Reflecting on the crucial co-dependance of biodiversity and international trade

Asian traditional farmer holding red ripe oil palm fruitlets. planter palm oil

As we celebrate Biodiversity Day 2023, Jemima Brennen, Associate Communications Officer in UNEP-WCMC's Nature Economy team, explores the vital links between biodiversity and global trade and how both impact the resilience and well-being of communities around the world. 

Biodiversity is widely traded internationally, and international trade is a major driver of biodiversity loss across the world. About 30 per cent of threats to species globally are driven by international trade, and nearly 70 per cent of tropical deforestation is due to commercial agriculture, from which most of the products are traded internationally. However, trade can contribute to sustainable development goals when the well-being of people and broader sustainability is considered at its core. 

International trade can increase access to new markets and resources, which can help support economic development and alleviate poverty. There is also a growing market for sustainable products: the export value of sustainable plant and animal commodities increased from USD 40 million to USD 4.5 billion between 2003 and 2015, generating both jobs and income, while providing incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Sustainable international trade also serves as a safety net, mitigating risks and enhancing local economic resilience. When domestic goods production fluctuates, items can be imported to compensate for deficits. For instance, during periods of reduced food production due to adverse weather, trade can fill the gap. Well-regulated trade can therefore be an important approach to deliver social impact and conserve biodiversity. 

While trade in natural and agricultural goods continues to be a key driver of economic growth, it can also result in the depletion of wild animal and plant populations. For example, the global and local importance of palm oil is well documented, with many sustainability nuances related to its growth, supply and trade. The palm oil industry has positively contributed to smallholders’ wellbeing and financial security. With the rising global demand for palm oil, both the production volume and cultivated area in regions where oil palms are grown have experienced a rapid surge. Commercial plantations in Southeast Asia, and recent expansions in Latin America and Africa, have resulted in land degradation affecting other crops and wild species. The clearing of previously-forested land for oil palm not only removes vital habitat for wildlife, but also poses a significant threat to water, air, and soil quality

Such degradation of the environment can have a far-reaching impact. Rural communities in particular rely heavily on surrounding ecosystems for their livelihoods. Clearing land for commercial farming, often for the benefit of a small number of people, can reduce access to resources for local people. The loss of biodiversity also exacerbates the effects of climate change, as deforestation releases greenhouse gases, and reduces the environment’s ability to buffer and recover from extreme weather events. Again, we see the strongest immediate effects of this felt in local communities. 

Whether we reside in urban or rural environments, we all depend on a thriving and diverse natural world for clean drinking water, pest and disease control, pollination of crops and many raw materials. To safeguard our natural environment and support human development, it is imperative that we take steps to make international trade more sustainable. Though the effects can seem far away, the growing demand for a variety of commodities from consumer countries in the Global North is a key driver of overexploitation of natural resources in the Global South. As such, major policy changes and public and private sector collaborations must address issues of overconsumption and enable a more equal distribution of the benefits of trade. 

Through its research, the TRADE Hub is working to better understand the impacts of agricultural, wildlife and wildmeat trade on people and nature. In doing so, it works to increase the traceability and transparency of global value chains through various tools and metrics, to make it easier for people throughout the chain to make better-informed decisions.  On this year’s International Day for Biological Diversity, we are all urged to reflect on the global nature and reach from our use and consumption of everyday products, and on the people and nature most affected by the sustainability of our international supply chains. 

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