Eat Local: Sustainability linked to regional trade

June 17, 2019

The globalization of the economy has significantly altered the way that nations produce food, engage in water usage, and utilize other resources.

Paolo D’Odorico, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, & Management, recently co-authored a study published in Nature Sustainability that examines the historical relationship human societies have with material flows, such as food trade—and the impact of international trade on these valuable resources.

D’Odorico and his colleagues, including postdoctoral fellow Chengyi Tu, developed a theoretical framework to investigate the impact of globalization on the sustainable use of natural resources for food production. The researchers conclude that with the increasing connectivity of the global economy, the resilience of our food resources have declined.  

A more connected world might seem to intuitively lend itself to more resilience; if there is a food shortage in one part of the world, another region may import goods to supply the nation under pressure, potentially leading to less resource exploitation. However, D’Odorico contests that there is increasing evidence that this pattern of trade is more susceptible to shifts to an unsustainable state.

“Communities that are more connected internally within a region rather than externally tend to be more resilient to international shocks,” D’Odorico says.

To come to this finding, the team constructed a mathematical model in which resources are distributed among countries and used both locally and globally through international trade. The resource dynamics have two outcomes; one in which a food resource is depleted or goes extinct, and another in which a resource is sustainably used.  

Taking this into account, and then looking at the number of participants in agricultural commodity trading, the study finds that there is an inverse relationship between the number of trade flows importers and exporters and the resilience of the agricultural resources—such as water, soil, and land—used to produce food products. The higher number of international trading partners trading a specific resource often leads to the resource or the food or product being depleted.

The authors contend that an increase in global trade will likely result in further loss of resilience in the global food system. “When the world is more interconnected, we share a more globalized response to disastrous events,” says D’Odorico. “It impacts both ecologists and banking systems; we’ve noticed that a shock in the Shanghai stock exchange causes effects all over the world.”  

The sustainability implication of this study filters down to our everyday food choices. “Local food movements have been growing, and yet in some regions of the world, there are limits to the feasibility of this option,” says D’Odorico, noting again that the increasing reliance on trade can weaken the resilience of the global food system. “This study gives some power to the discussion of locality, and on the advantage of food being produced and consumed locally.”

Read the study on the Nature Sustainability website.