It is hard to escape headlines about rainforests turned into plantations, endangered species populations and other environmental and social issues within the food industry. However, finding how those relate to the food on our plates can be an uphill struggle – not just for consumers, but for researchers, companies and governments too.

In a special section of WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018, we describe how pioneering work by SEI and others is helping to change this, with research utilising newly available data and processing power to link up our often fragmented knowledge of global production-to-consumption systems.

Harvesting wheat. Photo: Taikrixel / Getty

Harvesting wheat. Photo: Taikrixel / Getty Images.

Joining up knowledge

In the three-page section, titled “Integrating data to connect consumers to their impacts”, we look at how innovative research is weaving together data from very different sources to illuminate the dynamics and interdependencies of production-to-consumption systems.

In doing so, we split the systems into three “steps”.

Step 1 is assessment and measurement of impacts on biodiversity. Here, organisations like Global Forest Watch are using high-resolution satellite imagery to help companies and others understand how agricultural commodities may be contributing to forest loss and other environmental risks.

Step 2 connects production and consumption – showing how the commodities produced in one place, and associated with localised environmental risks, move towards consumer markets. The Trase programme led by SEI and Global Canopy has revolutionised this kind of research, weaving together trade, production and other data to bring unprecedented transparency to the production sites, the actors involved, and the flows of forest-risk commodities in the global trade system. Trase also integrates this with Step 1 data to quantify the specific environmental and socio-economic risks associated with particular flows.

A video presentation of Living Planet Report 2018. Video: WWF / YouTube.

Step 3 connects supply chains to consumer demand – showing how commodities are bought, sold and processed on their way to the final consumer. Production–consumption links can become particularly opaque at this stage, especially in the case of forest-risk commodities like palm oil, which might reach the consumer as a minor ingredient in anything from margarine to shampoo, or soy, which mostly ends up as feed in the livestock industry.

Here we highlight the potential of modeling based on global economic databases, and of linking that with Step 2 data. In particular, enhancements of SEI’s IOTA model under the SEI Initiative on Producer to Consumer Sustainability (P2CS) and the PRINCE project has allowed us to link agricultural impacts through to final consumers, providing a fully integrated sub-national production-to-consumption model for the first time.

In the CONTACTED project, we have contributed towards advancing our understanding of biodiversity impacts associated with crop production, used our trade models to link these to supply chain actors and consumers, and explored how those involved in production and trade perceive their roles within their supply chains. By looking at the issues and challenges within, and outside of, supply chains, and by looking at them from different viewpoints, we are able to take a system-level perspective on both the problems and the opportunities for greater sustainability.

From research to action

Of course, without one more step, none of this new research amounts to much: translating all these new capacities into effective action – action that can actually reduce the negative impacts on the environment linked to consumption.

This is another area where SEI’s research in this field has come a long way since the last Living Planet Report. For example, the Trase programme is engaging with governments, businesses and NGOs in soy-producing areas of Brazil and palm oil-producing areas of Indonesia to promote supply chain transparency and sustainable production. With demand-side data, we are supporting the Soy Buyers Coalition and National Roundtables on Sustainable Soya, initiatives aiming to remove deforestation-linked commodities from supply chains and connect downstream commodity users with initiatives at the point of production in efforts to limit deforestation.