Trade trashes biodiversity

A Letter to Nature in June 2012 reports that 30% of global species threats are due to international trade. Consumers in developed countries are a threat to species through their demand for commodities that are produced in developing countries. The authors anticipate that their findings will facilitate better regulation, sustainable supply chain certification and consumer product labelling.

What’s new about this study? According to the authors, the study provides a comprehensive view of the commercial causes of biodiversity threats by associating threatened species from the International Union  for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with implicated commodities. They traced the implicated commodities from the country of their production, to the country of final consumption. They then calculated the net trade balances of 187 countries in terms of implicated commodities. Countries that export more implicated commodities than they import are net biodiversity exporters and importers vice versa.

Specific findings

A high proportion of developing countries’ species threats is related to production for export, for example 50-60% in Papua New Guinea where coffee, cocoa, palm oil and coconut growing are linked to nine critically endangered species including the northern glider, Petaurus abidi.

Ateles geoffroyi (spider monkey) is endangered and threatened by habitat loss linked to coffee and cocoa plantations in Central America.

spider monkey
Spider Monkey
Source: Hawk person, Flickr

The main “importers” of biodiversity are the USA, Europe and Japan.

Given that remote demand is driving local habitat destruction, policy should take account of not just local producers who degrade habitats but consumers in rich countries who drive the demand and benefit from the degradation.

The authors argue that there is “no obstacle to extending such (sustainability) labelling and certification to…complex international trade routes” to help promote biodiversity friendly consumption. However, they acknowledge that this is just one of many measures needed on human population and consumption to provide a “wedge” to stabilize biodiversity. They propose a further wedge to suppress trade in “at-risk commodities”. The nature of this “wedge” is no more specific than a “policy reform”.

A few comments

Is “suppressing trade” the answer?

The authors propose “policy reform” to “suppress trade” without specifying what these reforms are or how they will work. Putting up barriers to trade is ineffective as it results in either diversion of exports to other markets (e.g. “carbon leakage”) or smuggling (e.g. drugs, wildlife)

Consumer labels have limitations

Allocating responsibility between producers and consumers is not a straightforward exercise. Should it be the exporting country or the consumer? They emphasise the importance of consumer certification (e.g. “Bird Friendly Coffee”), but we know that this has limitations.

Bird friendly logo

Any meaningful sort of certification is currently limited to high end markets; it is voluntary so many consumers can free ride on those consumers who are prepared to pay a premium for a biodiversity friendly policy.

If we allocate responsibility for carbon emissions to the consumer by using, similar problems arise with carbon labels in terms of free riding, costs of running schemes, the type of methodology that is used. Until we find a solution, it is at least a step forward to inform the consumer as much as possible about the environmental impact of consumption.

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