27% of all land-use emissions are related to agricultural products consumed in a different country than they were produced

Researchers have for the first time quantified rising land-use emissions embodied in the international trade of specific agricultural products like beef that results in deforestation. “International trade allows goods and services produced in one country to be consumed elsewhere, separating consumption from its environmental impacts, including greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land-use change (together referred to as “land-use emissions”).”

“Annually, 27% of land-use emissions and 22% of agricultural land are related to agricultural products ultimately consumed in a different region from where they were produced. Roughly three-quarters of embodied emissions are from land-use change, with the largest transfers from lower-income countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, and Argentina to more industrialized regions such as Europe, the United States, and China…” The findings are based on a new study published in the journal Science.

“These land-use emissions are substantial enough to threaten international climate goals even if fossil fuel emissions are drastically reduced,” the paper stated… A model the researchers created based on trade and agricultural data found that between 2004 and 2017, land-use emissions in international trade increased 14%.”

“The land-use change problem needs to be front and center on our radar,” said Steven Davis, a co-author of the paper and an associate professor of Earth system science at the University of California at Irvine. Davis and other scientists said wealthy nations are outsourcing land-use emissions to countries such as Brazil and Indonesia. “In places like the US or Europe, there’s very little land-use change going on for agriculture because we did our deforestation earlier in our history,” said Davis.

Timothy Seachinger, a senior research scholar at Princeton University and technical director of the World Resources Institute food program, studies agriculture land use and climate change. He said policies designed to lower greenhouse emissions from transportation in developed nations are increasing land-use emissions as woodlands are converted to grow crops for biofuels…

The paper sends an important message about the responsibility for land-use emissions, he added. “People think it’s just some kind of perverse activity by developing countries chopping down forests,” said Searchinger. “What’s driving this is demand for products” in the US, Europe and China.

Davis and his colleagues determined that cereals and oil crops, such as soybean and palm oil, accounted for 45% to 55% of land-use emissions in international agriculture trade between 2004 and 2017. Cattle, pigs and other animals represented 14% to 19% of emissions while fruits and vegetables were responsible for less than 8%.”

“As noted elsewhere, soybeans are the largest global source of protein for livestock feed. China’s soybean import from Brazil has surged by 2,000% since 2000. Most of which is used for animal feed to support rising meat consumption.”

“Searchinger said governments can lower land-use emissions by adopting policies to reduce reliance on biofuels and lower demand for meat. Imposing tariffs on products with high land-use emissions is another option, said Davis.

The opaqueness of food supply chains can make it difficult for consumers to avoid carbon-rich foods, said Davis. Palm oil, for instance, is a ubiquitous ingredient in many foods, from bread and margarine to cookies and ice cream, and its cultivation has resulted in widespread deforestation in Indonesia.” For more information on RSPO certified sustainable palm oil, go to: https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/8-things-know-about-palm-oil

These authors concluded that “Mitigation of global land-use emissions and sustainable development may thus depend on improving the transparency of supply chains.”

To access the newly published research article described here, see below URL:

Hong C, Zhao H, H, Qin Y, et al. Land-use emissions embodied in international trade. Science 2022;376:597-603.


Sources: Woody T. The climate threat hidden in your hamburger. Bloomberg. May 20, 2022. Available at: bloomberg.com. Hein T. The soybean situation: 2021 and beyond. Poultry World. April 2022. Available at: poultryworld.net

Published by greengrass50

My name is Christine McCullum-Gomez, PhD, RDN. I am a registered dietitian nutritionist with expertise in environmental nutrition, food and nutrition policy, food and nutrition security, food justice, chronic disease prevention, regenerative & organic agriculture, and sustainable healthy dietary patterns. Currently, I serve on the Editorial Review Board and as a Column Editor for the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. I live in Bogota, Colombia with my husband, two teenagers (boy-girl twins), and our dog Honey. My website is: www.sustainablerdn.com. You can follow me on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/cmccullumgomez/

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