In time for the holidays: Interactive map showing where your food comes from | CU Boulder Today

In time for the holidays: Interactive map showing where your food comes from |  CU Boulder Today

As people across the United States prepare to fill their bellies with a casserole of green beans and candied potatoes, a question may be cropping up around Thanksgiving dinner tables: Where does all this food come from?

Now, a new interactive map developed by researchers at UC Boulder and The Plotline, a food climate initiative of the nonprofit Earth Genome, aims to answer that question. Dubbed the Food Twin, it is a “digital twin” of the country’s sprawling and potentially fragile food system.

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Crop flow into Boulder County, Colorado. Orange dots represent grains, blue represent nuts, green represent vegetables, purple represent fruits, and brown represent tubers. (Credit: Food Twin)

A map with colored dots flowing into New York City from different points in the United States

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Food flows into New York, including from port areas such as Yuma County, Arizona, and Aroostook County, Maine. (Credit: Food Twin)

A map with colored dots flowing from Kern, California, to various points in the United States

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Crop exports leave Kern County, California. (Credit: Food Twin)

With Food Twin, users can search their home county to see how much of 25 critical food crops their local areas produce and consume. These staples include everything from wheat to tomatoes and peanuts, grown in the United States and abroad. The map similarly tracks the flow of food across the country, tracing highways from locations such as Kern County, California, to Denver, Chicago and beyond.

Food Twin also shows how dangerous this network is, said Diya Mehrabi, a data scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, who helped lead the new tool. The map offers what he calls a “farm-to-table” view of how severe droughts and increasing heat waves are affecting the country’s food supply.

The United States relies on just over 5% of its counties to produce half of the crops that consumers eat.

“It’s risky,” said Mehrabi, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies. “It really raises the question of whether the food sources of many sites are as diverse as they should be.”

Food Twin draws on a wealth of data, bringing together for the first time information ranging from satellite images of farmland to food availability surveys, census statistics, logistics computer models, and more.

In Colorado, for example, Boulder County relies on locations like Adams County, Colorado, and Hockley County, Texas, for its crops. In contrast, New York relies on Putnam and Seneca Counties in Ohio and imports through Renville County, North Dakota, and elsewhere.

Mehrabi, who has spent years studying crop production around the world, said the map makes him see food in a different way.

“It’s one thing to have these conversations and hear anecdotes about how climate change is impacting food systems through cascading impacts on supply chains,” Mehrabi said. “It’s another thing to see that data right in front of you. It really hits home.”

Protect your food

He and his colleagues launched Food Twin ahead of the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP28, in Dubai.

Mehrabi pointed out that food in the world faces an uncertain future in the coming decades. According to the US Global Change Research Program, the number of heat waves affecting the country’s largest cities has doubled since the 1980s. Droughts and forest fires are also on the rise, all of which could detract from the country’s food supply.

Kern County, for example, is an agricultural beast, producing nearly 600 billion calories from crops each year, according to the tool. But in the coming decades, a single severe heat wave could reduce this production by up to 8% or more.

On the consumption side in Boulder, one severe drought in the United States could reduce the supply of crops coming into the county by 2.5%, which equates to a loss of more than 2.4 billion calories.

But Mehrabi said there is a lot that U.S. consumers and leaders can do today to support the nation’s food supply, from taking action to combat climate change to diversifying the supply chains that feed local communities.

He and his colleagues at Earth Genome are already working to expand Food Twin to the entire world. He hopes people will use the tool to make proactive plans to increase the world’s resilience to climate change.

“I think Food Twin can be useful not only in knowing where breakfast comes from, but also in changing the conversations we have around food,” Mehrabi said.

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