Environmental impacts of food trade via resource use and greenhouse gas emissions

Agriculture will need to significantly intensify in the next decades to continue providing essential nutritive food to a growing global population. However, it can have harmful environmental impacts, due to the use of natural and synthetic resources and the emission of greenhouse gases, which alter the water, carbon and nitrogen cycles, and threaten the fertility, health and biodiversity of landscapes. Because of the spatial heterogeneity of resource productivity, farming practices, climate, and land and water availability, the environmental impact of producing food is highly dependent on its origin. For this reason, food trade can either increase or reduce the overall environmental impacts of agriculture, depending on whether or not the impact is greater in the exporting region. Here, we review current scientific understanding of the environmental impacts of food trade, focusing on water and land use, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. In the case of water, these impacts are mainly beneficial. However, in the cases of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, this conclusion is not as clear. Overall, there is an urgent need for a more comprehensive, integrated approach to estimate the global impacts of food trade on the environment. Second, research is needed to improve the evaluation of some key aspects of the relative value of each resource depending on the local and regional biophysical and socio–economic context. Finally, to enhance the impact of such evaluations and their applicability in decision-making, scenario analyses and accounting of key issues like deforestation and groundwater exhaustion will be required.

Carole Dalin and Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe, 2016. In: Environmental Research Letters, Volume 11, Number 3