New ways of envisioning, managing and implementing the transitions necessary for the full-scale transformation of our global food systemDOWNLOAD Get Executive Summaries & Case Studies
What does it take to produce food? Think of it in layers, starting from the ground up. The bottom layer is the physical geography—perhaps a broad, flat plain, gently sloping toward a shallow river basin. Over the plains accumulates humus-rich soil, dense with carbon, calcium, and magnesium. Layer on a humid climate with heavy rains from June through September, and you have the conditions that support wheat and rice production in northern India.
Or perhaps it’s not a plain, but a series of mountain ridges and river-carved valleys, as in southern Spain, where food grows on pockets of quick draining soil under warm, dry summers and wet mild winters, supporting a patchwork of olive and almond groves with livestock grazing in between.
Or maybe you start in the sea, along the shallow continental shelf of the eastern United States, where rocks and reefs offer purchase for shellfish and estuarine rivers carry in a constant flow of nutrients—food for growing oyster colonies, which in turn serve as nurseries for both commercial and sport fish.
The need for food may be a universal constant, but the way we produce it is different around the world—especially when you layer on specific farming practices, market forces, distribution challenges, public policies and local communities and cultures.
What Makes a Foodscape?
New science defines foodscape classes, bringing together biophysical qualities and management attributes of food producing regions around the world. When mapped, foodscapes form a mosaic of interlaced systems that help realize the potential for nature-based solutions sensitive to local conditions while also understanding how economic, political, and community systems intersect when producing food.
The world’s food producing land and seascapes are diverse, shaped by their biogeographic and cultural contexts. The base layer of a foodscape consists of the geographic features distinct to that region, including the soil makeup, climate, land features, freshwater access, or qualities of a seabed.
This layer of a foodscape encompasses the practices deployed by producers, such as irrigation techniques, tillage or level of nutrient inputs.
Taken together, researchers identified terrestrial foodscapes based on their particular combination of biophysical and management-related variables and more than 80 distinct foodscape classes emerged from the analysis.
Building on the scientific classifications of foodscapes–combining the biophysical characteristics and management attributes–we can better understand how foodscapes are affected by market demands, distribution challenges, public policies and local communities and culture.
Understanding the diversity that underpins our global food system is a first step toward changing it—and transformative change is needed. There is a growing understanding of the need for this transformation, away from a system that pits human needs against nature—to the detriment of both—and toward one that supports healthy people and a healthy planet. But global transformation starts with local change. Thinking about systems change at the level of the foodscape can help build bridges between global ambition and local implementation.
What are Foodscapes?
Foodscapes are the building blocks of global food systems. In the new report Foodscapes: Toward Food System Transition—a collaboration among The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), and SYSTEMIQ—a foodscape is defined as a distinct food production geography with specific combinations of biophysical characteristics and management attributes.
What is a Food System?
A food system is the complex web of activities—and the beliefs and values that shape these activities—associated with producing and consuming food. This includes the production, processing, transport, preparation, consumption, and disposal of food.
Food distribution is a complex global process driven by market demand: Argentina sends beef to China, which sends tilapia to the United States, which sends wheat to Indonesia, which sends coconut oil back to the United States and China. Even the production of food, which might seem inherently local, is influenced by biophysical, economic, political and community systems that cross local, regional or international borders. A foodscape is the intersection and interaction of all these systems in a geographically defined space.
This report introduces a new global map of over 80 foodscape classes that were identified using the best available global datasets of biophysical drivers of food production (such as soil type and climate) and management (including crop type, water management and agronomic inputs). The challenges and pressures facing global foodscapes are explored, along with their potential for swift, tangible transitions in the near term.
Foodscapes in Focus
Upper Tana River Basin and Chesapeake Bay
The Upper Tana River Basin is in the central highlands of Kenya, just north and upstream from the capital city of Nairobi. The Upper Tana foodscape occupies a hilly, high-elevation region where the seasons alternate between periods of heavy rain and long dry spells. These physical aspects—the terrain, the soil, the climate—set the conditions on which the human aspects of food production rest. Production is spread across thousands of small farms called shambas, most of them under five acres, many on steep hillsides. Despite their small size, these shambas grow everything from cereal to pineapples to coffee. The outputs of these farms are crucial for both local consumption in Nairobi and a source of international exports, creating a vital economic link between the shambas, the city of Nairobi, and the greater Kenyan economy.
But foodscapes exist in marine as well as terrestrial environments—or both. Consider the Chesapeake Bay region on the eastern coast of the United States. The watershed draining into the Chesapeake covers 17 million acres, 20 percent of which is used for agriculture, including row crops, poultry, dairy and beef. But the bay itself is also an important food production site, a place where oysters are farmed and wild blue crab and striped bass are harvested.
The marine and terrestrial environments are connected by the rivers that drain from the upland agricultural areas into the bay—and without proper steps to manage runoff from farms, excess nutrients degrade water quality and harm marine species that are important to both the ecosystem and the local food economy. The food systems at land and sea can’t be managed without considering their impacts on one another, and so they can be viewed as a single foodscape, with common challenges and connected solutions.
Food and Nature: Risks and Rewards
Food systems transformation is often viewed as a global challenge, and with good reason—food production is a major driver of climate change and the destruction of nature, accounting for nearly one third of greenhouse gas emissions and 80 percent of land-use change globally. At the same time, climate change and biodiversity loss will make it much harder to produce food in the future, threatening the livelihoods of producers and ultimately making it more difficult to feed a growing population.
But food systems also hold great potential for positive change. A nature-based transformation in the global food system will actually help to mitigate climate change and restore biodiversity, while also maintaining or even improving the livelihoods of food producers.
Global assessments have documented the ways the global food system can shift to be more in line with the needs of both people and nature. What remains less clear are the specifics: what to do, where and when, and how to drive durable transformations on the ground.
Working at a foodscape scale enables planning for food production transitions that bridge the space between collective global challenges and locally led approaches. By design, foodscape classes offer a unit of analysis which may form a mosaic within a political area, a defined geography or biome, or even a key agroecological sourcing region. In doing so foodscapes provide policymakers, economists, analysts, or community leaders an additional tool to help map a relevant path towards food system transformation.
Nature-based solutions offer some of the best interventions to address climate, biodiversity, food and livelihood goals in tandem. In this report three broad categories of nature-based solutions are explored.
- Agroecology and regenerative agriculture practices: These are farming practices that restore landscapes in ways that both foster biodiversity and improve its ability to produce healthy food. These practices are many and apply to both cropping and grazing systems.
- Restorative aquaculture, sustainably managed fisheries, mariculture production: These are methods that restore ecological function and ecosystem health that has been degraded due to historical production practices, pollution, and overexploitation of fisheries.
- Protection and restoration of natural ecosystems: These practices include both halting conversion of forest and grasslands for agriculture, and restoring secondary forest and degraded grasslands—incorporating edge-of-field and riparian zone restoration that increases natural and agrobiodiversity in agricultural landscapes.
Foodscapes in Focus
Nature-Based Solutions in Action: Practice and Policy
In the Upper Tana Basin, the management of farms directly impacts the water quality and quantity available downstream. In recent years, sediment runoff from farmers reduced water quality in Nairobi and even impacted hydroelectric power availability as the impoundment built up sediment. In a hilly terrain of watersheds like the Upper Tana’s, farming practices like terracing hills or planting rows of forage grass can greatly reduce runoff. Less runoff also means more fertile soil stays in place, leading to greater yields from crops like coffee, and when nutritious forage plants like napier grass are available to eat cows produce more milk, so farmers see greater incomes even as they help improve the water quality.
In other foodscapes, the best solutions may not start with farm-level actions, but with policy changes that reshape the economics of food production. The San Joaquin Valley foodscape, in central California, is one of the world’s most productive foodscapes, with 5 million acres of cultivation that deliver a quarter of the fruits, vegetables, and tree crops consumed in the United States. But this enormous productivity has come at the cost of the original landscape, a mix of seasonal wetlands and arid scrub deserts, and requires an unsustainable level of irrigation that is exhausting local aquifers.
In response to these challenges, the state of California created a new agency charged with developing and implementing local strategies to achieve more sustainable water use. Because farming is the foundation of the region’s economy, it’s important to set up policies that improve water sustainability with limited impact to food production. By setting up local and regional water exchanges, water can be used where its most needed, reducing overall water use without mandating any food production changes at all. Fallowing degraded or marginal farmland—taking it out of the food production business—also reduces water strain, and if fallowed areas are sited strategically, they could meet the habitat needs of most threatened species with relatively little land. And some crops, such as almonds, will benefit from the change, as they rely on natural pollinators like bees that require healthy, wild habitat.
From Ambition to Action
The analysis in this report takes the world as it is as a starting point—the scenarios presented show where and how far the world can move toward achieving goals for climate, water, biodiversity and food production by implementing nature-based solutions in foodscapes as they exist today. Such changes must also be complemented by changes in diets, efforts to reduce loss and food waste, and other measures that are beyond the scope of this report. This is not a modest agenda, and the path forward will not be straightforward.
The scope of this agenda only underscores the urgency of taking action today. The ultimate goal of this foodscape work is to provide a manageable approach to tackling these complex, interdependent challenges and opportunities. To that end, the report offers specific recommendations that leaders across sectors can take to help accelerate this work.
Government leaders must take a hard look at public subsidies in the food system. Many subsidies, such as crop insurance and disaster relief offer important protections for producers vulnerable to dramatic swings in the market not to mention a rapidly changing climate. But the reverse is also true: many of these subsidies are encouraging practices that harm the planet, exacerbating many of the risks to farmers. Reallocating these subsidies away from practices focused exclusively on production and output to support producers in a shift to nature-based solutions that restore soil and water health is one of the most powerful things policymakers can do.
Private sector leaders must actively support a nature-based transition as well—there is no greater and faster scaling mechanism than markets. Companies can help lead the way by setting ambitious standards for nature-friendly food production—and help the producers they work with to meet these standards in way that supports their livelihoods.
Such changes will not be without friction—there will be conflicting perspectives regarding the priority, pace, and scale of implementation, both with regard to alternative solutions and different priorities. This demands a strong role and voice for civil society in engaging collaboratively around food systems transformation, including with the implementation and scaling of nature-based solutions.
But perhaps most importantly, leaders across all sectors must listen to food producers and have authentic engagements. Food systems transformation ultimately comes down to a series of decisions made by millions of producers all over the world, in communities of amazing diversity. A just and lasting transformation can only happen if all these communities can envision themselves as part of the process—and receive the support they need to participate, with the resulting benefits distributed equitably.
Food is one of our most basic human needs, but it’s more than just what we eat—food is the bedrock of cultures, communities, economies, ecologies, and so much more. That is why transformation is so difficult, but also so important. As Martin Frick, Deputy to the Special Envoy for the UN Food Systems Summit, recently noted, “We can only solve the conundrum of making food systems work both for people and the planet if we are looking at the real world…The concept of foodscapes helps us think about and embrace the complexities and interdependencies in a new way.”