Photo: Ercan Ilbay

Food Security, Trade, and the Environment


This project synthesized existing global datasets to evaluate the effects of international trade on the resilience of the global food system. A special issue of Environmental Research Letters was organized and received 29 contributions. Results were communicated to researchers through journal articles and conference presentations, to policy-makers through third-party policy documents, and to the general public through news and social media. New indicators of resilience in the global food system were created and distributed through online data archives.

Project Status


Project Description

Global food production has increased by 50% during the last three decades and concurrent increases in international trade have created new patterns in human population density relative to agricultural production and natural resources. Trade allows populations to increase their carrying capacities relative to local environmental limits, potentially altering resilience to decreased food supplies due to crop failures (foreign or domestic) and sudden economic or political changes. Trade also distances consumers from producers, displacing pollution away from consumers, and changes patterns of agricultural water use. Understanding these issues is important for achieving long-term sustainability of human populations and the environment.

Group photo of our interdisciplinary research group at SESYNC.

With Paolo D’Odorico, I organized an interdisciplinary research group at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) that evaluated how changes in international trade influence the resilience of the global food system to perturbations such as crop failures. The group comprised 15 researchers including hydrologists, ecologists, physicists, economists, sociologists, and food security experts that came from 9 different universities in six different countries. We created a simulation-based model that provides a framework to study the short-term, nonlinear and out-of-equilibrium response of trade networks to supply shocks. We observed important interactions between trade and cereal reserves. For example, having reserves to absorb production losses, or the capacity to import more from countries with such reserves, contributes to reducing the number and severity of cases where a local drop in production forces a decrease in domestic consumption. However, a greater reliance on imports increases the risk of critical food supply losses following a foreign shock, notably in the case of several Central American and Caribbean countries that import grains from the United States. We complemented these types of quantitative analyses with case studies that identify key social and political dynamics related to shocks. Additionally, we generated new global-scale indicators of food systems resilience which we have made these data freely available online.

Complex trade networks create the potential for local crop failures to propagate into global food crises. This simulation illustrates how a shock to food production in Argentina propagates based on trade connections.

Finally, we organized a special issue of Environmental Research Letters that received 29 contributions that collectively describe, evaluate, and synthesize diverse aspects of the relationship between trade, food and water security, and the environment. As of March 2018, the papers in this special issue have been downloaded 165,512 times and cited in 365 scholarly articles. These citations come from diverse fields including Fisheries Science, Environmental Science and Management, Human Geography, Applied Economics, Public Health, Political Science, and Plant Biology. The papers have reached over 1.2 million user-views on Twitter, and are described in at least 17 posts on social media platforms like Facebook and Reddit. There have been at least 55 news stories and blog posts. Most importantly, the special issue papers have been cited at least 6 times in policy documents. The issue is available for free on the Environmental Research Letters website.

Ensuring food security requires food production and distribution systems function throughout disruptions. The results of this project are the basis for global comparisons of resilience between countries, and provide necessary context for developing generalizations about resilience in the global food system.

Journal Covers

ERL cover for Focus Issues on Food, Trade and Environment

Reviews of Geophysics cover related to review paper on food-energy-water nexus

Policy Documents Citing This Project

Selected Media Reports

Social Media

Resilience Indicators


. Food inequality, injustice, and rights. BioScience, 2019.

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. Food, Trade and the Environment. Environmental Research Letters, 2018.

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. Food, Trade and the Environment. Environmental Research Letters, 2018.

PDF Project Journal Cover

. The Global Food-Energy-Water Nexus. Reviews of Geophysics, 2018.

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. Resilience in the global food system. Environmental Research Letters, 2017.

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. Shocks to fish production: Identification, trends, and consequences. Global Environmental Change, 2017.

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. What commodities and countries impact inequality in the global food system?. Environmental Research Letters, 2016.

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. Reserves and trade jointly determine exposure to food supply shocks. Environmental Research Letters, 2016.

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. Pathways to sustainable intensification through crop water management. Environmental Research Letters, 2016.

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. Past and present biophysical redundancy of countries as a buffer to changes in food supply. Environmental Research Letters, 2016.

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. Globalization of agricultural pollution due to international trade. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 2014.

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. Inequalities in the Networks of Virtual Water Flow. Eos, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, 2012.

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. Virtual water transfers unlikely to redress inequality in global water use. Environmental Research Letters, 2011.

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