A model that traces land and water use embodied in production, trade and consumption of agricultural commodities.

© Andreykuzmin | Dreamstime

© Andreykuzmin | Dreamstime

In a globalized world with its complex supply chains and trade relations, consumption patterns in one country can cause land use changes far away. 

For instance, agriculture and forestry production are drivers of deforestation, and that deforestation may be driven by inter-country trade flows that embody land resource.

Say, for instance, that a country imports palm oil which is an important ingredient in soaps, washing powder, and other hygiene and personal care products. The demand for palm oil as a manufacturing ingredient in one country may, in fact, contribute to environmental deterioration and even social disruption in another.

The LANDFLOW model is able to quantify commodity flows as agents of deforestation or other environmental change. It thus makes an important contribution toward the ultimate goal of achieving sustainable global consumption.


  • LANDFLOW generates a database for 1990 to 2011, which provides a detailed account of the agricultural and forestry products produced and traded by individual countries.

  • The agricultural products included in the database are: crops, livestock, and fisheries, both primary and processed products; forestry commodities including primary roundwood, manufactured wood, and wood products, pulp and paper (but excluding some secondary manufactured products like furniture).

  • In 2000–2002 globally some 60% of arable land was used for the production of food crops and 33% for feed and fodder crops.

  • In developed countries arable land use embedded in food consumption is dominated by livestock products (54%). In developing countries 75% of the arable land embedded in consumption was for direct (vegetarian) food consumption and only 19% for livestock products.


LANDFLOW is a powerful tool for estimating how many hectares of land are directly or indirectly associated with different consumption patterns. A first version was developed during the project, "Modeling Opportunities and Limits for Restructuring Europe towards Sustainability" (MOSUS) to trace embedded land in agriculture and forest sector commodities. LANDFLOW traces commodity flows from primary production, via intermediate products and trade, to final use. LANDFLOW has been extended and applied to trace "deforested land embedded in trade and final use" in the context of the project: "The impact of EU consumption of food and non-food imports on deforestation." LANDFLOW was used in a study for the German Umweltbundesamt on the development of consumption-based land use indicators. This study implements a novel hybrid accounting model. It further tracks the ‘non-food’ sector of the LANDFLOW physical accounting model using an environmental-economic accounting in the form of a multiregional input-output model. 

How LANDFLOW works

LANDFLOW attributes total land area uses to the final consumption of different agricultural and forestry products. It takes into account the complex commodity flows via trade from primary production to final use, intermediate products (notably animal feeds), and joint products (e.g., livestock producing milk and meat). 

The methodology uses FAO’s large harmonized time-series databases, including those for primary production, land use, supply utilization accounts, and bilateral trade. Recently a module was added that specifically tracks the "deforested land content" through trade and intermediate products to final use.

Trade patterns can result in environmental damage in distant countries, far from the consumer, such as deforestation to feed global livestock herds or make room for food crops.


Trade volumes involving land-intensive commodities from the agriculture and forestry sector have increased substantially over the past two decades, with annual rates of increase of 2–4%, depending on the commodity. This is particularly the case for feed crops and some forest-derived commodities. Consequently, "land embedded in trade" or "virtual land" associated with imported and exported goods has also been growing. To prevent consumption in one region from causing undesirable environmental impacts in other countries and regions around the globe, it is important to safeguard the sustainability of production. 


The increasing importance of international trade, as well as the growing competition for resources among developed economies and emerging economies, such as Brazil, China, and India, influence access to and distribution of natural resources. When a country imports commodities, it also "imports" resources, e.g. water from (unsustainable) irrigation, associated with the production of those commodities, and vice versa in the case of exports. Analyzing the complex drivers and interactions involved in using domestic and foreign land resources and its management is a key challenge for delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals. 

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Last edited: 16 March 2021


Günther Fischer

Emeritus Research Scholar Water Security Research Group - Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program

T +43(0) 2236 807 292


Sylvia Tramberend

Research Scholar Water Security Research Group - Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program

T +43(0) 2236 807 401


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