Chocolate demand can promote the expansion of cocoa plantations and displace previously cultivated crops to new areas, starting a chain of deforestation events or other types of land use change in different places.
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Written by Claudia Parra Paitan.

Sometimes it is difficult to be aware of all the impacts that simple and (apparently) harmless decisions can cause. This applies to the food we eat every day. International trade has helped to make our food systems global, which means that the production, manufacture, consumption and disposal of any product could take place in different parts of the world and that environmental impacts can be extended in many geographic areas. In this way, the consumption of chocolate bars in Europe can induce deforestation in Ghana by incentivising farmers to establish cocoaplantations or to replace previous crops with cocoa (this is what we call direct land use change). As a result, the new cocoa plantations can compete for land with other crops (e.g. for instance maize), which then become displaced to other areas where they could induce deforestation again (this is what we call indirect land use change).

These complex dynamics make it difficult to trace and measure the environmental impacts caused along the supply chain of agriculture-based products. Due to limitations of data, time and methods, most studies separate the components of the whole supply chain into pieces and study them independently. We start from the premise that doing so can compromise the validity of any type of environmental impact assessment. This is important because inaccurate studies can lead to inefficient or counterproductive policy actions and threaten the implementation of sustainability goals within agricultural supply chains. Therefore, in a recently published article, Peter Verburg and I contribute to the theoretical discussion about the methodological challenges to assessing the direct and indirect environmental impacts caused by global food systems.

To structure our analysis, we used the telecoupling framework presented by Liu and colleagues (Liu et al., 2013). This framework clearly describes how the interaction of two or more socio-ecological systems (such as the ones involved in agricultural supply chains) can give rise to indirect impacts (the so-called spillovers) beyond the geographic limits of the systems involved (i.e. trading countries), and thus generate a chain of positive or negative impacts in other systems around the world. We focus on land use change caused by agricultural systems because it is the largest contributor to global change (Foley et al., 2005).

Representation of the main systems, agents, drivers, impacts and flows embedded in agricultural supply chains.
Image source: Parra Paitan & Verburg, 2019

Our study shows that although there is a great variety of methods available to assess the impacts caused by different components of agricultural supply chains, none of them is able to, in a spatially explicit manner, account for the direct and indirect environmental impacts caused by the supply chain of agricultural products. We conclude that the use of hybrid models that combine the strengths of different methods to bridge their gaps is a promising path to assess the environmental impacts caused by agricultural supply chains in a comprehensive manner. The next challenge is to apply our own recommendations in an empirical study, so there is no doubt that this is just the beginning of a fascinating research journey.

The article is titled “Methods to Assess the Impacts and Indirect Land Use Change Caused by Telecoupled Agricultural Supply Chains: A Review” and is part of the special issue “Through the Lens of Telecoupling: New Perspectives for Global Sustainability” from the scientific journal Sustainability. It is open access and can be accessed through the following link:


Foley, J. A., Defries, R., Asner, G. P., Barford, C., Bonan, G., Carpenter, S. R., … Snyder, P. K. (2005). Global Consequences of Land Use. Science, 309(5734), 570–574.

Liu, J., Hull, V., Batistella, M., Defries, R., Dietz, T., Fu, F., … Zhu, C. (2013). Framing Sustainability in a Telecoupled World. Ecology and Society, 18(2), 26.

Parra Paitan, C., & Verburg, P. (2019). Methods to Assess the Impacts and Indirect Land Use Change Caused by Telecoupled Agricultural Supply Chains: A Review. Sustainability, 11(4), 1162.

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