In an age of industrialized farming and complex supply chains, the true environmental pressures of our global food system are often obscure and difficult to assess.
“Everyone eats food, and more and more people are paying attention to the planetary consequences of what they eat,” said UC Santa Barbara marine ecologist Ben Halpern. Figuring out this impact to the planet proves to be a gargantuan task for many reasons, including the fact that around the world there are a lot of different foods produced in many different ways, with many different environmental pressures.
By ranking foods on factors such as greenhouse gas emissions or water pollution, scientists have made useful headway on assessments of the environmental impacts of food by pound or kilogram. While these evaluations are helpful in guiding consumer choices, Halpern explained that a more comprehensive examination of the environmental footprint — the locations affected by the various pressures from food production and the severity of that pressure — is needed for decisions that have to be made in a world with a booming population.
“The individual choice of eight billion people adds up,” he said, “and we need to know the overall impact of total food production — not just per pound — especially when setting food policy.”
To fill that need, Halpern and colleagues at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis & Synthesis (NCEAS) have mapped for the first time the environmental footprint of the production of all foods, both in the ocean and on land. Their research is published in the journal Nature Sustainability.