The trade of wild species and crops has incredible potential for creating long-term jobs and boosting economic growth, particularly in low and middle-income countries. More often, however, intensive use causes entire populations of wild animals or plants to crash, and demand for agricultural land for crops removes natural habitat for wildlife.

This degradation of nature has very real knock-on effects for marginalized people – if a forest is cleared for farms owned by large corporations, there is nothing left to live upon. This unsustainable harvest of resources also increases the chance of the world failing to meet international ambitions such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

Photo of container ship in Hong Kong Harbour

30 per cent of global species threats are due to international trade. Photo: Kinsey / Unsplash

This project is one of twelve research hubs funded by this year’s £200m UK Research and Innovation Global Challenges Research Fund (UKRI GCRF), a key supporter of the UK AID strategy which places UK-led research at the heart of efforts to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (for more information about UKRI and the GCRF Hubs, visit the UK Research and Innovation website).

Over the next five years the project, called the UKRI GCRF Trade, Development and the Environment Hub, will trace the trade of wildlife, wild meat and agricultural goods from their origin in eight countries –Brazil, China, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Indonesia, Republic of Congo, and Tanzania – and then throughout the entire world.

These country-level results will then be linked within a global modelling framework to look at different possible trade futures and how these might benefit or impact on marginalized people and nature. The hub will then be able to look at the UK trade relations and dependencies, and how trade decisions that we take in the coming years can be a positive force for sustainably living on this planet.

Professor Neil Burgess, Principal Investigator for the Hub and Chief Scientist at the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) said: “We are extremely excited to start work on this hub. Trade is one of the most powerful forces of our time, with the ability to sustain global livelihoods as well as harm vulnerable people, destroy habitats and drive species closer to extinction.

“We’ll be working with over 50 amazing organisations from 15 different countries representing industry, trade agencies, academic, governments and civil society, giving us an unprecedented breadth of knowledge and experience. Together, I am confident that we can move us towards a system that supports people and the planet.”

Professor Andrew Thompson, UKRI Champion for International and Executive Chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), said: “The sheer scale and ambition of these hubs is what makes them so exciting. They enable us to deliver a coordinated global response with UK researchers working in partnership with researchers, governments, NGOs, community groups and international agencies across developing countries. Each hub has the potential to transform the quality of life for multitudes throughout the world and safeguard our planet for future generations.”

A work package co-led by Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York will assess trade in agricultural commodities both in established agro-industrial systems (such as those linked to palm oil production in Indonesia and soybean production in Brazil) and those in at-risk environments such as Central Africa.

SEI Senior Researcher Chris West said: “The TRADE Hub brings together world-leading global expertise on the impacts of trade on biodiversity and society. Trade can, and should be, a force for good but all too often it comes at significant environmental and social cost. The hub offers a unique opportunity for us to understand the impacts and risks of current and emerging trade patterns, and to explore future scenarios for trade which meet the Sustainable Development Goals. It also offers an opportunity to understand how to build capacity across policy, business and practitioner contexts to respond proactively to this important challenge.”

The hub will see UNEP WCMC collaborating with researchers working on agricultural supply chains from the University of York, joined by researchers from Stockholm Environment Institute, with the project co-designed by participants from around the world, including the focal countries of Brazil, Indonesia, China, Tanzania and the Central Africa region.

SEI Senior Researcher Toby Gardner added, “Using state-of-the-art supply chain mapping approaches pioneered as part of SEI’s Trase programme, we will be exploring to what extent impacts to biodiversity are linked to trade activities, how these impacts interact with both positive and negative social and economic development priorities, as well as identifying the critical actors and components in the trade system who have a role to play in providing solutions towards sustainable trade.”

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UK Research and Innovation works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish.

Operating across the whole of the UK with a combined budget of more than £7 billion, UK Research and Innovation brings together the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and a new organisation, Research England.

The Global Challenges Research Fund supports cutting-edge research and innovation that addresses the global issues faced by developing countries. It harnesses the expertise of the UK’s world-leading researchers, focusing on: funding challenge-led disciplinary and interdisciplinary research; strengthening capability for research, innovation and knowledge exchange; and providing an agile response to emergencies where there is an urgent research or on-the-ground need.

It is a £1.5 billion fund which forms part of the UK Government’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment and is overseen by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and delivered through nine delivery partners including UK Research and Innovation, the UK Academies, the UK Space Agency and other funding bodies.