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Feeding the world at a cost: Food production and biodiversity loss

In an era of heightened environmental awareness, a new study has shed light on the complex interplay between food production and biodiversity. The research reveals that our quest to feed the world could inadvertently be driving the loss of biodiversity at an alarming rate.

The study focuses on the environmental footprint of farming, particularly when it comes to food staples like beef, which are notorious for their substantial carbon emissions. Now, new evidence suggests that these same dietary essentials may contribute significantly to the loss of biodiversity.

Study senior author Keiichiro Kanemoto, an associate professor at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN) in Kyoto, Japan, noted that, “Food production remains the main cause of biodiversity loss.”

According to the researchers, the problem intensifies when food production encroaches upon areas of high conservation priority. A prevailing issue is the lack of data that could outline which products and countries contribute most to this biodiversity decline.

The researchers set out to bridge this data gap by merging information on agricultural land use and species habitats. They have now identified the agricultural crops exerting the greatest pressure on biodiversity.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, ranks commodities based on whether they are sourced from high conservation priority regions. While previous studies have attempted to quantify the carbon, land, and water footprints of the agriculture industry, the threat that farming poses to biodiversity has been less understood, and often overlooked.

The new findings will inform policies designed to strike a balance between preserving biodiversity and maintaining global food security. The research data, encompassing 50 agricultural products sourced from 200 countries, has been made publicly available on Google Earth Engine, a platform often utilized for environmental analyses.

The international research team, with members from Norway, the Netherlands, and Japan, further segmented agricultural areas into four tiers based on their conservation priority. The highest conservation priority was assigned to areas where staple commodities like beef, rice, and soybeans were predominantly produced. Conversely, other staples like barley and wheat were found to be more commonly sourced from areas of lower conservation priority.

Daniel Moran is a senior scientist at the Climate and Environmental Institute NILU and a research professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology‘s (NTNU) Industrial Ecology Programme. “A surprising takeaway for me was how much the impact of the same crop can vary based on where it is sourced from,” said Professor Moran.

The study pointed out striking discrepancies in where certain crops are grown. For example, beef and soybeans are produced in high conservation priority areas in Brazil, but not in North America.

The influence of international trade was also highlighted, as the study revealed the significant role of affluent nations like the US in driving agricultural demand in high conservation priority areas. The research revealed how different nations exhibit vastly different biodiversity food footprints. Countries like the United States, EU, China, and Japan heavily depend on imports to meet their beef and dairy consumption needs.

The researchers also touched on the looming threat of climate change. With rising temperatures projected to alter cropping patterns and available habitats, they used their model to examine future scenarios to understand how the relationship between wild biodiversity and farming might evolve.

The experts predict that as the world grows warmer, species will colonize new territories, potentially opening up fresh high conservation priority areas while mitigating conflicts in existing conservation hotspots.

“Our spatial approach is a valuable complementary method with other standard techniques to evaluate the impact agriculture has on biodiversity. The knowledge gained from our study should help reduce the trade-off many nations associate with agriculture production and environmental protection,” said Kanemoto. “It fills in a big missing piece in the footprint of food.”

“Our lifestyles are causing alarming damage to the atmosphere and water supplies. Farmers and governments worldwide are seeking policies that sustain prosperity while minimizing irreversible harm to the environment. Similar sustainable development policies are needed for agriculture. The calculation of detailed footprints for food and other farmed commodities is crucial to support these policies,” said Professor Moran.


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