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Environmental Footprint of Agriculture

Although the horticultural sector occupies only 1% of the UK land area, the intensity of production of many horticultural crops means that the environmental impact can be disproportionate to the area of land under cultivation, especially in comparison to arable crops. Horticulture is a very diverse industry with a wide array of crops and cultivation systems. Environmental footprint analysis is an useful tool for comparing the environmental impact of disparate activities and processes, and in this project, enabled the impacts of different sectors of horticulture to be compared at different spatial scales and against the arable and livestock sectors.

At the same time, the environmental impact of horticulture must be considered alongside its wider effects on the economic and social fabric of rural communities. In this project, these were evaluated using performance indicators for the sustainability (environmental, social and economic) of horticultural production. However, investigation of the social impact of horticulture also needed to take into account qualitative information, which is essential if stakeholders’ views on the relationship between horticultural production and the wider rural constituency are to be characterised and understood. This was achieved through semi structured interviews with key stakeholders. It should be remembered that while UK horticulture is still driven to a large extent by the politics of production, it is being affected increasingly by CAP and EU environmental reforms, while stakeholders such as environmental groups are having an increasing influence over government policies for rural areas.

The results from footprint analysis have been combined with insights from the socio-economic studies to provide a more complete picture of the impact of horticulture than has previously been available.


1. Identify key inputs/outputs associated with crop production and determine their environmental impact.
2. Estimate the environmental impacts of the individual sectors within agricultural and horticulture.
3. Compare the environmental impact of horticulture versus agriculture on a national scale.
4. Determine the impact of horticulture in different geographical areas.
5. Estimate the social and economic costs and benefits of horticulture.
6. Identify horticultural sectors and regions where there is potential for improvement.
7. Recommend improvements, identify knowledge gaps and make suggestions for future research.
Findings by commodity

Environmental footprints were calculated for twelve commodities on a per hectare, per year basis (results in brackets, ranked low to high):

  • winter wheat (11.5)
  • sugar beet (18.3)
  • lamb (18.4)
  • carrot (19.3)
  • cauliflower (20.3)
  • onion (20.3)
  • Narcissi (22.3)
  • potato (27.1)
  • apple (29.2)
  • milk (34.6)
  • protected strawberry (54.9)
  • protected lettuce (59.1)

Those commodities requiring infrastructure (protected lettuce and strawberry) had large environmental impacts as did those emitting last quantities of greenhouse gases (milk). Field grown crops on average recorded low scores although potato was higher due to increased water and storage costs.

Findings by sector 

By sector, the results are dominated by the area grown/occupied rather than by the individual crop’s environmental burden. Although the average environmental footprint of the horticultural crops was higher than the arable crops, 32.2 compared to 18.9, the area occupied by arable crops is 52 times greater and has an environmental burden that is 27 times greater. The livestock sector had the highest environmental burden, being two and half times greater than the arable sector and 74 greater than the horticultural sector. The total environmental burden assessed in this project can be broken by commodity as follows:

  • Horticulture – 1%
  • Other arable – 6%
  • Winter wheat - 21%
  • Lamb - 28%
  • Dairy – 44%

Findings by region

By region, the western areas with their high livestock numbers have a greater environmental burden compared to the eastern, mainly arable and horticultural regions. England, by virtue of its size dominates the overall environmental impact although both Wales and Northern Ireland have higher average environmental footprints. The average footprint value across all regions of the UK was 22.2 however the results ranged from a high of 25.4 in the North-West down to 15.7 in the North East. Of the four home countries, Northern Ireland recorded the highest value of 27.1 reflecting the intense nature of its dairying industry. Scotland had the lowest value of 17.9 which reflects the extensive nature of upland sheep grazing.

Socio-economic aspects

The socio-economic footprint shows that the horticultural and agricultural sectors are very diverse, from very intensive glasshouse production to extensive production of sheep, however, the indicators do allow some form of comparison. The results highlight that despite the relatively small area occupied by glasshouse production, and flowers and hardy nursery stock, they rate as the most socio-economically sustainable sectors and have similar scores to the dairy sector. The field based systems of wheat, potatoes, sugar beet and vegetables occupy the middle ground in terms of socio-economic sustainability and have many similarities. The least socio-economically sustainable sectors are sheep and top fruit, although they show very different characteristics. Although the levels of sustainability between agriculture and horticulture are similar, the indicators suggest that much of horticulture is lean and economically viable, competitive and resilient, although with some much weaker sectors, and certain weak elements such as human development.

The socio-economic impact analysis was assessed using extensive interviews with a wide ranging selection of organisations and companies in England and Scotland to determine what their view was on the environmental footprint of horticulture. The greatest concerns were expressed over the use of water and energy within horticulture and possible labour shortages in the future with changes to the SAWS scheme. The environmental impact of polytunnels was also highlighted and this subject is considered in its own section within the report.

The study was undertaken by a multi-disciplinary team from the University of Warwick (Rob Lillywhite, Dave Chandler and Wyn Grant), HDRA (Chris Firth and Ulrich Schmutz), Best Foot Forward (Kevin Lewis and Nicky Chambers) and Darren Halpin (Aberdeen Business School).