More than a third of the food we produce overlaps with areas that are rich in wildlife, a new PNAS study finds. It’s a sobering discovery—but drilling down to understand the most impactful food types, and drivers of their production, could help countries to relieve some of this pressure on wildlife.
A lot more is known about carbon impacts of agriculture, while “our understanding of biodiversity threats…is extremely patchy,” says Oliver Taherzadeh, assistant professor at the Institute of Environmental Sciences of Leiden University, and an author on the new study. He and colleagues study sought to close that gap. They began by modeling the global distribution of over 7,000 species, which firstly allowed them to create a hierarchy of land based on its conservation value. Then they overlaid this with maps of agricultural production for 48 foods, ranging from cereals to oil crops, fruits, and livestock to see where production overlapped with biodiversity.
Trade data from 197 countries helped illuminate where cultivated food ultimately ends up, giving a sense of how individual nations are implicated in biodiversity loss at locations worldwide. The result is an open-access platform where users can explore how food and biodiversity intersect across global landscapes.
First-off, their detailed mapping revealed that more than three-quarters of agricultural land associated with those 48 products occurs in sites that have medium to very high conservation value for biodiversity. “The sheer scale of potential conflict between agriculture and conservation priority areas was surprising,” Taherzadeh says. About a third of global agriculture tales place exclusively in parts of the world that have the highest conservation priority, due to the diversity of species that they contain.
Overall, most foods the researchers mapped out have some biodiversity risk, while a small share of just five—including barley, sunflower and wheat—rely on areas of low biodiversity for most (over 50%) of their production.
Some foods are uniquely threatening, including beef, rice, and soya, which use up the largest swathes of agricultural land in high conservation priority zones. Meanwhile, coffee, cocoa, plantain, and oil palm are grown almost exclusively in high-priority areas—which in these cases means tropical forest regions in Southeast Asia and South America that are known for their high concentration of wildlife.
These agricultural risks don’t exist at random but are driven by the demand and appetite of individual countries. For instance, China’s large population and appetite for land-intensive oil crops and livestock, gives it the biggest overall agricultural footprint in biodiversity-rich areas. A surprisingly significant driver of risk is the appetite of wealthy countries like the United States and those in Europe for premium products like coffee and chocolate, whose production threatens biodiversity especially in wildlife-rich tropical regions.
In fact “high and upper-middle income countries bear primary responsibility—60%—for land use in very high conservation sites when we follow agri-trade flows,” Taherzadeh explains.
Interestingly, products had variable impacts, depending on where they were farmed. For instance, the researchers discovered that cattle and soybeans—two foods with the highest biodiversity impact in South America—are less threatening to nature when produced in North America and parts of Africa. This trend occurred across food types, even wheat, which was less harmful to biodiversity when grown in eastern Europe than in western Europe.
That variability provides some big-picture clues on how countries could start relieving pressure on wild lands—first off, by shifting food production to landscapes where it harms nature less, or choosing to strategically import from lower-risk regions instead. We already see this with commodities like milk, whose consumption in the US carries a lower biodiversity risk than it does in Japan for instance, because of where it’s imported from.
We can also change how much we consume, and what we consume—“two areas where we expect major potential benefits to biodiversity based on our findings,” Taherzadeh says. Candidates might be high-impact products like beef, chocolate, and coffee, where altered consumption patterns—or even substitution, in the case of beef, with plant-based proteins—could release swathes of tropical land to biodiversity. Other switches might include sugar beet for the biodiversity-endangering sugarcane, and temperate fruits for tropical ones, the study found.
National policies—whether to ease up trade on certain products, or reduce meat consumption—would help move towards this global shift and dietary redesign. The landscape is already moving in that direction, with recent laws like the EU’s new deforestation regulation, which will block imports of commodities grown on deforested land, to protect biodiversity.
“We suffer from carbon tunnel-vision, due in part to the lack of adequate data on the impacts of policy decisions on other environmental systems,” Taherzadeh notes. He hopes that this research and accompanying platform could change that, giving government a tool to explore the landscape-level impact of diets, to “safeguard biodiversity in food and agricultural policy.”
Hoang et. al. “Mapping potential conflicts between global agriculture and terrestrial conservation.” PNAS. 2023.