As people across the United States prepare to fill their bellies with green bean casserole and candied yams, a question may arise around Thanksgiving dinner tables: Where does all this food come from?
Now, a new interactive map developed by researchers at CU Boulder and The Plotline, a food climate initiative from the nonprofit Earth Genome, is trying to answer that question. It’s called the Food Twin, a “digital twin” of the country’s stretched and potentially fragile food system.
With Food Twin, users can look up their home county to see how much of 25 critical food crops their local regions produce and consume. These food staples include everything from wheat to tomatoes and peanuts grown both in the US and abroad. The map similarly traces the flow of food across the country, following highways from places like Kern County, California, to Denver, Chicago and beyond.
Food Twin also shows how precarious this network can be, said Zia Mehrabi, a data scientist at CU Boulder who helped spearhead the new tool. The map presents what he calls a “farm-to-fork” view of how increasingly severe droughts and heat waves could affect the nation’s food supply.
The United States depends on a little more than 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 food sources for many places are as diverse as they should be.”
Food Twin draws from reams of data, bringing together for the first time information ranging from satellite imagery of farmland to food availability surveys, census statistics, logistic computer models and more.
In Colorado, for example, Boulder County relies on places like Adams County, Colorado and Hockley County, Texas for its crops. New York, by contrast, depends on Putnam and Seneca counties in Ohio and imports through Renville County, North Dakota, etc.
Mehrabi, who has spent years studying crop production around the world, said the map made him look at food differently.
“It’s one thing to have these conversations and hear anecdotes about how climate change is affecting food systems through cascading impacts down supply chains,” Mehrabi said. “It’s another thing to see that data right in front of you. It really hits home.”
Protecting your food
He and his colleagues launched Food Twin just before the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP28, in Dubai.
World food, Mehrabi noted, faces an uncertain future in the coming decades. According to the US Global Change Research Program, the number of heat waves affecting the nation’s largest cities has doubled since the 1980s. Droughts and wildfires are also on the rise — all of which could take a bite out of the nation’s food supply.
Kern County, for example, is an agricultural behemoth, producing nearly 600 billion calories worth of crops each year, according to the tool. In the coming decades, however, an extreme heat wave could reduce this production by up to 8% or more.
On the Boulder consumer side, a single severe drought in the U.S. could reduce crop supplies coming into the county by 2.5 percent, amounting to more than 2.4 billion lost calories.
But there is much that U.S. consumers and leaders can do today to strengthen the nation’s food supply, Mehrabi said — from taking action to combat climate change to diversifying the supply chains that feed local communities.
He and his colleagues at Earth Genome are now working to expand Food Twin worldwide. 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 for knowing where your breakfast is coming from,” Mehrabi said, “but also for changing the conversations we have about food.”