Study Sheds Light on Environmental Impact of Global Food Production

Meat production from cows and pigs, and rice, wheat and seed oil crop production have the worst environmental impacts.

By Daniel Dawson
Nov. 3, 2022 12:26 UTC

New research pub­lished in Nature Sustainability details the impacts of global food pro­duc­tion on the envi­ron­ment.

Its lead author believes that the four-year inves­ti­ga­tion – which used a 2017 United Nations report to exam­ine nearly 99 per­cent of global food pro­duc­tion on land and sea – offers peo­ple a way to eval­u­ate how their eat­ing pat­terns affect the planet and a sus­tain­able path­way to fight­ing hunger.

Annual crops take a lot more water and a lot more land, so they are likely to have higher envi­ron­men­tal pres­sures than olive oil.- Ben Halpern , direc­tor, National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

This infor­ma­tion helps us think bet­ter about the food we eat and the envi­ron­men­tal pres­sure it has on our planet,” Ben Halpern, the direc­tor of the University of California-Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, told Olive Oil Times. The dif­fi­cult news is it takes a lit­tle bit of work to think care­fully about your diet.”

Using fresh­wa­ter con­sump­tion, green­house gas emis­sions, habi­tat dis­tur­bance and nutri­ent pol­lu­tion, the researchers com­pared the cumu­la­tive envi­ron­men­tal impact of pro­duc­ing one pound or kilo­gram for a wide range of foods.

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However, Halpern said that the team could not con­sider every envi­ron­men­tal fac­tor, such as defor­esta­tion, pes­ti­cide use and soil fer­til­ity degra­da­tion, due to a lack of data. Additionally, pos­i­tive envi­ron­men­tal impacts, such as the seques­tra­tion of car­bon diox­ide by tree crops, were not con­sid­ered.

What we have here is a con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mate of those pres­sures because there are impor­tant fac­tors miss­ing,” he said.

The study’s results demon­strated that meat pro­duc­tion from cows and pigs and rice, wheat and oil crop pro­duc­tion have the worst envi­ron­men­tal impacts. However, how they neg­a­tively impact the envi­ron­ment is very dif­fer­ent.

The researchers found that 60 per­cent of the cumu­la­tive impact of rais­ing cat­tle for beef comes from green­house gas emis­sions, with another 31 per­cent attrib­uted to nutri­ent pol­lu­tion and feed pro­duc­tion.

Meanwhile, most of the impacts of rice and wheat crops resulted from habi­tat dis­tur­bance and the immense amount of fresh water used.

Overall, global food pro­duc­tion uses about 50 per­cent of Earth’s hab­it­able sur­face area, more than 70 per­cent of avail­able fresh­wa­ter and emits between 23 and 34 per­cent of human-caused green­house gas emis­sions.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to dis­ag­gre­gate the infor­ma­tion into spe­cific prod­ucts,” Halpern said. As a result, olive oil pro­duc­tion was grouped into a larger cat­e­gory with canola, cot­ton seed, sesame seed and sun­flower oils.

We don’t know the indi­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tion of each of those oil types because they’re not reported,” he added.

However, Halpern said the scale of pro­duc­tion is an impor­tant fac­tor to keep in mind, as widely planted crops will take up more resources.

As a result, he sug­gested that olive oil pro­duc­tion has a rel­a­tively low envi­ron­men­tal impact com­pared to other inten­sively grown oilseed crops.

Annual crops take a lot more water and a lot more land, so they are likely to have higher envi­ron­men­tal pres­sures than olive oil,” Halpern said.

While the researchers did not take car­bon seques­tra­tion into account, pre­vi­ous stud­ies have found that all three cat­e­gories of olive groves – tra­di­tional, high-den­sity and super-high-den­sity – act as car­bon sinks.


In a 2021 study, researchers from the University of Jaén, Spain, found tra­di­tional rain­fed olive groves sequester an esti­mated 5.5 kilo­grams of car­bon diox­ide for each kilo­gram of olive oil pro­duced. This fig­ure falls to 4.3 in irri­gated olive groves.

Meanwhile, high-den­sity and super-high-den­sity olive groves sequester 2.7 kilo­grams of car­bon diox­ide per kilo­gram of olive oil pro­duced.

Along with study­ing the impacts of each type of food pro­duc­tion on the envi­ron­ment, the researchers also looked at food pro­duc­tion impacts in each coun­try.

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They found that five coun­tries account for half of the global envi­ron­men­tal impact of food pro­duc­tion: the U.S., China, India, Brazil and Pakistan.

The researchers also found that coun­tries pro­duce the same food with dif­fer­ent envi­ron­men­tal impacts.

For exam­ple, they found the U.S. is 2.4 times more effi­cient than India at pro­duc­ing soy due to the use of tech­nol­ogy to reap higher yields with fewer green­house gas emis­sions. The U.S. is the world’s largest soy pro­ducer, and India is the fifth-largest.

A sim­i­lar trend was seen for dem­er­sal fish, which live and feed on the ocean floor, with Russia har­vest­ing these fish 1.5 times more effi­ciently than China and 1.9 times more effi­ciently than Brazil.

That’s one of the really pow­er­ful things we’ve done with these analy­ses by being able to map where things occur and the dif­fer­ences in the envi­ron­men­tal pres­sures in pro­duc­tion in dif­fer­ent places,” Halpern said.

Each coun­try has dif­fer­ences in how good or bad they are at pro­duc­ing food,” he added. So you can start under­stand­ing those dif­fer­ences and maybe make choices based on those dif­fer­ences.”

Halpern orig­i­nally started the project to sati­ate his innate curios­ity about the envi­ron­men­tal impact of his diet.

After read­ing myr­iad news reports about the sig­nif­i­cant impact of meat pro­duc­tion on green­house gas emis­sions, he became a pescatar­ian.

However, he quickly real­ized that while many of the news reports were based on sci­en­tific stud­ies, none of them took into account the other envi­ron­men­tal impacts of food pro­duc­tion.

Now that this study is com­plete, Halpern hopes it will help guide pol­i­cy­mak­ers and indi­vid­ual con­sumers to make informed deci­sions about sus­tain­able food pro­duc­tion.

It would be won­der­ful if our work can help inform changes to the Farm Bill or, at an inter­na­tional level, trade pol­icy that struc­tures incen­tives for dif­fer­ent food pro­duc­tion,” he said.

If we care about a sus­tain­able food sys­tem and healthy peo­ple, we need to rethink a lot of the details [about where and how food is pro­duced],” he added. If our results could help inform some of those changes, that would be a pro­foundly wel­come out­come.”

Halpern is cur­rently fol­low­ing this research up with another study on the envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice impli­ca­tions of the impacts of food pro­duc­tion.

We hear this a lot in terms of like fac­tory pol­lu­tion as an exam­ple of where these harm­ful human health out­comes are dis­pro­por­tion­ately affect­ing minori­ties and under­rep­re­sented groups,” he said.

Our work is start­ing to explore if or how these envi­ron­men­tal food pres­sures may be hav­ing sim­i­lar con­se­quences for peo­ple around the planet,” Halpern con­cluded.

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