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27 May 2014

Is Your Lunch Sustainable? A Quest for Answers in a Globalized Food System

We have long known that what we eat affects our health, but we are only beginning to grasp how much our food affects the environment, close to home and around the world. The EAT Stockholm Food Forum this week, which brings together perspectives on health, food and sustainability, is part of a growing effort to raise awareness of these linkages.

A first step in understanding the environmental impact of our food is to know where it comes from. With produce in the supermarket, that tends to be easy, as its country of origin, at least, is usually given on the label – though still, most people don’t see the big picture: Would you be surprised to find out, for example, that two-thirds of the tomatoes consumed in the UK are brought from Saudi Arabia, and most of the carrots are shipped from South Africa?

With animal products or processed foods, however, tracing origins can be far more difficult. When you buy a package of tofu, how do you know where the soy came from? And when you buy local beef, does that mean the cattle feed was also local? Or was it imported from Brazil? If the latter, was the feed sustainably grown, or did someone clear a tract of rainforest to produce it? As consumers – and governments – become more aware of the profound social and environmental impacts of the global food trade, answering these questions is becoming urgently important.

Javier Godar, a NORD-STAR fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), has developed a model that begins to address these issues. It is called SEI-PCS (Spatially Explicit Information on Production to Consumption Systems), and it makes it possible to trace the origin of products consumed in any country of the World down to subnational regions of production, such as municipalities. So far, it has been fully developed to examine Brazilian soy exports to EU, but it can be applied to different commodities. Inspired by the EAT Forum discussions, SIANI spoke with Godar about his research.

Q: How can your model help consumers to make better choices? Do you believe that better information will influence consumer behavior with regards to food produced in the Amazonian rainforest?

A: I believe consumers already have information about how high levels of consumption in developed countries are critical to the global environment. I don´t believe that individual consumers would change their choices based on the information provided by this or any other model. However, they clearly are sending a mandate to policy makers to look at these issues.

It is at the policy-making level that the different pieces of information that researchers are producing may have an impact. This does not mean that we should not communicate research findings to consumers, on the contrary, that kind of communication may fuel societal demands and ensure accountability, which is the base of any change.

Q: What change of policies would you like to see based on the results of your research?

A: I expect to provide more accurate data for the discussion on unintended consequences of environmental and agricultural policies as well as for international trade regulations. A number of other issues are also relevant, such as the economic quantification of externalities of consumption, consumer labeling, trade leakages, sustainable resource supply and traceability.

Q: What do you mean by unintended consequences of environmental and agricultural policies? Could you give an example?

A: Europe, and in particular the Nordic countries, are sourcing their consumed Brazilian soy relatively more from the Amazon and the Northern Cerrado than most other countries, including the major consumer of Brazilian soy (China). This means that per unit of Brazilian soy consumed the EU and the Nordic countries have a larger socio-environmental footprint, because those areas host enormous socio-environmental values and are submitted to large deforestation pressures. The case of the Nordic countries is special, because in the interest of consuming certified soy they are buying from a large company that actually has historically been accused of environmental crimes. Interestingly the SEI-PCS model detected this link with the area where certified soy is produced, which was confirmed by the Nordic soy importers.

Also, although the EU may have the most stringent GMO regulations in the world, the public clearly does not sufficiently know that the EU is necessarily importing most of its soy (and other feed) from GM production. For example the EU consumes about 13.5 million tonnes of soy from Brazil, but only about 6 million tonnes are currently certified as non-GM production. In Argentina there is virtually no non-GM soy.

Q: What are the major obstacles for your model’s implementation?  Is there a danger it could get out of date?

A: The major obstacle that I envision is that the large amount of information needed is surely not available in all countries. Although, I found, surprisingly, that a lot of information can be extended to other countries than Brazil, including the US, it is not clear if countries in other continents also have this information available.

Up to now the information is acquired in almost real time, the bottleneck is actually that the FAO trade data needed to calculate re-exports is released with a two-year delay. Other than that the information is quite updated to capture current dynamics.

Download the poster on SEI-PCS findings for the Nordic countries (PDF, 2MB)

Download a poster on SEI-PCS findings for the Nordic countries (PDF, 2MB) – See more at:

SEI-PCS (Spatially Explicit Information on Production to Consumption Systems) model is part of the NORD-STAR, the Nordic Centre of Excellence for Strategic Adaptation Research. NORD-STAR research initiative pursues innovative science, sound economic analysis and effective communication, with the goal to enable Nordic stakeholders to design and implement successful adaptation policy and practice.

NORD-STAR Research Initiative
EAT Stockholm Food Forum
CSR is Dead, Long Live the Triple Bottom Line! – Sustainable Business at the EAT Forum