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Are Your Home Goods and Food Threatening Endangered Species?

April 04, 2017

Story at-a-glance

  • Demand for products and food in the U.S. and elsewhere has a significant impact on threatened wildlife
  • One-third of threats to wildlife can be linked back to trade and exports
  • A cup of coffee enjoyed in the U.S. may have harmed spider monkeys living in Central America, an area suffering from deforestation for exports, including coffee, leaving spider monkeys with no place to live

By Dr. Becker

It’s disturbing to think that your morning cup of coffee or favorite recliner could be somehow involved in destroying an endangered species, but the consumption habits of high-income countries like the U.S. often have environmental consequences in lower-income regions.  

In particular, one-third of threats to wildlife can be linked back to trade and exports, The Washington Post reported.1,2 Oftentimes, the areas that are home to some of the world’s most endangered species are also those being exploited by export industries.

These so-called “hotspots of species threat” are prime targets for conservation efforts at the scene, but true change must also involve identifying and addressing the consumer demand driving the export industry.

New research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Shinshu University in Japan developed a new approach to identify species threat hotspots from global supply chains, in the hopes of raising awareness about this important connection. The researchers explained:3

“The result is a map connecting consumption to spatially explicit hotspots driven by production on a global scale.

Locating biodiversity threat hotspots driven by consumption of goods and services can help to connect conservationists, consumers, companies and governments in order to better target conservation actions.”

Exports and Trade Are Threatening Endangered Species

Demand for products and food in the U.S. and elsewhere has a significant impact on threatened wildlife.

The researchers created a map of the habitat of endangered species listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and BirdLife International (nearly 7,000 threatened species in all) and combined it with production and export data, ultimately showing how U.S. consumers are endangering animals living in threat hotspots around the world.

In the video above it’s explained, for example, that a cup of coffee enjoyed in Chicago may have harmed spider monkeys living in Central America. The area is suffering from deforestation for exports, including coffee, leaving spider monkeys with no place to live.

For Central America’s stub-footed toad, meanwhile, about 2 percent of its threat score was linked to logging driven by the consumption of goods in the U.S. Other examples cited include mining for gold bound for Japan, which affects mangroves that are home to endangered plants and sea cows.

The study also revealed that U.S. consumption habits have a greater effect in the Brazilian Highlands, where agriculture and grazing are extensive, than they do in the Amazon basin. U.S. consumption was even found to threaten species in southern Spain and Portugal.

In Spain, for instance, a hydroelectric dam project used, in part, for purposes of irrigation control for agriculture, is endangering the habitat of the Iberian Lynx.

Olives grown in the region are made into olive oil exported to the U.S. The researchers are hoping the maps will help conservationists target the trade routes that are having the greatest impact on endangered species.

The Biodiversity Footprint Is Concentrated

Threats that affect a relatively small amount of land and sea were found to affect a large number of species, showing that even a small footprint can have wide-reaching effects. According to the study:4

“ … [F]or threats driven by US consumption, the 5 [percent] of land area that is most intensively affected covers 23.6 [percent] of its total impact on species, and at sea the most intensively affected 5 [percent] of marine area includes 60.7 [percent] of threatened species habitats.

… It has been estimated that 90 [percent] of the US$6 billion of annual conservation funding originates in and is spent within economically rich countries, yet these countries are rarely where threat hotspots lie.

Directing funding back up along their supply chains, toward the original points of impact, could help to yield better conservation outcomes.”

You’re probably now wondering which products are among the worst offenders, and unfortunately there are many. Study author Daniel Moran of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology told The Washington Post, “Almost all food and fiber is implicated.”5

A 2012 study similarly linked 25,000 species from the IUCN Red List to more than 15,000 commodities produced in 187 countries.6 Those researchers specifically noted imported coffee, tea, sugar, textiles, fish and “other manufactured items” as causing “a biodiversity footprint that is larger abroad than at home.”

Shade-Grown Coffee: One Step Toward Conservation

It’s not one product, or even one cause, that’s threatening species worldwide. It’s consumption, invasive species, disease, habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, pollution and other factors all together that are ultimately to blame.

As The Post put it, “Individual products used by humans are a limited threat, but there are so many products that they amount to death by a thousand cuts.”7

That being said, making simple changes can make a difference. For instance, choose organic, locally made products as much as possible, and when it comes to coffee, choose shade-grown. Shade-grown coffee is grown without deforestation, helping to protect the habitat of numerous endangered species.

In a study published in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, it was shown that “traditional shade coffee plantations can become key refuge areas for biodiversity, especially compared to more intensive agricultural practices.”

In particular, Andean night monkeys, a vulnerable species, were found to rely on shade trees in the coffee plantations as “stepping stones and feeding resources,” demonstrating that “shade coffee can be used as a complementary strategy for the conservation of primates.”8

Choosing shade-grown coffee is just one small change, but if enough people make it, and others like it, it can translate to significant protections to vulnerable species worldwide.

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Sources and References

  • 1, 5, 7 The Washington Post January 5, 2017
  • 2, 6 Nature. 2012 Jun 6;486(7401):109-12
  • 3, 4 Nature Ecology & Evolution January 4, 2017
  • 8 Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment January 2016, Volume 215, Pages 57-67
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