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Addressing the biodiversity losses embedded in global commodity trade

There is an increasing awareness that the decisions we make about what – and how much – we buy can have profound implications for the species we share the planet with and the ecosystems they inhabit. With an increasing range of data, methods and tools now available, SEI is at the forefront of research to understand how these embedded biodiversity losses flow through global supply chains to the countries, sectors and consumers driving them.

Jonathan Green, Chris West / Published on 21 May 2021
Aerial view of dense canopy of various rainforest trees on Indonesian half of New Guinea island, Timika, Papua, Indonesia

New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, is home to one of the last great expanses of tropical rainforest and is estimated to contain 5-10 percent of global biodiversity. Image: Photography by Mangiwau / Getty Images.

Consumers, governments, businesses and investors are increasingly interested in understanding the impacts of supply chains, from human rights and labour issues, through to land use change and environmental impacts. In particular, the elimination of deforestation from supply chains has been emphasized – in both the agendas of policymakers and the commitments of companies. This focus on tropical forests is, of course, partly driven by their biodiversity value – they host more than two thirds of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, yet cover less than 10% of its land surface. 

Policy is beginning to shift to address this growing concern and we are seeing increased attention in the public and private sectors towards reducing and removing deforestation – especially when it’s being carried out illegally – from supply chains. Forests and forest loss have long been recognized as a nexus of sustainability issues: climate; livelihoods; natural resource management; and, not least, biodiversity.

Tropical Forests are of course very important and offer a useful proxy for identifying areas of relative biodiversity priority, but biodiversity can – and does – vary greatly between and within forest ecosystems. In addition, we must be able to understand the incremental impacts of our consumption on other habitats too – from species-rich savannah and both freshwater and ocean systems, to heavily fragmented remnants of non-forest ecosystems.

While we welcome policy and legislation, we must harness the concerted actions of a diverse set of stakeholders, something which will be driven by dialogue from production through to consumption ends of the supply chain, which can be supported by coherent policy agendas.

In particular, biodiversity considerations must underpin trade policy development and the negotiation of Free Trade Agreements. These agreements offer the opportunity for producer and consumer countries to establish the supporting environment necessary for companies along international value chains to operate more sustainably. 

Making explicit links between our consumption and biodiversity losses, however, remains challenging. This is for (at least) three reasons. First, impacts can be very far removed from the point of consumption. This is particularly true for those commodity markets such as cocoa, soy, and palm oil, that are driven by international demand, but whose production – for reasons of climate or economics – is geographically constrained.

Second, visibility through supply chains is limited, because of this distance but also, more importantly, because of their complexity. Understanding what the impacts of these supply chains are, who is driving them, and the potential leverage points within them are key aims that motivate academic and campaigning work. Third, biodiversity is inherently difficult to measure.

We can only ever approximate its true value, which includes not only all of the diversity within and between species, and even the genetic differences between individual organisms, but also the myriad interactions between them that create entire ecosystems on which humanity ultimately depends. We simply cannot grasp this kind of complexity, let alone represent it in a single metric. Even as the scientific community works to recognize the enormous benefits and value that biodiversity confers, it remains, in the words of the “father” of biodiversity, E.O. Wilson, “our most valuable but least appreciated resource”.

Aerial view of cargo ship in open sea, Thailand

Commercial trade transportation of an international cargo ship in the open sea. Making explicit links between our consumption and biodiversity losses remains challenging. Photo: Prasit photo / Getty Images.

What are we doing at SEI?

With its network of collaborators and partners, SEI is working to solve this challenge through a range of projects that help elucidate the biodiversity risks of commodity supply chains by showing where and how the commodities are produced. Making the links between commodity trade and tropical deforestation is the speciality of the Trase team at SEI and their wide network of collaborators. The team’s work was recently featured in a BBC Attenborough programme, Extinction: The Facts, which highlighted the impacts of international commodity trade on vital ecosystems and their remarkable species.

June 2021 marks the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, highlighting the need for empowering a global movement, which means providing policymakers, consumers and private sector actors with the information they need to take action. We work to develop practical metrics to assess the impacts of land use change on species and to measure progress towards restoring habitats and abating threats to species. Our efforts also include a suite of work to model global commodity supply chains and their impacts, including through the Trase project, which maps in unprecedented detail the links, via trading companies, between consumer countries and places of production to reveal environmental and social risks in tropical forest regions.

In another project, Trade Hub, we work with over 50 partners to enhance the role of international commodity trade as a force for positive change – one which can provide employment and livelihoods, while minimizing the biodiversity and social risks with which it is often associated. SEI is also working with the UK government to develop an indicator for the impacts of UK consumption, which will be extended to cover biodiversity in the coming months. 

As countries strive to establish a Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework for setting targets and assessing progress, we recognize that there is an implementation gap. Biodiversity concerns are not embedded in decision-making because of their complexity, compounded by the complexity of our global economy. Addressing this requires multi-stakeholder partnerships to synthesize and improve upon state of the art approaches, but most importantly to translate information from new and existing research into actionable material for those who want to make better decisions.

Written by

Jonathan Green profile picture
Jonathan Green

Senior Researcher

SEI York

Chris West

Deputy Centre Director (Research)

SEI York

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