Our decisions, as consumers, can generate impacts in very distant places – interview with Dr. Neus Escobar

CLEVER researcher Dr. Neus Escobar, from BC3, recently won the Audience Award at the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Conference, held in conjunction with the Spanish Presidency of the EU on 14-15 November 2023 in Toledo (Spain). She was among the 15 finalists selected from 170 MSCA projects to introduce her research and showcase the diversity of academic careers.

Neus presented her pitch ‘Tracking Chocolate to Fight Deforestation’ in the category ‘Exposure to Policy Making’. This topic summarized research insights from the MSCA-IF GIFTS (Global Interlinkages in Food Trade Systems) project. GIFTS is hosted by the Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3), which is also a partner in CLEVER, contributing to the development of indicators for biodiversity footprints and sustainability trade-off analysis.

What is the focus of your research in the GIFTS project? And what is the project about in general?

GIFTS is focused on the development of a global database that tracks supply chains of agri-food products across years, from the producing country to the country where consumption takes place, by distinguishing between food, feed, and non-food uses. The database is called Agro-SCAN and is entirely based on FAOSTAT data and includes 640 products, more than any similar database, and 181 countries. The objective of GIFTS is specifically to improve and expand Agro-SCAN in collaboration with FAO for estimating environmental footprints of food consumption. Ultimately, GIFTS aims to inform consumers’ decisions towards more resilient and sustainable agri-food systems in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.

What did you find so interesting about researching chocolate?

What makes chocolate an interesting case study is that many countries that are major chocolate producers do not produce cocoa beans. In fact, all cocoa bean production is concentrated in the tropics. This highlights the importance of international trade in securing global chocolate production, resulting in complex and interconnected supply chains. At the same time, this translates into large cocoa bean areas being virtually exported, for example, almost 90% of the total area harvested in 2020. The largest land footprints per capita are found in high-income countries such as Switzerland, Germany, United Kingdom, or Canada.

Why is it important to be aware of the environmental impacts of the products we use?

Our results show that global agri-food markets are strongly interconnected and that our decisions, as consumers, can generate impacts in very distant places, such as deforestation, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, environmental pollution, or loss of rural livelihoods. The database at the core of GIFTS helps increase transparency in global supply chains, meaning food and feed consumers can know the origin of the raw materials used, the countries involved and the impacts generated. This information is valuable to understand the intensity of the impact of our consumption and the benefits of alternative options.

What is the relationship between GIFTS and CLEVER?

GIFTS and CLEVER are very related and in continuous exchange, as both share BC3 researchers, tackle similar topics (trade mediated-impacts and sustainability analysis), and even started in the same date. Both GIFTS and CLEVER aim to provide quantitative evidence for informing policymaking towards cleaner and transparent supply chains. After GIFTS, I will join CLEVER for the completion of the analyzes on the impacts and trade-offs from several policy strategies aimed at preventing biodiversity loss.

How can your research in GIFTS help the CLEVER project?

GIFTS can complement supply chain analyzes for CLEVER in WP6 (Representing ecological footprints and policy-trade-biodiversity linkages in global modelling), as the database being developed includes quantities of products and co-products traded across supply chains, from producing countries to final demand. This can provide a global picture about the origin of the raw materials used for the supply chains of interest in CLEVER. This is also helpful to identify the stakeholders involved in production and trade of CLEVER commodities, and the subsequent impacts of biodiversity loss. At the same time, the indicators generated by CLEVER can ultimately be implemented in the Agro-SCAN database to measure biodiversity loss footprints of food, feed and non-food consumption, which includes industrial uses of biomass.

Interview by Rosa Castañeda from EFI.