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From the savannah to the supermarket – new study links consumption to specific biodiversity impacts in the Cerrado

A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes a breakthrough in linking final consumption to localized biodiversity impacts in producer regions.

Caspar Trimmer / Published on 29 October 2019
Sunset over Serra da Canastra National Park, Minas Gerais

Sunset over Serra da Canastra National Park, Minas Gerais, Brazil Photo: Luciano_Queiroz / Getty

One of the main challenges SEI set itself when it launched an initiative on Producer to Consumer Sustainability (P2CS) in 2015 was to explore the point where sustainable consumption and sustainable production agendas meet in the era of globalized trade.

To date, these agendas have tended to operate in isolation, particularly when it comes to agricultural commodities and consumer goods. Consumption choices are informed by generalized statistics – producing one kilo of cotton uses X thousand litres of water – lacking contextual detail, while punctuated by headline-grabbing one-off stories of pollution and labour exploitation in some far-distant city.

At the same time, producers have little way of knowing how to reach consumers or investors who might be willing to subsidize investments in more sustainable farming and processing technologies.

Between the two lies a black box of complex, endlessly branching global supply chains.

Making connections

 The new paper, “Linking global drivers of agricultural trade to on-the-ground impacts on biodiversity” represents the latest effort to make the links between consumers and producers – and sustainability impacts – of agricultural commodities more transparent. It applies a new data-driven approach to quantify how consumption of different categories of products in different markets is linked to threats to biodiversity in the Brazilian Cerrado due to the expansion of soy farming.

The Cerrado is an eco-region comprising more than 2 million square kilometres of tropical savannah. Although it hosts an estimated 5% of the world’s species, it is often overshadowed by the Amazon in sustainability discourse. The Cerrado is a major frontier of soy expansion, and habitats for many rare species are rapidly being lost.

“Our new method reveals specific links between consumer countries, traders, soy production and habitat loss,” said Jonathan Green of SEI York, the lead author of the paper. “This kind of knowledge can be invaluable for helping companies and countries to source more sustainably and invest in less ecologically harmful agriculture.”

Data integration

The study connects two major strands of work at SEI.

The first is Trase – the major supply chain transparency initiative led by SEI and Global Canopy – which uses disparate data sets to estimate the extent to which traders and importers of commodities like soy, beef, shrimp and coffee are exposed to the risk of deforestation in their supply chains. Trase data was used to map flows of soy from production localities in the Brazilian Cerrado to the point of export (or consumption in Brazil).

This was integrated with the IOTA model, using multiregional input-output economic data to model how those flows of soy found their way to final consumers. An advantage of this method was that it could take into account soy “embedded” in final consumption – for example the soy-based feed given to livestock, reaching the consumer as dairy products, beef, pork or poultry.

Finally, the international team of researchers behind the paper cross-referenced the geographic data on soy expansion with the habitat ranges of more than 400 plant and animal species that are highly or exclusively dependent on Cerrado ecosystems (i.e. had at least 70% of the entire range within the Cerrado), as well as a handful of more “charismatic” non-endemic species, such as the Giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla).

The study found that 86% of the losses to the Giant anteater’s range in the Cerrado occurred in Mato Grosso state, driven particularly by consumption of soy-fed meat products in Brazil, China and the EU. However, 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.

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.”

Read the full study

You can access the full journal article at the link below.

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