Global food trade research upends assumptions about how biodiversity fares

Examining the complexities of global food trade and the impacts of biodiversity hotspots.

Field of soy beans with U.S. farm in background

In this week’s Nature Food, Michigan State University (MSU) researchers find that imports from high-income countries benefit biodiversity in low-income countries.

The findings in “International food trade benefits biodiversity and food security in low-income countries” fly in the face of conventional wisdoms:  that high-income countries harm biodiversity in low-income countries by importing food from them, and yet low-income countries, particularly those with biodiversity hotspots, were increasingly becoming net importers themselves.

Two MSU sustainability scholars from the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS) looked at the growing complexities of global food trade for a better understanding of the interactions and impacts of growing food to feed the world and protecting some of the most precious natural resources. Their paper is entitled

“Understanding the interrelationships between food security and biodiversity is essential to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” said CSIS director Jianguo “Jack” Liu, MSU Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and co-author. “Our work seeks to understand how we can achieve global food security to feed a growing population without sacrificing biodiversity in the telecoupled world.”

Countries that are growing both in population and wealth demand more food, and often turn to importing foods. Countries that are increasing their food exports, which often means converting their lands to farms or pastures, can find it results in damage to the environment and biodiversity.

Corn_Pour_2017
    Illinois-grown corn for export

Some low-income countries that don’t have biodiversity hotspots such as Ukraine have rapidly increased exporting food to hotspot countries. Those exports might help further reduce negative impacts on biodiversity.

Liu and Min Gon Chung, who received his PhD at MSU and now is a postdoctoral researcher at University of California, Merced, examined comprehensive datasets comprising 189 food items across 157 countries during 2000–2018.

 The pair offer suggestions, such has having food prices include costs to biodiversity, and those earnings be used to mitigate the damages to biodiversity. Underscoring all solutions involves countries working together to strike agreements benefiting both coffers and the environment.

“With increasing the complexity of food trade among countries with and without biodiversity hotspots, more innovative approaches are needed to minimize the negative impacts of global food production and trade on biodiversity in hotspot countries worldwide,” Chung said.

The work was funded by the National Science Foundation, Michigan AgBioResearch and Sustainable Michigan Endowment Project.

A related Nature News & Views, "We can have biodiversity and eat it too" has been written by Stuart Pimm at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. 

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