Let's talk about scales: Eur-Agri-SSPs as example of nested scenario narratives for European agriculture and food systems

Since multiple trials to tease out robust and reproducible information from crystal balls did not work out in the past, researchers started to develop scientific methods to learn more about our future. Hence, scenario development has become important to inform decision makers and quantitative modelers. Like for any scientific method, there are caveats that come along with representing the world’s spatial and temporal complexity such as in the agricultural and food system.

At GLP’s OSM 2019, an enthusiastic group of researchers met in session 150N to discuss some of the remaining and eventually persistent challenges in scenario development related to “scales” and “stakeholder buy-in”. Linking scenarios across spatial scales is key for several reasons. It can help to make scenarios consistent, which is important if information from multiple scales drives decision making and modelling. Not to mention the communication to informed stakeholders who can more easily combine their eventually patchy scenario knowledge. At this point, some challenges emerge, since consistent scaling can narrow the scope of stakeholder engagement. If boundary conditions are defined at large scales that should be logically transferred, what role do stakeholders play in scenario development at smaller spatial scales? Does there remain any room for visionary thinking? We think that there is enough freedom for stakeholders, but only if the given scenarios are highly diverse. And stakeholders’ roles may shift from scenario development towards evaluation of possibility, plausibility, probability, and preferability (cf. Voros, 2003. Foresight 5(3), 10-21).

The Eur-Agri-SSPs: A set of five storylines to enrich the Shared Socio-economic Pathways

Debates like this stimulated a joint initiative of researchers from many European universities and organizations to downscale the Shared Socio-economic Pathways (SSPs; cf. O’Neill et al. 2017. Global Environmental Change 42, 169–180). The group came up with the Eur-Agri-SSPs that describe five plausible but contrasting pathways for the European agriculture and food systems until 2050. They outline how urban and rural society could develop, which economic paradigm is followed, which institutions are strengthened, which policies are established, how technology could improve, and whether environment and natural resources are conserved or depleted.

Consistency is key meaning that the internal logic of a storyline follows current knowledge and systems understanding. However, achieving consistency is not always straight-forward. Therefore, researchers from different fields held vivid discussions and stakeholders with varying backgrounds and expertise contributed during workshops and at conferences. The research and stakeholder engagement process was guided by a protocol to ensure traceability and credibility.

Here, we give a glimpse of the Eur-Agri-SSPs:

  • In Eur-Agri-SSP1, social and environmental awareness rise continuously, environmental policies are strengthened, and consumption patterns are gradually adjusted to European agricultural production potentials which benefit from green technology innovations.
  • In Eur-Agri-SSP2, the agriculture and food systems develop on established paths. The slowly growing domestic demand for agricultural and food products can be satisfied because resource-efficient technologies and environmental protection are developed at moderate pace.
  • In Eur-Agri-SSP3, a climate of mistrust and rivalry prevails and results in a renationalization process of policies, more severe trade restrictions, slow technological progress and, overall, in an increasing pressure on land resources.
  • In Eur-Agri-SSP4, a business oriented, wealthy upper class dominates agricultural and food supply chains, determines technology development and uptake, and pushes policy development to support economic growth, whereas a large group of people is socioeconomically deprived.
  • In Eur-Agri-SSP5, material-intensive lifestyles and large private investments in technological progress and education boost economic growth, also in the agricultural and food sectors while public payments are cut back to conform with liberalized markets.

Concerted action can accelerate change towards sustainability

Fundamental changes in production and consumption systems are required to achieve prosperity within planetary boundaries. Ex-ante integrated assessments of agriculture and food systems support decision-making and change management. The Eur-Agri-SSPs can inform such integrated assessments and can enhance the understanding of human-environment systems. Furthermore, they can stimulate public debate, they can guide strategic planning of private investments and public policies to foster such changes.

Further initiatives, next steps, and options of the GLP community to engage

The Eur-Agri-SSPs shall help to improve consistency across scales, to increase comparability of case studies and to provide a common basis for sustainable decision making and effective climate change mitigation and adaptation. On-going research projects such as SURE-Farm have already made use of the Eur-Agri-SSPs. They are downscaled to national, regional or sub-sectoral levels in Austria, Estonia, Germany, and Switzerland within the SALBES, BonaRes and SUSTAg projects.

If you are an expert that is interested in the future of European agriculture, please have a look at the Eur-Agri-SSPs. If you model future agricultural systems, please consider to use them for model parameterization. If you plan to refine the SSPs for other sectors, please see for the protocol to design the Eur-Agri-SSPs. Any way, please contribute to the debate of scaling by commenting on the Eur-Agri-SSPs on its homepage: https://eur-agri-ssps.boku.ac.at/

Further reading & links

Mitter, H., Techen, A.-K., Sinabell, F., Helming, K., Kok, K., Priess, J.A., Schmid, E., Bodirsky, B.L., Holman, I., Lehtonen, H., Leip, A., Le Mouël, C., Mathijs, E., Mehdi, B., Michetti, M., Mittenzwei, K., Mora, O., Øygarden, L., Reidsma, P., Schaldach, R., Schönhart, M., 2019. A protocol to develop Shared Socio-economic Pathways for European agriculture. Journal of Environmental Management 252, 109701. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2019.109701

Mitter, H., Techen, A.-K., Sinabell, F., Helming, K., Schmid, E., Bodirsky, B.L., Holman, I., Kok, K., Lehtonen, H., Leip, A., Le Mouël, C., Mathijs, E., Mehdi, B., Michetti, M., Mittenzwei, K., Mora, O., Øygarden, L., Priess, J.A., Reidsma, P., Schaldach, R., Schönhart, M., n.d. Shared Socio-economic Pathways for European agriculture: the Eur-Agri-SSPs. under review.





About the authors

Hermine Mitter is senior scientist at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, Austria. She is very much interested in integrating theories, data, and methods from different disciplines in order to identify effective and efficient climate change mitigation and adaptation measures in the agriculture and food system.

Martin Schönhart is senior scientist at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, Austria. His research and teaching focuses on the development of integrated land use models such as bio-economic farm models and regional sector models for the evaluation of farm management adaptation, agricultural policies, e.g. agri-environmental policies, and integrated assessments of land use strategies.

About the partners

Researchers from European universities and research organizations bundled resources and collaborated over a period of more than two years to develop the Shared Socio-economic Pathways for European agriculture, the Eur-Agri-SSPs. The collaboration has emerged from the FACCE MACSUR network, a JPI knowledge hub, which aimed at Modelling European Agriculture with CC for Food Security and was led by the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna (BOKU). The researchers share the interest in storylines for European agriculture to inform integrated assessments of agriculture and food systems. They were supported by stakeholders from 60 organizations and institutions from many European countries to make the storylines more robust.