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Wealthy consumption threatens species in developing countries

Deforestation of tropical forests for oil palm plantations in Sabah, Malaysia. Palm oil is one of over 15,000 commodities in a recent study that have been linked to biodiversity loss in developing countries connected to consumption abroad. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Deforestation of tropical forests for oil palm plantations in Sabah, Malaysia. Palm oil is one of over 15,000 commodities in a recent study that have been linked to biodiversity loss in developing countries connected to consumption abroad. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Consumption in wealthy nations is imperiling biodiversity abroad, according to a new study in Nature that investigates the link between international trade and biodiversity decline. The study shows how threats to biodiversity and ecosystems, located primarily in developing countries, can be connected to consumer demand for goods in wealthier nations. Some of the major commodities include coffee, cocoa, soy, beef and palm oil.

Researchers linked 25,000 threatened species from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List to over 15,000 commodities responsible for biodiversity loss. The supply chains for these commodities were then traced from producing countries to consuming ones. By doing so, researchers calculated the biodiversity footprint for 187 countries around the world. For example, countries such as Japan, Germany, France, and the UK, which cause relatively little direct habitat destruction to threatened species in their own countries, still contribute heavily to biodiversity loss by consuming implicated commodities from abroad.

Researchers also calculated the net trade balance for every country’s commodities that imperil biodiversity.

“Developed countries tend to be relatively minor net exporters, but major net importers of implicated commodities,” the scientists write. The U.S., in fact, is the top importer of biodiversity-threatening goods. The scientists add that “in stark contrast, developing countries find themselves degrading habitat and threatening biodiversity for the sake of producing exports.”

Six of the top ten global net exporting countries are located in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is the top net exporter, with the major crops of rubber, coffee, cocoa and palm oil imperiling 294 species.

Scientist’s recommendations for curbing the negative impact of international trade on biodiversity include targeting both the production and consumption end of global supply chains.

“Policy aimed at reducing local threats to species should be designed from a global perspective, taking into account not just the local producers who directly degrade and destroy habitat but also the consumers who benefit from the degradation and destruction,” the authors argue.

Specific suggestions include environmental labeling on products and expanding the global ban on international trade in endangered species to include products linked to biodiversity loss.

However, these strategies should also take into consideration the economic development of poorer countries, according to a Correspondence in a follow-up issue of Nature by Marco Sakai. While reducing consumption of biodiversity-injuring goods in wealthy countries is important, Sakai argues that poorer countries may require assistance in making the transition to more sustainable production while also improving the quality of life for their citizens.

Soy fields in the Amazon rainforest. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.


M. Lenzen, D. Moran, K. Kanemoto, B. Foran, L. Lobefaro & A. Geschke. International trade drives biodiversity threats in developing nations. Nature. Volume 486, Issue 7401, 7 June 2012, Pages 109-112.

Marco Sakai. Sustainability: Limit consumption to preserve habitats. Nature, Volume 486, Issue 7404, 28 June 2012, Page 473.

Jacob Munger is a researcher at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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