Imperiled Biodiversity: The Unseen Impact of our Food Supply Chain

by Mateo Gonzalez
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biodiversity loss

Recent research indicates a disturbing overlap between food production, specifically products like beef, rice, and soy, and high-priority conservation zones, leading to alarming biodiversity decline. The study, which evaluated 50 agricultural goods from 200 countries, underscores the urgency for policy amendments and changes in sourcing strategies. It emphasizes how the ecological impact of a specific crop can dramatically differ based on its origin. Furthermore, it illustrates that affluent nations indirectly accelerate biodiversity degradation by consuming imported commodities cultivated in areas critical for conservation.

Food production is the primary driver of biodiversity loss. Recognizing areas where agricultural practices conflict with crucial conservation areas can aid policymakers in their decision-making processes.

Notably, certain food products, such as beef, are renowned for their substantial contribution to carbon emissions. Yet, a recent study uncovers that these same food items can inflict severe damage to biodiversity.

A primary concern highlighted by the study is the negative impact when food production infringes on regions deemed paramount for conservation.

“Food production remains the primary cause of biodiversity loss,” stated Keiichiro Kanemoto, an associate professor at Kyoto’s Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN) and one of the senior authors of the paper. He lamented the severe deficiency of comprehensive data on which products and countries are responsible for most of this loss. The research melds agricultural land-use data with species habitats to pinpoint which crops exert the most pressure on biodiversity.

The study, featured in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, identifies which commodities originate from regions with high conservation importance. While past research has quantified the carbon, land, and water footprints of the agricultural sector, the threats farming poses to biodiversity and ecosystems are inadequately understood and, consequently, often neglected. The new findings are anticipated to aid the creation of policies that uphold biodiversity while maintaining global food security.

The researchers made their findings accessible to the public via Google Earth Engine, a cloud-based platform for environmental analyses. The study encompassed 50 agricultural products sourced from 200 nations and employed farming data, a global supply chain database, and innovative ecological models with conservation data for over 7000 species to appraise the conservation value of various areas.

In their research, the international team, comprising members from Norway, the Netherlands, and Japan, classified agricultural areas into four categories based on conservation priority. They then identified which individual agricultural commodities were cultivated within these different priority levels.

Surprisingly, about a third of all farming occurs in areas deemed the highest conservation priority. It became apparent that staple commodities like beef, rice, and soybeans are often produced in these areas. Conversely, alternative crops like barley and wheat are mainly sourced from lower-risk areas.

Interestingly, the impact of the same crop can vary significantly based on its source, as noted by Daniel Moran, a senior scientist at the Climate and Environmental Institute NILU and a research professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Industrial Ecology Programme.

For instance, while beef and soybeans are cultivated in high conservation priority zones in Brazil, they’re not in North America. Similarly, wheat is grown in lower conservation priority areas in Eastern Europe compared to Western Europe.

Another factor in the equation is international trade. Cash crops like coffee and cocoa, grown in high conservation priority areas in equatorial countries, are consumed largely in wealthier nations like the United States and European Union. China, with its high demand for multiple commodities, exerts the greatest influence on food production in high-priority conservation areas at a global level.

The study also reveals that countries have remarkably diverse biodiversity food footprints. The United States, EU, China, and Japan rely heavily on imports for their beef and dairy demands. For example, over a quarter of the beef and dairy consumed in Japan originates from high conservation priority areas, a figure much higher than in other regions.

This suggests opportunities to alter the biodiversity footprint of food consumption by simply adjusting sourcing strategies, remarked Kanemoto. While it’s common knowledge that cattle, soybean, and palm oil are grown in high conservation priority areas, the study identified other crops, including corn, sugarcane, and rubber, as problematic, calling for increased attention from policymakers.

Climate change is also expected to affect cropping patterns and available habitats. The research team leveraged their model to explore various scenarios to see how the interaction between wild biodiversity and farming might change under projected 2070 temperatures.

Species are anticipated to colonize new territories in a warmer world, potentially leading to new high-conservation priority areas or reducing conflicts in existing conservation hotspots.

Although a detailed map predicting future conflicts between agriculture and conservation was not created, the paper’s supporting data provides estimates of future competition under a range of scenarios.

“The spatial methodology we employed is a useful addition to conventional techniques to gauge the impact of agriculture on biodiversity,” Kanemoto explained. “The insights derived from our study could assist in mitigating the perceived trade-off many nations have between agricultural production and environmental preservation.”

Echoing this sentiment, Moran stated, “Our lifestyles are causing distressing damage to our atmosphere and water resources. Farmers and governments globally are exploring policies that promote prosperity while minimizing irreversible harm to our environment. Similar sustainable development strategies are crucial for agriculture. Detailed footprint calculations for food and other farmed commodities are vital in supporting these policies.”

The study, “Mapping potential conflicts between global agriculture and terrestrial conservation” by Nguyen Tien Hoang et al., was published on May 30, 2023, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research was funded by the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and the Moonshot Research and Development Program.

The results can be viewed on an interactive map at https://agriculture.spatialfootprint.com/biodiversity.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about biodiversity loss

What does the research reveal about the impact of food production on biodiversity?

The research reveals that food production, particularly of commodities like beef, rice, and soy, often occurs in areas of high conservation priority, leading to significant biodiversity loss. It emphasizes the need for policy change and sourcing adjustments to mitigate this impact.

How does the study assess the environmental impact of different crops?

The study combines information about agricultural land use with species habitats to identify which crops cause the most pressure on biodiversity. It ranks commodities based on their sourcing from regions with high conservation priority, providing insights into the specific crops contributing to biodiversity loss.

Which countries are most affected by the indirect contribution to biodiversity loss through imported goods?

The study highlights that wealthier nations, such as the United States, European Union countries, China, and Japan, have a significant influence on food production in high-priority conservation areas. These countries heavily rely on imports, which contribute to biodiversity loss in the source regions.

How does climate change factor into the study?

The research considers the effects of climate change on cropping patterns and available habitats. It explores potential scenarios and how they may alter the interaction between wild biodiversity and farming. This analysis provides insights into future competition and the emergence of new conservation areas.

What are the implications of the study’s findings for policy and sustainability?

The study’s findings provide crucial information for policymakers to develop strategies that protect biodiversity while ensuring global food security. It emphasizes the importance of considering the ecological impact of food production and calls for sustainable development policies in agriculture to minimize irreversible harm to the environment.

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