Why agriculture is the biggest threat to biodiversity

Not only does agriculture have impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, but the most common crops also have a big impact on wildlife species.

It is well known that producing food such as beef can leave a huge footprint when it comes to carbon emissions. But a new study shows that some of these staple foods can have an equally big effect on biodiversity loss.

One of the main problems, according to the study, occurs when food production overlaps with areas identified as having the highest priority for conservation.

Food production remains the main cause of biodiversity loss

“Food production remains the main cause of biodiversity loss,” says Keiichiro Kanemoto, an associate professor at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN) in Kyoto, Japan and one of the study’s lead authors. “However, there is a painful lack of systematic data on which products and which countries contribute most to this loss. Our research combines information about agricultural land use with species habitats to identify which crops put the most pressure on biodiversity.”

The study, Published in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, ranks which commodities come from regions with high priority for conservation. While previous studies have quantified the carbon, land, and water footprints of the agricultural industry, the threats to biodiversity and ecosystems from agriculture are poorly understood and therefore often overlooked. It is hoped that the new results will contribute to the formulation of policies that protect biodiversity and preserve global food security.

The results were released on Google Earth Engine, a cloud computing platform used for environmental analysis. The study covers 50 agricultural products from 200 countries and draws on agricultural data, a database of global supply chains and new ecological models with conservation data on more than 7,000 species to estimate the conservation value of different areas.

The largest footprint of beef, rice and soy

The international research team, with members from Norway, the Netherlands and Japan, divided the agricultural areas into four tiers based on their conservation priority, from smallest to largest. They then determined which agricultural products were produced at each of these priority levels.

The researchers found that about a third of all agriculture takes place in areas considered to be high conservation priorities. It was observed that some commodities, such as beef, rice and soybeans, tend to be produced in areas of high priority for conservation. At the same time, other substitute products such as barley and wheat came predominantly from lower risk areas.

“What surprised me most is how much the impact of the same crop can vary depending on where it comes from,” says Daniel Moran, scientist at the NILU Institute for Climate and Environment and research professor at the Industrial Ecology Program at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. (NTNU), as well as co-author of the study.

Beef and soy, for example, are grown in high conservation priority areas in Brazil, but not in North America. Similarly, wheat is grown in areas of lower priority for conservation in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe.

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International trade is a factor

According to the model of the researchers, coffee and cocoa are grown mainly in areas of high priority for the conservation of ecuatorial countries, but these commercial crops are consumed mainly in the richest countries, such as the United States and the members of European Union. On a global scale, China, with its high demand for multiple commodities, is the country that most influences food production in areas of high priority for conservation.

The study also illustrates how different nations can have very different biodiversity food footprints. The United States, EU, China and Japan rely heavily on imports to meet their demand for beef and dairy products. In Japan, more than a quarter of the beef and dairy consumed in that country comes from high conservation priority areas. In other regions, this number is close to 10%.

“This suggests that there are opportunities to change the biodiversity footprint of food consumption simply by changing our supply of food products,” said Kanemoto.

While it is known that beef cattle, soy and oil palm are grown in high conservation priority areas, the study found that other commodities such as maize, sugarcane and rubber are also problematic and deserve more attention from policy makers.

Effects of climate change

Climate change is expected to alter farming patterns and available habitats. The research team used their model to study different scenarios to see how the interaction between wild biodiversity and agriculture would change based on projected temperatures in 2070.

The species is likely to colonize new territories in a warmer world, potentially leading to the emergence of new high priority areas for conservation or conflict mitigation in current conservation hotspots.

Although the researchers did not produce a detailed map predicting future agriculture-conservation conflicts, the supplementary information in the article does offer some estimates of future competition under various scenarios.

‘Our spatial approach is a valuable complementary method to other common techniques for assessing the impact of agriculture on biodiversity. The insights gained from our study should help reduce the trade-off that many countries associate with agricultural production and environmental protection,” says Kanemoto. “It fills in a big missing piece of the food footprint.”

“Our way of life is causing alarming damage to the atmosphere and water supply. Farmers and governments around the world seek policies that maintain prosperity while minimizing irreversible damage to the environment. Similar sustainable development policies are needed for agriculture. Calculating detailed footprints for food and other agricultural products is crucial to support these policies,” said Moran.

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


Mapping potential conflicts between global agriculture and land conservation


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