couple buy hroceries in a supermarket

Food supply chains are complex

There is an environmental cost of food, always has been, and reducing it is a complexity challenge

Some documentaries about the environmental costs of food are doing the rounds on the streaming services. They explain the research and show evidence that food production has a huge environmental footprint. 

Land clearing, water use, nutrient runoff, greenhouse gas emissions, and biodiversity loss are all there when farmers grow crops and rear livestock. 

Crudely, environmental impact is a cost of doing agricultural business.

It always has been of course, ever since the first agriculturalists hitched a cow to a yolk. But it really got going after the modern diesel tractors came off the Ford production lines and a couple of Nobel laureates figured out an industrial-scale process to fix nitrogen into fertiliser.

Rightly many of us want to do something to reduce or even reverse these environmental costs. 

So what to do?

full moon over a green field in a cloudless sky
Photo by Yunus Tuğ on Pexels

We like the look of agricultural lands but they are a disruption to nature.

How about loading the supermarket trolley with environmentally friendly food—mostly plants grown locally and made available with minimal processing.

Good plan, but veganism is a stretch, even vegetarianism might not be in our evolutionary past, and so for 9 out of 10 consumers, a few meat products are zapped at the checkout. 

Beyond the “eat more veggies” option, it is hard to make choices for foods with smaller footprints.

The reason is the complexity of the food supply chain. 

A gram of grains in the muesli bar could have come from anywhere globally, likewise the palm oil glueing the ingredients together. The mince labelled as from a grain-fed cow sounds ok, but what if the soy to feed the cattle was grown in fields that a year ago were Amazonian rainforest?

It can be very hard to choose.

Photo by Chennawit Yulue:

Help from world leaders?

At the 2021 COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, 100 world leaders promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. This laudable commitment came with a pledge to spend $19.2bn of public and private funds for actions to meet the promise. 

A few experts who remembered the previous deal in 2014 warned that that one “failed to slow deforestation at all” and a famous youngster said, “blah, blah, blah”.

It turns out that Brazil was among the nations that promised a reverse.

Here is what the data for deforestation rates in Brazil look like

Deforestation fell in the early 2000s but rose again through the 2010s. The two million hectares cleared in 2020 were roughly the same area as the remaining top nine countries combined. Alongside a slackening of environmental legislation and weak enforcement, illegal logging, expansion of agricultural areas for soybean cultivation, and increased wildfire outbreaks are the main causes of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. 

No obvious slowdown of deforestation emerged.

The BBC reported that the latest numbers for January 2022 deforestation in the Amazon  totalled 430 square kilometres (166 square miles) a major increase on previous years. Felling large numbers of trees at the start of the year is unusual because the rainy season usually stops loggers from accessing dense forest. However, strong global demand for agricultural commodities such as beef and soya beans is fuelling some of these illegal clearances. Another is the expectation that a new law will soon be passed in Brazil to legitimise and forgive land grabbing.

Deforestation and food

What has ongoing deforestation got to do with food supply chains?

It is easy to assume that deforestation happens because people want to use timber. This is true. However, the biggest driver of land clearing is for agricultural land.

And this is what it is.

Land clearing for agriculture has given us a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, microclimate change and a host of secondary effects from agricultural pests and diseases to loss of cultural value.

But it has also meant that there is enough food produced to feed everyone well. Hunger and food insecurity is more to do with access to food, distribution of food and waste than a shortage of production.

But we have reached a limit to the land sensible to clear. 

Further deforestation is only a short-term fix to the farmer’s business and the beneficiaries in the food supply chain, including cheap food for the consumer.

We have to be more thoughtful and look long.

What sustainably FED suggests

In 2021, a Greenpeace investigation highlighted the direct links between deforestation in the Amazon and food sold in British supermarkets and restaurants. Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Nando’s and McDonald’s were selling meat, sourced from a UK supplier, fed soy grown on farms built in deforested areas.

Turns out this will be true for a wide range of foods. Everywhere we grow crops on land that used to be a forest. We have to otherwise there would not be enough food to meet global demand. 

Remember that half the global population do not grow their food.

Add to this the reality that modern food supply chains are truly global. Their length and complexity can make it very hard to determine the provenance of foods, especially the long list of ingredients in most processed foods.

We can lament the loss of forests but we also have to be pragmatic. For better or worse we have 7.8 billion people that need 22 trillion calories a day to meet metabolic demand and both those numbers will grow. 

Another billion people in Africa by 2050.

So what to do back in the supermarket? 

Here are a few rules of thumb when the supply chain complexity is too hard to unravel 

  • Choose fresh produce
  • Minimise ultra processed food options
  • Buy organic when you can afford it
  • Favour brands that are careful with their sourcing 
  • Beware of greenwash

Hero image from photo by Jack Sparrow


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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