Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The environmental footprint of global food production

Matters Arising to this article was published on 25 September 2023


Feeding humanity puts enormous environmental pressure on our planet. These pressures are unequally distributed, yet we have piecemeal knowledge of how they accumulate across marine, freshwater and terrestrial systems. Here we present global geospatial analyses detailing greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater use, habitat disturbance and nutrient pollution generated by 99% of total reported production of aquatic and terrestrial foods in 2017. We further rescale and combine these four pressures to map the estimated cumulative pressure, or ‘footprint’, of food production. On land, we find five countries contribute nearly half of food’s cumulative footprint. Aquatic systems produce only 1.1% of food but 9.9% of the global footprint. Which pressures drive these footprints vary substantially by food and country. Importantly, the cumulative pressure per unit of food production (efficiency) varies spatially for each food type such that rankings of foods by efficiency differ sharply among countries. These disparities provide the foundation for efforts to steer consumption towards lower-impact foods and ultimately the system-wide restructuring essential for sustainably feeding humanity.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Schematic view of methods used to assess and map cumulative pressures from food production.
Fig. 2: Global maps of food’s footprint.
Fig. 3: Spatial overlap of the top 1% greatest pressure values for each of the four dominant pressures from food production.
Fig. 4: Proportional contribution to the cumulative food footprint in the highest-ranking countries.
Fig. 5: Proportion of total global cumulative environmental pressure for each food type (bar length), broken down by classes of pressure (components of each bar).
Fig. 6: Environmental efficiency (cumulative environmental pressure per tonne of protein produced) for major food types.

Data availability

The source data used for these analyses is provided in Supplementary Table 25. All data are available76.

Code availability

The code used for these analyses is available from GitHub76 (


  1. Tilman, D. & Clark, M. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature 515, 518–522 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Godfray, H. C. J. et al. Meat consumption, health, and the environment. Science 361, eaam5324 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Hicks, C. C. et al. Harnessing global fisheries to tackle micronutrient deficiencies. Nature 574, 95–98 (2019).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Willett, W. et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet 393, 447–492 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Maxwell, S. L., Fuller, R. A., Brooks, T. M. & Watson, J. E. M. Biodiversity: the ravages of guns, nets and bulldozers. Nature 536, 143–145 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Tilman, D. et al. Future threats to biodiversity and pathways to their prevention. Nature 546, 73–81 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Ellis, E. C., Goldewikj, K. K., Siebert, S., Lightman, D. & Ramankutty, N. Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000. Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. 19, 589–606 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Crippa, M. et al. Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions. Nat. Food 2, 198–209 (2021).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Rosegrant, M. W., Ringler, C. & Zhu, T. Water for agriculture: maintaining food security under growing scarcity. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 34, 205–222 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Tubiello, F. N. et al. The contribution of agriculture, forestry and other land use activities to global warming, 1990–2012. Glob. Change Biol. 21, 2655–2660 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Lee, R. Y., Seitzinger, S. & Mayorga, E. Land-based nutrient loading to LMEs: a global watershed perspective on magnitudes and sources. Environ. Dev. 17, 220–229 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Kroodsma, D. A. et al. Tracking the global footprint of fisheries. Science 359, 904–908 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. McIntyre, P. B., Liermann, C. A. R. & Revenga, C. Linking freshwater fishery management to global food security and biodiversity conservation. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 12880–12885 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Poore, J. & Nemecek, T. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360, 987–992 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Hilborn, R., Banobi, J., Hall, S. J., Pucylowski, T. & Walsworth, T. E. The environmental cost of animal source foods. Front. Ecol. Environ. 16, 329–335 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Parker, R. W. R. et al. Fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions of world fisheries. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 333–337 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Davis, K. F. et al. Meeting future food demand with current agricultural resources. Glob. Environ. Change 39, 125–132 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Gephart, J. A. et al. The environmental cost of subsistence: optimizing diets to minimize footprints. Sci. Total Environ. 553, 120–127 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Gephart, J. A. et al. Environmental performance of blue foods. Nature 597, 360–365 (2021).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Halpern, B. S. et al. Putting all foods on the same table: achieving sustainable food systems requires full accounting. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 116, 18152–18156 (2019).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Béné, C. et al. Feeding 9 billion by 2050—putting fish back on the menu. Food Secur. 7, 261–274 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Tacon, A. G. J. & Metian, M. Fish matters: importance of aquatic foods in human nutrition and global food supply. Rev. Fish. Sci. 21, 22–38 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Verones, F., Moran, D., Stadler, K., Kanemoto, K. & Wood, R. Resource footprints and their ecosystem consequences. Sci. Rep. 7, 40743 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Mekonnen, M. M. & Hoekstra, A. Y. The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 15, 1577–1600 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Mekonnen, M. M. & Hoekstra, A. Y. The Green, Blue and Grey Water Footprint of Farm Animals and Animal Products (UNESCO-IHE, 2010).

  26. Carlson, K. M. et al. Greenhouse gas emissions intensity of global croplands. Nat. Clim. Change 7, 63–68 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  27. Hong, C. et al. Global and regional drivers of land-use emissions in 1961–2017. Nature 589, 554–561 (2021).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  28. Amoroso, R. O. et al. Bottom trawl fishing footprints on the world’s continental shelves. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, E10275–E10282 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. Kuempel, C. D. et al. Integrating life cycle and impact assessments to map food’s cumulative environmental footprint. One Earth 3, 65–78 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Halpern, B. S. et al. A global map of human impact on marine ecosystems. Science 319, 948–952 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. Crain, C. M., Kroeker, K. & Halpern, B. S. Interactive and cumulative effects of multiple human stressors in marine systems. Ecol. Lett. 11, 1304–1315 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Birk, S. et al. Impacts of multiple stressors on freshwater biota across spatial scales and ecosystems. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 4, 1060–1068 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Judd, A. D., Backhaus, T. & Goodsir, F. An effective set of principles for practical implementation of marine cumulative effects assessment. Environ. Sci. Policy 54, 254–262 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES, 2019).

  35. Froehlich, H. E., Jacobsen, N. S., Essington, T. E., Clavelle, T. & Halpern, B. S. Avoiding the ecological limits of forage fish for fed aquaculture. Nat. Sustain. 1, 298–303 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. FAO The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020 (FAO, 2020).

  37. Froehlich, H. E., Runge, C. A., Gentry, R. R., Gaines, S. D. & Halpern, B. S. Comparative terrestrial feed and land use of an aquaculture-dominant world. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 5295–5300 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  38. FAOSTAT Database: New Food Balances (FAO, 2020);

  39. FAOSTAT Database: Production, Crops (FAO, 2020);

  40. Dong, F. et al. Assessing sustainability and improvements in US Midwestern soybean production systems using a PCA–DEA approach. Renew. Agric. Food Syst. 31, 524–539 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Watson, R. A. & Tidd, A. Mapping nearly a century and a half of global marine fishing: 1869–2015. Mar. Policy 93, 171–177 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Robinson, T. P. et al. Mapping the global distribution of livestock. PLoS ONE 9, e96084 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Clark, M. & Tilman, D. Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice. Environ. Res. Lett. 12, 064016 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Balmford, B., Green, R. E., Onial, M., Phalan, B. & Balmford, A. How imperfect can land sparing be before land sharing is more favourable for wild species? J. Appl. Ecol. 56, 73–84 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Luskin, M. S., Lee, J. S. H., Edwards, D. P., Gibson, L. & Potts, M. D. Study context shapes recommendations of land-sparing and sharing; a quantitative review. Glob. Food Secur. 16, 29–35 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Williams, D. R., Phalan, B., Feniuk, C., Green, R. E. & Balmford, A. Carbon storage and land-use strategies in agricultural landscapes across three continents. Curr. Biol. 28, 2500–2505.e4 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  47. Paul, B. G. & Vogl, C. R. Impacts of shrimp farming in Bangladesh: challenges and alternatives. Ocean Coastal Manage. 54, 201–211 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Ahmed, N., Cheung, W. W. L., Thompson, S. & Glaser, M. Solutions to blue carbon emissions: shrimp cultivation, mangrove deforestation and climate change in coastal Bangladesh. Mar. Policy 82, 68–75 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. FAOSTAT Database: Livestock Primary (FAO, 2020);

  50. Ramankutty, N., Ricciardi, V., Mehrabi, Z. & Seufert, V. Trade-offs in the performance of alternative farming systems. Agric. Econ. 50, 97–105 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. FAOSTAT Database: Detailed Trade Matrix (FAO, 2020);

  52. Fisheries & Aquaculture—Fishery Statistical Collections—Fishery Commodities and Trade (FAO, 2019);

  53. International Food Policy Research Institute. Global spatially-disaggregated crop production statistics data for 2010, version 2.0. Harvard Dataverse (2019).

  54. Clawson, G. et al. Mapping the spatial distribution of global mariculture production. Aquaculture 553, 738066 (2022).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Petz, K. et al. Mapping and modelling trade-offs and synergies between grazing intensity and ecosystem services in rangelands using global-scale datasets and models. Glob. Environ. Change 29, 223–234 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Global Fishing Watch. Fishing effort. Fleet daily, v2 100th degree. (2021).

  57. Verdegem, M. C. J., Bosma, R. H. & Verreth, J. A. J. Reducing water use for animal production through aquaculture. Int. J. Water Resour. Dev. 22, 101–113 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Bouwman, A. F., Beusen, A. H. W. & Billen, G. Human alteration of the global nitrogen and phosphorus soil balances for the period 1970–2050. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 23, GB0A04 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Bouwman, A. F., Van Drecht, G. & Van der Hoek, K. W. Nitrogen surface balances in intensive agricultural production systems in different world regions for the period 1970–2030. Pedosphere 15, 137–155 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  60. Bouwman, A., Boumans, L. J. M. & Batjes, N. Estimation of global NH3 volatilization loss from synthetic fertilizers and animal manure applied to arable lands and grasslands. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 16, 8-1–8-14 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. FAOSTAT Database: Inputs, Fertilizers by Nutrient (FAO, 2020);

  62. Heffer, P., Gruere, A. & Roberts, T. Assessment of fertilizer use by crop at the global level 2014–2014/15, International Fertilizer Association (2017).

  63. Fertilizer Use by Crop 5th edn (FAO, IFA & IFDC, 2002).

  64. Islam, Md. S. Nitrogen and phosphorus budget in coastal and marine cage aquaculture and impacts of effluent loading on ecosystem: review and analysis towards model development. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 50, 48–61 (2005).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  65. Wang, J., Beusen, A. H. W., Liu, X. & Bouwman, A. F. Aquaculture production is a large, spatially concentrated source of nutrients in Chinese freshwater and coastal seas. Environ. Sci. Technol. 54, 1464–1474 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Bouwman, A. F. et al. Hindcasts and future projections of global inland and coastal nitrogen and phosphorus loads due to finfish aquaculture. Rev. Fish. Sci. 21, 112–156 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  67. Gavrilova, O. et al. in 2019 Refinement to the 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories Ch. 10, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); Review Editors on Overview: Dario Gómez (Argentina) and William Irving (USA) (2019).

  68. Seafood Carbon Emissions Tool, Lisa Max, Robert Parker, Peter Tyedmers, editors; (2020);

  69. Hu, Z., Lee, J. W., Chandran, K., Kim, S. & Khanal, S. K. Nitrous oxide (N2O) emission from aquaculture: a review. Environ. Sci. Technol. 46, 6470–6480 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  70. IPCC Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon, S. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  71. Lynch, J., Cain, M., Pierrehumbert, R. & Allen, M. Demonstrating GWP*: a means of reporting warming-equivalent emissions that captures the contrasting impacts of short- and long-lived climate pollutants. Environ. Res. Lett. 15, 044023 (2020).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  72. Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model, GLEAM, v.2.0.121 (FAO, 2018).

  73. Aas, T. S., Ytrestøyl, T. & Åsgård, T. Utilization of feed resources in the production of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) in Norway: an update for 2016. Aquacult. Rep. 15, 100216 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  74. Jackson, A. Fish in-fish out (FIFO) explained. Aquacult. Eur. 34, 5–10 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  75. Halpern, B. S. et al. Spatial and temporal changes in cumulative human impacts on the world’s ocean. Nat. Commun. 6, 7615 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  76. Frazier, M. et al. Global food system pressure data.

Download references


This research was a collaborative endeavour conducted by the Global Food Systems Working Group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California Santa Barbara. The Global Food Systems Working Group was funded by the Zegar Family Foundation. The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at UC Santa Barbara provided invaluable infrastructural support for this work. J.T. was additionally supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (funding code 031B0792A). K.L.N. was supported by the Australian Research Council (DE210100606).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



All authors contributed to the conceptualization of the project. M.F., J.V., P.-E.R., G.C. and B.S.H. contributed to methodology. M.F., J.V., P.-E.R. and G.C. contributed to software, validation, formal analysis and data curation. B.S.H. wrote the original draft. All authors contributed to writing the final draft and editing. J.V., M.F. and B.S.H. contributed to visualization. B.S.H. supervised the research. M.F. and B.S.H. provided project administration. B.S.H. acquired funding.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Benjamin S. Halpern.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Peer review

Peer review information

Nature Materials thanks Luc Doyen, Pablo Elverdin and Günther Fischer for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Proportional contribution of pressures within each country.

Proportional contribution of each pressure to the cumulative food footprint in each country, summed across all foods. These countries collectively account for about 30% of pressure from food production (top countries are presented in Fig. 4a in the text). Stacked bars show the proportional contribution of marine (lighter colours, calculated as the Exclusive Economic Zone) and terrestrial (darker colours) pressures from all foods combined, including the high seas.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Proportional contribution of food categories to pressures within each country.

Proportional contribution of each food group to the cumulative food footprint in each country. These countries collectively account for about 30% of pressure from food production (top countries are presented in Fig. 4b in the text). Stacked bars are the proportional contribution of each major food group, including feed for livestock and aquaculture, summed for all four pressures in each country and the high seas.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Proportion of total global cumulative pressure for crops, broken down by pressure (components of each bar).

Proportional amounts are the per-unit pressures times the total global production. This includes crops for consumed primarily by humans and animal feed.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Environmental Efficiency by kcal for Major Food Types.

Environmental efficiency (cumulative environmental pressure per million kcal produced) for major food types. Larger values represent less efficient foods. Each point is a country (jittered for visibility), with median and interquartile range indicated by the boxes. Plots to the right show extreme positive values and are on separate scales. Feed is not included in livestock primary and secondary products or mariculture.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Environmental Efficiency by Tonnes Production for Major Food Types.

Environmental efficiency (cumulative environmental pressure per tonne reported production) for major food types. Larger values represent less efficient foods. Each point is a country (jittered for visibility), with median and interquartile range indicated by the boxes. Plots to the right show extreme positive values and are on separate scales. Feed is not included in livestock primary and secondary products or mariculture.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Data quality assessment by food type.

Data quality assessment of each food system and pressure scored on a scale ranging from 1–5. Data quality was assessed using a bottom-up approach, where each data source was scored on spatial resolution, spatial extent, system specificity, and temporal accuracy.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Data quality assessment by food type and stressor.

Data quality assessment breakdown for each food system, pressure, and score scored on a scale from 1–5. Data quality was assessed using a bottom-up approach, where each data source was scored on spatial resolution, spatial extent, system specificity, and temporal accuracy.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Complete description of methods.

Supplementary Data 1

Supplementary Data Tables 1–10.

Rights and permissions

Springer Nature or its licensor (e.g. a society or other partner) holds exclusive rights to this article under a publishing agreement with the author(s) or other rightsholder(s); author self-archiving of the accepted manuscript version of this article is solely governed by the terms of such publishing agreement and applicable law.

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Halpern, B.S., Frazier, M., Verstaen, J. et al. The environmental footprint of global food production. Nat Sustain 5, 1027–1039 (2022).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing