Rethinking agricultural trade relationships in an era of globalization

Graham K. MacDonald, Kate A. Brauman, Shipeng Sun, Kimberly M. Carlson, Emily S. Cassidy, James S. Gerber, Paul C. West

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

97 Scopus citations


Agricultural trade plays an important role in global food security and resource sustainability. Global food commodities trade is worth more than US$520 billion per year, could feed approximately two billion people, uses about 13% of worldwide cropland and pasture, and has geographically concentrated irrigation water demands. However, researchers rarely compare these monetary, nutritional, and resource metrics, which limits our ability to holistically evaluate the drivers and implications of trade. We found that each metric suggests distinct conclusions about the geography of globalized agriculture. For example, traded animal products have a disproportionate influence according to value-based and embodied pasture metrics. Traded wheat, soybean, and maize contain the most calories, use the most cropland, and strongly influence irrigation water consumption. We typify engagement in trade by assessing how countries allocate cropland to domestic versus foreign demand. Simultaneous consideration of multiple metrics could enhance decisionmaking surrounding trade by capturing the complex biophysical and economic context of agricultural globalization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)275-289
Number of pages15
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research benefited greatly from discussions with Jonathan Foley. The comments from three anonymous reviewers and the Global Landscape Initiative team at the University of Minnesota improved the manuscript. Peder Engstrom provided helpful computational assistance and Justin Johnson gave valuable feedback on our methodology. Research funding was primarily provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, with additional support to GKM from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Additional research support was from the Institute on the Environment and NASA’s Interdisciplinary Research in Earth Science program. Contributions by General Mills, Mosaic, Cargill, Pentair, Google, Kellogg’s, Mars, and PepsiCo supported stakeholder outreach and public engagement. The funders had no role in the study design, data collection and analysis, the decision to publish, or the preparation of the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.


  • Agriculture
  • Food security
  • Globalization
  • Trade
  • Virtual water


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