Agriculture has trans­formed the plan­et. We use more than a third of the Earth’s sur­face to grow crops and raise live­stock. About 70% of glob­al water with­drawals are for agri­cul­ture, and our food sys­tems are impli­cat­ed in up to a third of anthro­pogenic green­house gas emis­sions. Each of these dimen­sions of glob­al agri­cul­ture is now being influ­enced by globalization. 

A plate of food containing some meat, a salad, tomato, avocado slices, and an egg

Consider the meal pic­tured here. Depending on where in the world you live, the ingre­di­ents may have been sourced from very far away, includ­ing feed crops such as soy used to pro­duce the meat. In many coun­tries, the very abil­i­ty to eat a food like avo­ca­do is a direct ben­e­fit of inter­na­tion­al trade. We are eat­ing on an inter­con­nect­ed plan­et. Food trade now shapes land use world­wide and is reshap­ing the food sup­plies of many nations.

With this agri­cul­tur­al glob­al­iza­tion, food pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion are decou­pled, mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult to see cause and effect between our diets and the agri­cul­tur­al land­scapes on which we depend. Growing glob­al demand for cer­tain com­modi­ties is now inter­twined with local issues such as water scarci­ty, pol­lu­tion, and deforestation. 

Photo: Flickr

In par­tic­u­lar, com­mod­i­ty crops such as palm oil and soy have trans­formed land use in a few key coun­tries where glob­al pro­duc­tion’s now increas­ing­ly con­cen­trat­ed. What are the broad­er impli­ca­tions of this glob­al­iza­tion in our food sys­tem in terms of food secu­ri­ty and resource sus­tain­abil­i­ty? My lab at McGill University address­es this ques­tion by com­bin­ing glob­al data on trade and food sup­ply sta­tis­tics, with dif­fer­ent types of agri­cul­tur­al land use man­age­ment data.

An illus­tra­tion of this food sys­tems glob­al­iza­tion is shown in this map here, which shows a net­work map depict­ing the glob­al reach of the United Kingdom’s calo­rie sup­ply from import­ed agri­cul­tur­al com­modi­ties. The box­es on the bot­tom show a more detailed break­down, com­par­ing each trade flow with domes­tic pro­duc­tion of dif­fer­ent com­modi­ties. Britain’s par­tic­u­lar­ly glob­al­ized diet links it with a diver­si­ty of farm­ing sys­tems and cli­mates around the world.

We’re also study­ing these calo­rie import net­works over time. These graphs com­pare the sources of Japan’s calo­rie imports, which are con­cen­trat­ed and remain very sta­ble over approx­i­mate­ly two decades, to Saudi Arabia’s which a much more dis­persed across many coun­tries and change dra­mat­i­cal­ly over this time period.

The struc­ture and com­po­si­tion of these food import net­works mod­er­ates link­ages between coun­tries in terms of food and resources. By com­bin­ing these glob­al trade data with data on crop yields, fer­til­iz­er use, and water use, we can inves­ti­gate how trade impacts the dis­tri­b­u­tion of resource use across countries.

What we are find­ing is that some coun­tries are becom­ing increas­ing­ly reliant on for­eign sources of land use under­ly­ing their food con­sump­tion out­sourc­ing. With this, hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple are becom­ing reliant on poten­tial­ly less-certain sources of food and the resources need­ed to grow it. 

This trend is facil­i­tat­ed by oth­er coun­tries becom­ing more export-oriented in terms of their land use. Many of the coun­tries pic­tured here in dark green use more of their domes­tic crop­lands for export pro­duc­tion than for their own domes­tic food con­sump­tion. Other coun­tries are even more high­ly glob­al­ized, essen­tial­ly exchang­ing their export com­modi­ties for for­eign imports grown on land use abroad.

A shift toward spe­cial­iza­tion and con­cen­tra­tion with glob­al­iza­tion has fueled the emer­gence of dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly large and land-intensive trade rela­tion­ships, such as pic­tured here for the glob­al soy trade net­work. Just three coun­tries pro­duce and export about 80% of soy globally. 

Agricultural trade such as this can help to pro­mote gains in aver­age resource use effi­cien­cy in agri­cul­ture, reduc­ing the amount of land, fer­til­iz­er, and water required to pro­duce food calo­ries on a glob­al scale. However, the diver­si­ty of agri­cul­tur­al sys­tems from which these import­ed foods are sourced means that these effi­cien­cy gains are not uni­ver­sal, and may not occur for the same foods in the same countries.

As food con­sumers, we’re also increas­ing­ly urban. This com­pounds the chal­lenges of glob­al­iza­tion in sep­a­rat­ing us from food pro­duc­tion land­scapes. Our next step is to look at these glob­al data through the lens of more local case stud­ies, to ask where glob­al­iza­tion is ben­e­fi­cial and where instead we might strive from a mid­dle ground mod­el of regionalization.

Part of nav­i­gat­ing this is remem­ber­ing that glob­al food trade is not just about eco­nom­ics. In study­ing agri­cul­tur­al glob­al­iza­tion, I’ve been learn­ing that we can get a very dif­fer­ent under­stand­ing of the struc­ture and com­po­si­tion of glob­al food trade net­works using mon­e­tary, nutri­tion­al, or resource-based metrics.

In the next few decades, it’s pro­ject­ed that demand for food glob­al­ly could increase by 60% or more, like­ly dri­ving even greater sep­a­ra­tion of food pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion. In this time of change, we should envi­sion what sus­tain­able local and glob­al food sys­tems look like. How best can we all ben­e­fit from the diver­si­ty of agri­cul­ture on our plan­et in a fair, sus­tain­able, and food-secure way? Thank you. 

Further Reference

Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2016 at the World Economic Forum site