intensifying water-intensive animal production in an area with rich water and farmland resources, and combining that with a diet change towards less water-intensive protein sources. There have been previous studies on Finland’s negative external water footprint [31
] and agriculture’s negative outsourced environmental impacts [35
]. However, in this study, we wanted to estimate the positive impact, that Finland could have with its rich water and farmland resources.
4.1. Dependency on Imported Agricultural Inputs and Products
Finland, like a majority of countries, is a net importer of agricultural products and, therefore, has an external water footprint surplus [36
]. The Nordic climate sets certain restrictions for agricultural production, such as one and short growing season, late spring and early autumn frosts, low degree days, and albeit long daylength during the growing season, low temperatures, and low solar radiation intensity [62
]. It is thus understandable, that Finland imports part of the food consumed by its population, especially items that help with meeting the dietary requirements over the winter period [44
Our analysis explored cattle production scenarios under current agricultural production conditions, assuming current yields and current practices of cattle husbandry. Even though there is potential to increase cattle production in Finland with domestic feed, dependency on the global markets remains through other imported agricultural inputs [64
], which is important to keep in mind when estimating the vulnerability of Finnish food system.
We expect the scenarios to have political relevance in terms of the economics of farming in Finland—structural change from a high number of small family farms to a low number of bigger, more entrepreneurial farms has been fast, and is still ongoing [66
]. At the same time, the price margin between farmer prices of agricultural products and the price of food is increasing, and farming is hardly profitable [67
]. In this situation, any sustainable scenario for increasing exports of agricultural products attracts attention. For any country, finding its sustainable role in the globalizing food system is serving the maintenance of human resources, infrastructures, social capital and institutions for maintenance domestic food supply and food security.
4.2. Diet Changes for Humans and Animals
Finnish red meat consumption has increased alarmingly in recent years, as it has in a large part of the other Western and Northern European countries [45
]. Finland’s recent national food policy suggests reducing meat-based meals by increasing the proportion of plant-based meals [47
]. However, it is vital to recognize that livestock production is more than just meat production, and beef production is closely associated with milk production in Finland. Our analysis demonstrated that the exports of milk (products) also had a significant role, when calculating the potential to net export virtual water of the large production potential in various scenarios (Figure 4
Consumers can adapt more easily to a diet that contains some meat rather than to an entirely meatless diet [70
]. Our diet change scenarios only reduced the consumption of bovine meat, and otherwise the meat consumption remained the same. Based on the current polls on Finnish consumer habits, there is a modest increasing trend on favouring plant-based meals [71
], and therefore our diet changes could be realistic in the long term.
The scenarios did not include changes in feed protein sources to monogastric livestock (e.g., poultry and pigs); in these, a change to domestic sources may cause negative effects to growth and productivity [42
]. Regarding the feed for bovine livestock, Peltonen et al. [42
] explained that Finland has a great potential to shift towards fully domestic protein sources, including legumes in grass mixtures and rapeseed meals, but also more marginally malting residues, pea and faba bean [42
]. As Finland only has one growing season, and agriculture has been characterized as a monoculture [42
], diversifying the domestic legume cultivation—for food and feed—would enrichen the agriculture and landscape [31
In our scenarios, cereal cultivation and trade played a notable role. Especially in Roughage, virtual water net export increased substantially when the underutilized land was used for cereal cultivation, and the cereals were first consumed domestically along with the increased feed imports, and then exported mainly as feed (the quality might vary, and hence we assumed the exports to be feed such as barley, oats and what). Our analysis showed that there are two different ways to achieve increased animal production—either to increase the overall net exports in the expenses of partly outsourced environmental impacts via partly imported feed as in Roughage, or to have more moderate virtual water net exports with hardly any outsourced environmental impacts as done in the FullDomestic scenario.
4.3. Global Impacts of the Reallocation of Land and Water for Cattle Production
While our study provides new information on how a country can increase its virtual water net flows and have a positive impact in the global markets, this study does not consider how this trade would affect the global markets and what kind of impacts it would have on current production countries. Theoretically, there is a potential to minimize the land and water needed globally by reallocating production to countries with high land and water efficiencies [12
], but there are also several challenges and risks regarding the reallocation. We used Fader et al.’s [12
] statements for assessing our results against the current situation in Finland and the global context (Table 3
4.4. Water Scarcity Impacts in Finland and Globally
Finland has on average (2008–2013) 237 billion m3
of renewable water resources [33
]. This puts Finland at the top of EU countries if measured as the water resources per capita [82
]. Based on our scenario-matrix, the greatest potential of net export virtual water (blue and green) was 3.7 billion m3
. This is on average only 1.6% of all renewable freshwater resources in Finland, and thus can be assumed that Finnish freshwater resources would not be endangered by the increased net export volumes under the normal conditions.
Although on average, water is abundant in Finland, various parts of it are also experiencing droughts, which have been studied less than the more frequently occurring floods [83
]. One of the recent severe droughts occurred in 2002–2003 when Finland’s water deficit was at its worse (about 60 billion m3
). According to Kuusisto [82
], almost half of the deficit was in groundwater stores, a quarter in soil moisture storage and the remainder in lakes. There were severe drought conditions over the growing season 2018, causing prominent (ca. 30%) reduction in harvest compared to the 2017 year’s harvest, and the final estimations have not yet been assessed [56
]. Even though most of the Finnish crop production is rainfed, Peltonen-Sainio et al. [41
] state that climate change will create challenges. Especially, frequencies of extreme weather events are expected to increase, which might require the development of irrigation systems for comprehensive water management [41
]. Our scenarios did not include assessment for future climatic conditions, but it is obvious that any changes in water resources and agricultural production conditions are relevant.
Finland could increase the net exports of virtual water of cattle products from 0.1 billion m3
to 3.7 billion m3
), depending on which scenario combination that is chosen. When putting these net exports into practical measures, this means providing annual agricultural virtual water to up to 3.6 million global citizens (when assuming 1032 m3
water consumption for food). Even though greater volumes of virtual water would be required in order to make a powerful influence on the 4 billion people impacted by water scarcity, it is good to put this into a wider perspective—Finland has a population only of around 5.5 million people [34
], and it could provide additional virtual water for more than half of a population of its own size. Our study provides a practical example of what one country can do, and if scaling the same scenarios for other water-abundant countries, this might have a considerable impact globally and contribute to the globally fairer sharing of resources.
4.5. Limitations of the Study and Future Directions
Despite the vast freshwater resources, Finland is already facing the challenge of eutrophication in the rivers and lakes that are close to agricultural production, in particular through nitrogen and phosphorus loadings [85
]. In addition, the entire Baltic Sea is already affected by eutrophication, due to the intensive use of the sea itself and anthropogenic activities [87
]. Our research focused only on the water quantities, but the future research should expand the assessment also to a water quality analysis. Another significant and negative environmental impact is caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions [89
], to which methane from ruminant livestock metabolism has a significant global contribution but which were not considered in our study. Even though the carbon footprint of cows in Finland is smaller (reference level of that in Sweden [51
]) than for example in the United States [90
]) or in Brazil [92
], the GHG emissions are an important consideration going beyond our assessment. Further, when evaluating the overall sustainability of increased cattle production in Finland, all positive—but also all negative—impacts, such as economic influence, transportation emissions, degradation of wildlife habitats, eutrophication and deforestation, need to be considered in more detail in the future studies, before constituting the comprehensive understanding.
In the future, population growth and increasing meat consumption are adding more pressure to already limited natural resources. Bringing additional virtual water to global markets does not directly reduce agricultural water consumption in water-stressed areas, due to the increased consumption demand, but rather might keep the scarcity level at the same level. Unfortunately, scarce resources are often depleted in one way or another, as people are understandably seeking ways to secure their income. Thus, instead of suggesting the reduction, or phasing out, of agricultural production in water-stressed areas—alternatively, we are suggesting that less water-intensive products and livelihoods would have to be introduced together with support for efficient and just water resources management.
Water scarcity is globally a critical challenge, and the international trade of agricultural products connects a majority of the countries, including water-rich Finland, tightly to it. Case studies are needed to understand how an individual country could implement the existing knowledge and contribute positively to a globally resource-efficient food production in practical matters.
In this paper, we assessed the potential to ease water demand in water-scarce areas by assessing the increase of water-intensive production in areas with a surplus of freshwater, such as Finland. We took into consideration Finland’s land use requirements that are embedded in agricultural production and trade. We combined the production scenarios with diet change, and calculated Finland’s total potential to net export virtual water in the form of cattle products.
Our analysis demonstrated that there is a potential for reallocation of water use to water-rich areas through the exports of water-intensive products, and replacing partly or fully the bovine meat protein with vegetable protein sources. Finland has vast water and land resources, and hence the increase of water-intensive production does not consume the existing natural resources in the same ratio than in some other production areas, already suffering from water scarcity. Based on these findings, we argue that it is more important to consider where water is saved rather than looking merely at volumes that are saved.
Future case studies could have a combination of global trade and spatial analysis to provide further insights on where the water should be saved and where the natural resources are underutilized. In order to solve the global dilemma of food production with limited resources, the detailed system-wide spatial approach is necessary for this alarming problem.