Developing integrated environmental indicators for sustainable global food production and trade

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Bartlett Sch of Env, Energy & Resources

Abstract

The proposed research aims to improve understanding of the environmental impact and sustainability of global food production and trade, and to propose solutions to alleviate this impact.
The natural environment, providing us with essential resources and ecosystem services, is under increasing pressure from human activities. Importantly, increasing demand for food, due to population growth and socio-economic development, have led to the intensive use of water, land, and fertilisers in agriculture. Irrigation accounts for more than two thirds of freshwater withdrawn globally, and agriculture occupies more than one third of the Earth's land surface and emits a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, food production will need to significantly increase to feed about two additional billion people by 2050. Ensuring environmentally sustainable, sufficient food production is thus a difficult and pressing global challenge.

To address this challenge, my research will provide critical improvements in our current understanding of the multiple environmental impacts of agriculture, by accounting for different practices and local conditions across the world. This will allow a comprehensive assessment of agricultural sustainability and help to quantify trade-offs associated with different agricultural management strategies. Indeed, as agricultural practices are tightly linked (e.g. water and soil management), it is essential to consider all major environmental aspects to avoid the unintended consequences of strategies focused on a single aspect. The research will also consider trade; following recent globalisation, international food trade has grown rapidly since the 1980s, allowing for the development of major export-oriented agricultural regions. This crucial role of trade in global agricultural systems will be integrated in the evaluation of potential pathways to achieve environmentally sustainable agriculture.

The proposed research addresses critical areas of integration necessary to assess pathways to sustainable agriculture: (1) comprehensive estimation of environmental impacts, (2) integration across a range of products (crops and livestock), (3) innovative quantitative measures of sustainability and (4) simultaneous linking of all environmental stresses with global trade.

To reach my research objectives, I will combine emerging environmental datasets and models to consistently estimate the potential environmental impacts of food production, via water and land resource use, eutrophication (ecosystem pollution through nutrient leakage) and climate change. I will then apply innovative techniques to combine these estimates into spatially detailed indicators of the environmental sustainability of global food production. This ambitious and innovative research project will provide the first tool to simultaneously evaluate the major environmental impacts of food systems. It is highly significant as it targets the key global challenges of environmental sustainability and food security. I will then combine the indicators with international food trade data to analyse the increasingly significant linkages between food producing regions and remote consumers. Finally, I will use the developed global datasets, indicators, and trade analysis to carry out country level case studies assessing pathways to achieving environmental sustainability of food production and supply.

The research draws from environmental footprint analysis, which has been used successfully to both understand and stimulate policy interest in global resource use and scarcity. More recently, the interactions between water, food, trade and the climate have been increasingly recognised in many studies pinpointing the need for multi-disciplinary and cross-sectoral approaches. Using state-of-the-art, emerging environmental datasets, this work will generate new knowledge on globally significant environmental processes and profile policy relevant insights.

Planned Impact

The proposed research aims to improve the estimation and utilisation of information on the environmental sustainability of global food production and supply. As the project targets the crucial issues of food security and sustainable agriculture, the associated results dissemination modes are designed to be highly beneficial to a range of users.
There is strong socio-economic and political interest in these topics, as shown by the activities led by major national and international bodies, such as international agencies (e.g. United Nations - Sustainable Development Goals, and the World Bank - Global Agriculture and Food Security program), government entities (e.g. European Commission - The Food Security Thematic Programme, and U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), and also in the private sector (e.g. Sainsbury's Carbon footprint initiative) and at the household level (consumer preferences for environmentally friendly foods).

The continuous engagement of experts and stakeholders in the research process, and the broad dissemination of policy relevant findings are carefully designed to ensure socio-economic impact of my research.
This research has the potential to achieve the following benefits for users:
(i) Tools to assess and plan for sustainable food supply, for use by importing countries' agriculture and trade policy makers and food retailers.
(ii) Information about environmental impacts of imported products for consumers, food agencies and retailers in importing and producing countries
(iii) Information to decide the most effective agricultural strategies towards environmental sustainability for food trade, agriculture, water and environmental policy makers and food producers, in producing and exporting countries.
(iv) Sustainable food security, ecosystem services (e.g. recreational activity), health benefits via nutrition and clean environment to the general public.

To engage with policy makers, practitioners and the general public, a number of activities and engagement mechanisms have been designed at the core of this project.

I will set up an advisory group that will both help co-design and follow the results of the research project. Group members will include my project partners, Prof. Smith, Prof. Benton and Dr. Hanasaki, as well as other academic and policy experts, e.g. Prof. Martin Parry (Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London), Prof. Raimund Bleischwitz (Institute for Sustainable Resources at University College London) and leaders of the Programmes on Climate & Environment and Agricultural Development & Policy (Overseas Development Institute), with whom I have established contacts; and potentially members of the Global Water Partnership, the OECD, and U.K. departments (e.g. Defra and DFID), which have strong ties with my project mentors and/or the host Institution.
I also plan to regularly consult with relevant stakeholders, e.g. experts from relevant U.K. (e.g. Defra, DFID, DECC) or foreign bodies with interest in environmental sustainability and food security (e.g. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (international), Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (U.S.) and the Global Footprint Network (international)).
I will disseminate the outcomes of this project in a number of ways in addition to peer-reviewed articles, to reach wider audiences. For example, the research findings will be published as a Working Paper in the Grantham Research Institute Working Paper series.
The Grantham Research Institute will also issue press releases profiling key results to over 500 key journalists to attract the attention of the media and thus the general public.
The extensive research and policy networks of project partners will be an additional opportunity to disseminate the research findings to other type of audiences, via the U.K. Global Food Security Programme led by Prof. Benton and the Food Systems for Scottish Food Security Alliance, led by Prof. Smith.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description We have published in the journal Nature an article where we quantify the amount of groundwater depletion embedded in international food trade. This allows to identify food trade relationships that depend on unsustainable groundwater use for irrigation. We also submitted another article (currently in review) about a new indicator of the sustainability of agricultural water use worldwide. Other ongoing work is assessing the amount of water use, fertiliser use, land use and greenhouse gases emissions embedded in crop and animal products globally.
Exploitation Route The results of the Nature article have already been used by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) in their SDG Index Report. We expect stakeholders and policy makers in the areas of agriculture, water management and food could use our results to improve the environmental sustainability of their decisions and processes.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

URL https://www.nature.com/articles/nature21403
 
Description The findings presented in the journal article publication "Groundwater depletion embedded in international food trade" have been used in several policy reports published by the United Nations' Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The SDG Index Report 2017 and 2018: http://sdgindex.org/ These reports are publicly available so the potential impact is high, but no particular third-party use of the data beyond this report is known.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Impact Types Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

 
Description NERC standard grant
Amount £820,000 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/R010811/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2018 
End 07/2021
 
Description Our Planet Our Health
Amount £5,000,000 (GBP)
Organisation Wellcome Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2017 
End 04/2022
 
Description PhD Committee Fran 
Organisation London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM)
Department Department of Population Health
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I am a PhD committee member for Ms Francesca Harris, provide advice on research methods.
Collaborator Contribution Working on issues related to my research interests. (Food trade sub-nationally in India).
Impact Research in progress.
Start Year 2017
 
Description SADHI project 
Organisation London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I have provided advice and discussed about the research led by colleagues at Aberdeen University and LHSTM on water footprint in India.
Collaborator Contribution The partners have led the research.
Impact Abstract accepted for poster presentation at EGU Meeting 2018 (Austria) and GEWEX Meeting 2018 (Canada). 2019: Article titled ""More crop per drop": Exploring India's cereal water use since 2005" has been revised and resubmitted to the journal Science of the Total Environment.
Start Year 2016
 
Description SAM : Sustainable Agriculture Matrix 
Organisation University of Maryland
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I have attended two 3-day workshops and will attend a third one. Following the workshops, we have collaboratively developed material for future academic publications and policy reports. I have contributed to the proposal developed to fund the workshops.
Collaborator Contribution They have led the proposal to fund the workshop. They have hosted the workshops. Following the workshops, we have collaboratively developed material for future academic publications and policy reports.
Impact Multi-disciplinary collaboration. Economics, Environmental Science, Agronomics, Agricultural Policy, Social Sciences, Nutrition Science, Hydrology, etc. Upcoming outputs: Huang, G., Yao, G., Zhao, J., Lisk, M., Yu, C., Zhang, X., 2019.The trade-offs of importing crop to meet domestic demand in China, Environmental Research Letters. (Under Review) Yao, G., Zhang, X., Taheripour, F., Tyner, W.E., 2019. The Environmental Consequences of China's Trade Retaliation on US Agriculture - Implications on Agriculture Sustainability, 2019. 2019 Agricultural & Applied Economics Annual Meeting. (Under Review) Zhang, X. et al., 2019. First Edition Sustainable Agriculture Matrix (In preparation) Presentations: > Davidson, E.A. 2018. Water-energy-food nexus -- the case of the USA. Forum on Modern Wate Governance and Technological Innovation, Beijing, China, October, 2018. > Davidson, E.A., Zhang, X. 2018. Developing a sustainable agriculture matrix on national scales. Japanese Geosciences Union, Annual Meeting, May 2018. > Davidson, E.A., Zhang, X. 2017. Manure happens: The consequences of feeding seven billion human omnivores. 9th US Symposium on Harmful Algae, Baltimore, MD. October 2017. > Davidson, E.A., Zhang, X. 2017. Developing a sustainable agriculture matrix on national scales. International Institute for Applied Systems, Analysis, Vienna, Austria, July, 2017. > Vishwakarma, S., Zhang, X., Mueller, N.D., 2018. Projecting future nitrogen use considering yield response to nitrogen inputs and crop types, American Geophysical Union Fall 2018 Meeting, Washington D.C. > Tan, X., Zhang, X., Davidson, E., 2018. Managing Phosphorus in Cropland for Sustainable Development, American Geophysical Union Fall 2018 Meeting, Washington D.C.
Start Year 2016
 
Description Aired on BBC World Service Science in Action 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Aired live 6 times during the broadcast day across world regions covered by the BBC World Service, in the Science in Action programme. The recording is permanently available on the BBC World Service website for all to listen to.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p002vsnb/broadcasts/2017/03
 
Description Blog post by Mother Jones 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Blog author wrote story about my article on Groundwater. Online article was commented more than 250 times by readers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2017/04/globes-supply-underground-water-vanishing/
 
Description Footprint Family Workshop JRC 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact Scientific workshop over 3 days held by the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) in Ispra Italy, with scientists from the JRC, FAO, Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Germany, etc. This is planned to lead to the publication of two policy-relevant papers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Interviewed for an article by PBS NewsHour about my paper 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interviewed on the phone for article about my research paper.Online article freely available:
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/global-groundwater-disappears-rice-wheat-international-crops-ma...
 
Description LEAP conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Presented my research at A Multi-Disciplinary Research Conference On The Effects Of Meat And Dairy On Population Health, The Economy, Society And The Environment.
I was then invited by a pg student for a video interview related to her thesis.
This also led to discussion with newly met colleagues about future research projects.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.leap.ox.ac.uk/article/dynamic-exchanges-at-the-first-leap-conference-2018
 
Description Le Monde 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Responded to an interview by journalist from French national newspaper "Le Monde". Led to publication of article in this newspaper (both print and online). Goal to reach the general public. Goal reached: ARTICLE in the online version of the newspaper was shared 5,000 times on Facebook and the journalist post on Twitter about the article was shared 100 times (100 retweets).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2017/03/29/notre-consommation-alimentaire-epuise-les-eaux-sout...
 
Description Nature Podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Was interviewed live for the podcast programme organised by the edition Nature.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.nature.com/nature/podcast/index.html
 
Description TV interview (TRT World) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact More than 100 people have viewed the TV interview video on the TRT World's YouTube channel.
The interview has been aired four times on the TRT World channel available worldwide - no data on viewers of the live channel.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OnjesaxEoI