Consumption of globally traded agricultural commodities like soy and palm oil is one of the primary causes of deforestation and biodiversity loss in some of the world’s most species-rich ecosystems. However, the complexity of global supply chains has confounded efforts to reduce impacts. Companies and governments with sustainability commitments struggle to understand their own sourcing patterns, while the activities of more unscrupulous actors are conveniently masked by the opacity of global trade.

By combining state-of-the-art material flow, economic, trade and biodiversity impact models (including data from Trase and SEI’s IOTA model), the authors have produced an innovative approach for understanding the impacts of trade on biodiversity loss and the roles of remote markets and actors. They use this to study the impacts of expanding soy production in the Brazilian Cerrado, home to more than 5% of the world’s species.

They find that distinct sourcing patterns of consumer countries and trading companies result in substantially different impacts on endemic species. Connections between individual buyers and specific hotspots explain the disproportionate impacts of some actors on endemic species and individual threatened species, such as the particular impact of European Union consumers on the recent habitat losses for the iconic giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla).

In making these links explicit, the approach potentially enables commodity buyers and investors to target their efforts much more closely to improve the sustainability of their supply chains while also transforming the ability to monitor the impact of such commitments over time.