The food-print of Paris: long-term reconstruction of the nitrogen flows imported into the city from its rural hinterland

Between the tenth and twentieth century the population of Paris city increased from a few thousand to near 10 million inhabitants. In response to the growing urban demand during this period, the agrarian systems of the surrounding rural areas tremendously increased their potential for commercial export of agricultural products, made possible by a surplus of agricultural production over local consumption by humans and livestock in these areas. Expressed in terms of nitrogen, the potential for export increased from about 60 kg N/km²/year of rural territory in the Middle Ages, to more than 5,000 kg N/km²/year from modern agriculture. As a result of the balance between urban population growth and rural productivity, the rural area required to supply Paris (i.e. its food-print) did not change substantially for several centuries, remaining at the size of the Seine watershed surrounding the city (around 60,000 km²). The theoretical estimate of the size of the supplying hinterland at the end of the eighteenth century is confirmed by the figures deduced from the analysis of the historical city toll data (octroi). During the second half of the twentieth century, the ‘food-print' of Paris reduced in size, owing to an unprecedented increase in the potential for commercial export associated with modern agricultural systems based on chemical N fertilization. We argue that analysing the capacity of territories to satisfy the demand for nitrogen-containing food products of local or distant urban population and markets might provide new and useful insights when assessing world food resource allocation in the context of increasing population and urbanization.

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