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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds Decoupling. There are two types of decoupling– impact decoupling and resource decoupling. Resource decoupling means reducing the rate of resources per unit of economic activity. Impact decoupling means maintaining economic outputs while reducing the negative environmental impact of any activity. Resource decoupling is very common in agriculture. An example is increasing crop yields, which means higher crop production on the basis of the same resource, meaning land. In the past 50 years, around 70% to 80% of crop production increases has come from increasing crop yields and the rest from expanding cropped area. This has probably saved a lot of deforestation worldwide. Another important route is reducing nutrient losses and improving the recycling of nutrients.

Skip to 0 minutes and 57 seconds An example is the reduction of nutrient losses in farming in the EU, mainly due to policy measures in the different countries. This has reduced nitrogen use by 10% to 20%, and has reduced the nitrogen surplus by around 30% in some countries. The nitrogen surplus is a good indicator for nitrogen losses to the environment. This does thus also mean impact decoupling. Another example of resource decoupling is water use. There are many examples that, with relatively easy measures, the water productivity can be improved– or in simple terms, more crop per drop. Studies have shown that there is often a relation with policies. When water is cheap, the efficiency is generally low. When water has a higher price, the efficiency is generally better.

Skip to 1 minute and 43 seconds The example of absolute decoupling is the reduction of food waste. In this case, the absolute use of all resources needed for food production will decrease. Impact decoupling is certainly possible as well. In food production, resource use and environmental impacts are often linked. This is mainly because food production is not a closed system. For example, a lower use of fertiliser or nutrients while maintaining crop production will not only imply a better resource efficiency but will also lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions as well as to better water quality.

Decoupling natural resources from economic growth

For centuries, many things related to food systems have gone hand in hand. Perhaps the most significant is that wealth and economic growth have been coupled with increased resource use and associated environmental impacts.

In this video, Henk Westhoek, of PBL the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, introduces us to the concept of decoupling – the idea that economic growth does not actually have to be accompanied by ever-greater use of natural resources. Through decoupling, economies can continue to grow without overusing their natural resource base and degrading the environment.

Resource and impact decoupling, UNEP 2011 Resource and impact decoupling (UNEP 2011).

The UNEP International Resource Panel defines two aspects of this: resource decoupling means reducing the rate of use of resources per unit of economic activity, and impact decoupling means maintaining economic output while reducing the negative environmental impact of the underlying economic activities.


International Resource Panel (2011). Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth. United Nations Environment Programme, Paris.

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Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

Stockholm Environment Institute