20 December 2013

The footprint of food

December 2013. Options Magazine, Winter 2013/2014  
The food we eat has impacts on land, water, forests, and the world’s climate. IIASA research shows the way toward a more sustainable future.

woman in boat with food © ShutterWorx , iStockphoto.com

woman in boat with food © ShutterWorx , iStockphoto.com

When you shop at the small grocery store in the town of Laxenburg, Austria chances are that your fellow shoppers—researchers who work across the street at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)—see more than just lunch in the food they put in their baskets.

In food products such as beef, pork, or poultry, for instance, IIASA researcher Sylvia Tramberend sees deforestation in South America, caused by land clearances to produce the oil crops that feed European livestock. She spends her days analyzing the deforestation, land use changes, and water that go toward producing food and goods for human consumption.  “How much land did it take to produce that hamburger, where is it located, and what are the impacts of using natural resources like land or water for food production?” she wonders.

Another IIASA scientist, Hugo Valin, studies the climate impact of crop and livestock production around the world. He knows in great detail how production of the different foods he eats contributes to climate change.

And Evolution and Ecology Program Leader Ulf Dieckmann, who models fisheries and fisheries policy, knows whether the different brands of smoked salmon in the store’s refrigerator section are caught sustainably, factory farmed, or harvested from a fishery on the verge of collapse.

As one of IIASA’s core research areas, food is on the mind of many scientists at the Institute, tying into research on land use, climate, energy, water, natural ecosystems, and poverty. Researchers project that we will need a 60% increase in cropland output and a 70% increase in meat and dairy production in order to meet the growing food demand by 2050. In the past 50 years, production has increased substantially because of improvements in efficiency coming from irrigation and fertilization. Where will future increases come from? And what environmental impacts will they have on our planet? 

Food and land
In a recent study commissioned by the European Commission, Sylvia Tramberend and colleagues Günther Fischer, Eva Hizsnyik, and Harrij Van Velthuizen examined how consumption in Europe affects forests around the globe. The study showed that goods consumed in the EU contributed to approximately 90,000 square kilometers of lost forestland from 1990 to 2008. 

Regional Utilization of Cropland (2006-2008) Source: The impact of EU consumption on deforestation (European Commission Technical Report 2013-063)

Europe’s biggest impact on deforestation comes from meat consumption, the study showed. Whether meat is produced in Europe or abroad, it is often fed on oil crops such as soybeans that are grown in South America and contribute to deforestation there. The new report provides policy recommendations to help Europe reduce its impact on the global environment such as promoting relevant concepts and measures to increase agricultural production without increasing climate impact – “climate smart agriculture,” raising awareness of the linkage between EU food consumption and deforestation, strengthening the environmental provisions in trade agreements, or assisting in the development of a responsible investment framework.

The new study relied on a mathematical model called LANDFLOW which IIASA researchers have developed to track where land-based goods are produced and how consumption impacts land use around the world.

“Because of globalization, the supply chain is getting more and more complicated,” Tramberend says. “In order to understand this global network, we have to look at agricultural production across the whole planet. LANDFLOW captures all commodity flows by using the large, harmonized time series databases on land use, production, trade and commodity utilization of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).”

The researchers are now expanding LANDFLOW to examine not just land use and deforestation, but also how agricultural consumption impacts nutrient cycles and water resources – a major question for the future, as researchers predict that climate change, population growth and increasing competition with water demand from industry and the domestic sector will further stress already scarce water resources.

Tools of the trade

How do IIASA researchers dig in to the details of food production and consumption?
Two models explore different aspects of the topic:

IIASA’s GLOBIOM model examines the agricultural and forestry sectors with a great detail in the production side including spatially explicit parameterization of crop and livestock productions systems, and forest management. This model allows users to assess the impacts of future demand for food, feed, fiber and fuels on land and- water use and climate. It also gives policymakers a way to assess the benefits and tradeoffs of different production choices, on a global as well as regional level.  

IIASA's LANDFLOW model is an accounting model that ties consumption to its impact on resource use, by tracking agricultural and forestry land area extents of the whole supply chain from primary production, via trade, to utilization for food, feed or other uses. The model allows researchers to trace the production and movement of commodities and their embodied natural resources through global trade networks. 

Food and climate
Researchers like Hugo Valin in IIASA’s Ecosystems Services and Management program look at food impacts from another perspective—particularly, how food production impacts the climate, and how food production can be increased without adding to these impacts. Agriculture contributes about one-third of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, with the largest share of those emissions coming from livestock production.

sheep on a foggy grass field

Valin recently published work in the journal Environmental Research Letters showing that, by using sustainable methods, it would be possible to improve crop yields while emitting 12% less per calorie produced than with conventional intensive farming. Valin says, “The most efficient way to ensure sustainable intensification on the crop side is to rely on practices and technologies that do not require more fertilizer, such as new varieties, improved rotations, integrated crop-livestock practices, and precision farming,” 

The study, which relied on IIASA’s GLOBIOM model, also showed that the greatest benefits in greenhouse gas reduction could come from strategies that improve the efficiency of livestock production.

The GLOBIOM team, in collaboration with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), recently completed a new database that quantifies the climate impacts of livestock production on a global scale. Project leader Petr Havlík explains, “We know that livestock have a big impact on climate and the environment. But all livestock is not the same. Our new database compiles quantitative characteristics of livestock production systems across the world which allows us to discriminate between the good, the bad, and the ugly, and by this offers opportunities for future livestock production developments with limited negative environmental impacts.  This information will allow decision makers to better design environmental and livestock policies which reconcile climate change mitigation and food security.”

Food and the oceans

At the IIASA conference last October, Ulf Dieckmann noted that seafood provides the primary source of animal protein for over 1 billion people. But several fisheries around the world are in danger of collapse, and the policy changes needed to make them sustainable are difficult to determine and implement. Dieckmann and colleagues’ ongoing research examines how to manage fisheries sustainably so that they can continue to produce food for future generations.

In a recent study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dieckmann and colleagues provided a new model for determining harvesting rules that could not only preserve the stock of Northeast Arctic cod, but would actually increase harvests from this stock in the long term—although this would require a short-term reduction in harvests. Northeast Arctic cod is one of the most commercially important fisheries in the world. The study, led by former YSSP participant Anna Maria Eikeset, showed that optimal harvesting based on the new model would moreover promote beneficial evolutionary changes that lead to enhanced reproduction among fish in the stock. Dieckmann says, “There is a big difference between preventing stocks from collapsing and managing them to achieve an optimal harvest.” 

From research to application

While foraging for their lunch in the aisles of the local grocery store, Tramberend, Valin, and other IIASA food researchers do not always find it easy to make informed decisions about the goods they consume. “It’s difficult to be a conscientious consumer even if you want to,” says Tramberend. "Because of the complexity of the supply chain, it can be difficult to find out how and where the food you eat was produced.”  And even if you know, accounting for all impacts along the food chain and comparing alternative products can be difficult. For example, a tomato grown in a heated greenhouse in Europe may take more energy to grow and reach consumers than a tomato grown somewhere warmer and shipped from abroad.  But even if it seems difficult, Tramberend says that consumer efforts to make sustainable choices do matter. “When consumers reach for ‘green’ products, the food industry and agricultural producers will respond,” she says.

The recent studies described in this article are just a few examples of the work that IIASA scientists do to connect food production and consumption to the impacts it has on the environment. At the same time, IIASA researchers are examining how to make sure that enough food will be available for future generations and to share equitably around the world, and to examine how changes in connected  systems such as climate and energy will impact food production.

Like most IIASA research, the studies mentioned in these pages feed directly into policy—the results have been described in reports and recommendations for Europe as a whole, as well as countries around the world, providing a roadmap for policymakers looking for answers about how to feed growing populations, how to slow climate change, and how to protect precious water resources. 

Reducing your food footprint

What can you do to reduce the impact that your food choices make on the environment? It‘s a complex question, say IIASA researchers, but there are some steps you can take.

Many people say that the easiest way to cut your environmental footprint is to reduce meat consumption. Meat takes more land, energy, and water to produce compared to a vegetarian diet and leads to greater greenhouse gas emissions. However, all meat is not equal. Valin says, “The impact depends a lot on what type of meat, and where and how it was produced.”

Another strategy is to eat foods that you can trace to their source. Sylvia Tramberend notes that while people often think of local or regionally produced food as more sustainable, it is not always less costly for the environment. Instead, she says, try to find out more about where and how your food is produced. For example, choosing coffee or cocoa from sources that commit to preventing deforestation can help protect forests and provide important stimulus for more sustainable production practices. Likewise, choosing to eat fish from sustainable marine fisheries helps support those fisheries.

The simplest and most certain way to reduce your impact requires little thought. Consume less, whether by eating less or reducing the amount of food you waste. Havlík says, “The only thing we can say with certainty is common sense – there is a lot of overconsumption and waste.” 

Text by Katherine Leitzell

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Last edited: 20 December 2013


Sylvia Tramberend

Senior Research Scholar Water Security Research Group - Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program

Petr Havlík

Program Director and Principal Research Scholar Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program

Research Group Leader and Principal Research Scholar Integrated Biosphere Futures Research Group - Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program


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International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313