Knowledge for better food systems

FCRN Blogs

The Telecoupling Consortium: Local Land, Global Food, Complex Connections

April 11, 2016
Tara Garnett

A consortium aiming to understand local to global social, economic and environmental food system interactions - and to aid decision making

This blog-post is written by FCRN coordinator Tara Garnett who is part of a new global research collaboration; the Telecoupling consortium. In this post she describes what the project aims to do and she also asks for feedback from the FCRN community on key organisations, institutions and individuals that you think should be involved in this project, other projects that the research group should know about and data sources that could be included.

A consortium aiming to understand local to global social, economic and environmental food system interactions - and to aid decision making

This blog-post is written by FCRN coordinator Tara Garnett who is part of a new global research collaboration; the Telecoupling consortium. In this post she describes what the project aims to do and she also asks for feedback from the FCRN community on key organisations, institutions and individuals that you think should be involved in this project, other projects that the research group should know about and data sources that could be included.

What’s the problem?

What you choose to eat for dinner affects people and landscapes in regions thousands of miles away. Equally, decisions made by governments, traders and farmers about what to grow and where, who to sell it to and for how much, determine what and how much food is available and affordable to you.  All these decisions affect the environment upon which food provisioning today and tomorrow depends – while farming is itself influenced by environmental factors such as rainfall, temperature and land quality. Today’s world is connected globally – socioeconomic and environmental interactions and feedbacks across large distances, including trade and climate change, mean we now live in what some have called a ‘telecoupled world’.

We also live in a complex and crowded world. Our current global population is likely to reach 9-10 billion by 2050. Every day there are more people to feed – people who are, on average, growing richer, more urbanised and whose preferences are increasingly shaped by influential media and marketing forces. But the distribution of food is unequal. Some 800 million worldwide continue to go hungry and 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies – but a further 2 billion suffer from obesity and the non-communicable diseases of excess. While there may be enough food in aggregate, the general picture says nothing about localised problems of price, affordability, access or stability, nor about the nutritional quality of foods grown and eaten. 

Finally, we live in a fragile world. The types of food we increasingly want tend to be water and resource intensive, internationally sourced, and generate high environmental impacts. The food system is already a major contributor to environmental damage: it contributes to some 20-30% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, occupies 40% of the world’s finite available land, drives deforestation, land use change and biodiversity loss; places pressures on scarce water resources and is major polluter of soils and water ways. If unchecked, our current patterns of production and consumption will make the situation worse.

At the same time, as our climate warms and changes, food production is expected to becoming increasingly difficult and unpredictable in many parts of the world. We potentially face a future of falling or stagnating yields and the prospect of widespread food insecurity and suffering.  

What do we need to know if we are to act?

The challenge we face as a global community is to feed people effectively, without causing environmental damage or undermining prospects of future generations.

This much is agreed. It is also recognised that no one single approach will do the job.  The approaches will need to be multiple and context specific and will likely include actions to: reduce the environmental impacts and increase the resilience of food production; alter consumption patterns; and, critically, improve governance at the local, regional and global levels.

All this is easier said than done. Since the food system is complex and global, with decisions made in one locality having unforeseen knock on effects in another - actions developed with the intention of achieving good - for environmental sustainability, for food supplies or both – may actually harm either the intended beneficiaries, or people or landscapes elsewhere.

We urgently need to better understand the social, biophysical and economic factors that influence and are influenced by the food provisioning system, how they connect and interact and what the consequences are for human health and environmental sustainability in different parts of the world.

How will this project help and what will it do?

The aim of the Telecoupling project[1] is to build such understanding.  One approach the project will take is the development of a model to help illuminate how changes in what is produced, traded or consumed in one part of the world affect what is produced, traded or consumed in another – and the possible impacts on food security and the environment.  This understanding can help decision-makers act in ways that benefit rather than unintentionally undermine people’s wellbeing and the environment.

At the core of the Telecoupling project is a computer model.  The model will be designed to:

  1. Represent the way current production, trade and consumption regimes work and how they are affected by both local and global social and environmental conditions; and how current actions and decisions by people and institutions in one part of the world impact directly and indirectly upon land use and the environment, food availability and nutritional quality; and prices and markets elsewhere.
  2. Allow us to investigate the consequences of changes in these variables.  For example what if Brazil reduced the land area available for food production? What impact would it have on the price and availability of soy, and what would the knock on effects be on soy production in the US or pork in the UK?  What might these changes mean for outcomes of China’s policies on food self-sufficiency and associated ones on fertilizers, and what might the knock on effects be for local agricultural decision making? How, too, do these changes and interactions affect agricultural production and environmental sustainability in other parts of the world such as Africa? 

Since it is (currently) impossible to develop a model of this type that can handle all foods, all relationships and all countries, the project will focus on a limited selection of globally important commodities: soy, corn, rice, wheat, potato, sugarcane and meat and dairy products.  Collectively these have a major influence on food security and land use worldwide. 

The project will also limit itself to four, globally significant focal countries: two developed countries (UK and USA) and two emerging economies (Brazil and China). These countries interact intensively with each other and with other countries through commodity trade. Critically, interactions between these selected countries have impacts on other countries around the world. To understand the consequences of these interactions the project will therefore look at the ‘spillover’ effects on a limited selection of low income, food insecure countries in Africa.

Who is involved and what will the work entail?

The project involves a large team of researchers  from the US, UK, China and Brazil who collectively span diverse disciplines and areas of expertise ranging from sociology, food systems assessment and value chain analysis to environmental sciences, agronomy, nutrition, geospatial research, remote sensing and life cycle analysis. Together the team represents 11 national research institutes and three international research institutes: Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Starting in 2015 the project runs for five years and the work is subdivided into five key activities.

  1. Collecting data: Data provide the food for the model.  Data will be collated for the focal and spillover (African) countries, and at the global level on food production, affordability, availability; environmental conditions; demography, socioeconomics and politics, land use and land cover.
  2. Data analysis: Work here involves exploring and defining relationships among the data.  For example, how do changes in rainfall affect local growing conditions and cropping choices? How do food price changes in local markets affect levels of hunger in a particular country? Do big farmers make different decisions from smallholders? It will be essential to involve stakeholders (see 5, below) to ensure these relationships are accurately captured and realistically represented.  
  3. Modelling: The model(s) will be based on the data from activity 1, on relationships and behaviours specified in 2, and as informed and validated by stakeholders we engage (5). The model will simulate the activities of producers, traders and consumers (agents) and specify how they behave under specific circumstances (using rules); it will then show the consequences for food prices and availability, and for the environment – both locally and for the other focal and spillover countries.
  4. What if? Decision support scenarios tool: Separate but related to the model (developed in 3), we will construct a web-based user-friendly tool that enables politicians, traders, farmers and consumers to ask ‘what if?’ questions about policies, production, or trade or consumption, and explore the consequences for people and the environment.
  5. Stakeholder engagement: Collaboration with people and institutions who have a stake in the workings of the food system is critical; without their input the model and the scenarios tool will lack accuracy and credibility. We will involve and draw upon the expertise of food producers large and small; commodity traders, policy makers, civil society and consumers. These stakeholders will help us identify sources of data (1), inform and challenge the data relationships and behaviours we identify (2) test and validate the model we construct (3) and use, and advise on the design and use of the What if? Scenarios tool (4).

For more information contact Tara Garnett.

We would really welcome your feedback on this project.  In particular we’d be keen to hear your thoughts on the following:

  • Who are the key organisations, institutions and individuals you think we should be involving?
  • What are the main data sources we should be drawing upon?
  • Would you like to be involved as a stakeholder in the project?
  • Do you know of complementary research or projects that we should be looking at or engaging with?

[1] International Consortium on Food Security and Land Use in a Telecoupled World


Marieke_Veeger's picture
Submitted by Marieke_Veeger (not verified) on

Hi Tara, 

The Telecoupling Consortium sounds like a fabulous iniciative.  I firmly believe a systemic approach to food systems and environmental change is necessary if we want to design sustainable transition pathways for a future with safe and healthy food for all. 

If you are interested in exploring ways to enhance stakeholder engagement in complex environments and decision making processes related to food systems, you might want to read about the CCAFS/ECI Future Scenario Program.  In six regions globally, the program supports decision makers from the public, private and research sector as well as civil society organisations, in the development and use of future scenarios to deal with social, economic, environmental and political uncertainties that might affect their ability to adapt to or mitigate climate change in agriculture and food systems. 

Involving decision makers from multiple levels, sectors, disciplines and stakeholder groups is one of the determining elements of our approach to identify key uncertainties and create an inclusive platform for participatory scenario guided policy making.  

Collaboration with regional governmental bodies and international organisations such as UNEP-WCMC, Oxfam, FAO, WRI and UNDP has helped us to align our objectives with the priorities in each region. In terms of modeling, CCAFS colaborated with IIASA (GLOBIOM), IFPRI (IMPACT) and the Landshift model. Key stakeholders converted the (qualitative) scenario narratives into semi-quantitative inputs for modeling. This method might be useful for you in those cases where data is not available or inaccurate. 

We are always interested in sharing our learnings and also open to explore new possible partnerships, so let me know if you would like to discuss more in detail.

Below a few examples of our work: 


Add new comment

Member input

Plain text

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.