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Consumer markets linked to habitat loss for rare species in Brazil’s savannah

29 October 2019
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Overseas consumer markets could be responsible for more than half of the impact of expanding soy production on rare species in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, the Cerrado savannah in Brazil, according to a new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The paper, “Linking global drivers of agricultural trade to on-the-ground impacts on biodiversity” is the first major output from the recently launched £20 million UKRI GCRF TRADE Hub, led by the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre. The paper calculates the share of this impact that is attributable to consumers in different countries around the world. More than half of the impact (55%) stems from food and other products that are consumed outside Brazil, with 22% attributed to consumption in China and 15% to consumption in the European Union.

The Cerrado is home to 5% of the world’s species, but this special wilderness is being converted rapidly for other uses, particularly for agriculture.

An international team of researchers looked at the impacts on more than 400 plant and animal species that are highly or exclusively dependent on Cerrado, as well as a handful of more “charismatic” non-endemic species such as the giant anteater.

The study found that 86% of losses to the giant anteater’s range in the Cerrado were linked to the consumption of products containing soy “embedded” in other products in Brazil, China and the EU, such as meat and dairy products from livestock given feed containing soy. Species even more dependent on the Cerrado such as Kaempfer’s woodpecker and the Blue-eyed ground dove are in an even more precarious situation.

In a major scientific breakthrough, this paper also links, for the first time, a model of international financial flows with a detailed subnational-level model of soy production and trade developed by the Trase initiative, linking deforestation to final consumption. This allowed the authors to estimate losses of suitable habitat for each species and derive a measure of biodiversity impact that accounts for species-specific differences in range sizes, sensitivities to land-use change and historical habitat loss.

Neil Burgess, UNEP-WCMC Chief Scientist, said: "A country's true impact on nature can lie far beyond their doorstep. The question of how to trace this impact is a major driving force behind the TRADE Hub, and we’re thrilled to see the Hub is already producing answers. We very much look forward to seeing how people can apply these methods across other sectors and start to build a complete picture of how we, as a global society, are affecting biodiversity all over the world."

Lead author Jonathan Green, from Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) at the University of York, says: “Our new method reveals specific links between consumer countries, traders, soy production and habitat loss. This kind of knowledge can be invaluable for helping companies and countries to source more sustainably and invest in less ecologically harmful agriculture.”

“Our findings underline that local biodiversity loss is a global problem,” said co-author Paz Durán of the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity at Universidad Austral de Chile. “Although both companies and consumers are paying increasing attention to the environmental cost of products, the complex nature of international supply chains can result in connections between a product and its environmental footprint being lost.”

Co-author Andrew Balmford of Cambridge University said: “The most exciting advance in bringing together these sophisticated datasets and models is the level of accountability it makes possible: we can now start to see exactly which businesses and consumers are harming threatened species, where, how, and in unprecedented detail.”

Co-author and Trase Director Toby Gardner of SEI said: “These results show that it is possible to use existing datasets to see through the tangled web of global commerce, giving us the detailed information we need to devise solutions. We hope this methodology will be extended to other agricultural commodities and ecosystems in the near future.”

The research team included researchers from the UK, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and Chile.


Image: Gregoire Dubois