Rich Countries' Hunger for Imported Food Is Driving Global Biodiversity Loss

New research maps 'virtual pollination flow' around the world.

Soybean fields
Soybean fields in the state of Paraná in Brazil. FLAVIO BENEDITO CONCEIÇÃO / Getty Images

As demand for healthy fruits and vegetables rises in developed countries, it puts pressure on the developing nations that export those seasonal foods, as well as on the wild pollinators that enable them to grow in the first place. 

A new study, led by Brazilian researchers Felipe Deodato da Silva e Silva and Luísa Carvalheiro and published in the journal Science Advances, investigates the concept of a "virtual pollination trade" by tracking the movement of more than 55 pollinator-dependent crops around the world. The virtual pollination idea was inspired by the concept of the virtual water trade, which Da Silva described to Treehugger as measuring the amount of water associated with crop products traded in international markets.

"Global demand growth and associated expansion of crop production are one of the main drivers of global pollinators declining, so the balance between biodiversity conservation and socio-economic interest is one of the main challenges of our time. We know that pollinators are very important for crop production, but how much do their services contribute for global trade? That question was our first step. We decided to investigate how pollinators contribute to global trade of crops. Virtual Pollination Flow was defined in this paper as the proportion of exported products resulting from pollinator action."

Their research reveals that developed countries rely on imported pollinator-dependent crops for much of their diet, while countries that export the majority of these crop types are major drivers of pollinator declines. Pollination services contribute to more than 75% of worldwide crop diversity and 35% of global crop production by volume. Da Silva and his colleagues then built an online interactive tool that allows one to view where pollinator-dependent crops from a particular country end up.

Why does this matter? Because wild pollinators are dwindling, due to a number of factors that include loss of habitat and chemical usage as agricultural methods intensify – and, as the study states, "a pollination event that leads to the production of an exported product is no longer available for wild plants and non-exported products." So by prioritizing the pollination of crops for export, many developing countries are undermining biodiversity at home. 

Da Silva is not opposed to exporting food. Exporter countries depend on the economic gains that it brings, but he does think there needs to be a broader global understanding of the "impacts of the current agribusiness model and associated international markets on biodiversity." He went on to say, "When the consumers buy a package of coffee, they know where it came from just by looking at the label, but they don’t know if the farmer used sustainable practices to safeguard insects that pollinated coffee production."

Understanding virtual pollination flow could help to develop new strategies for biodiversity conservation that take crop trade between countries into consideration. Strategies such as payment for ecosystem services, certified products, technological or financial transfer, etc., could, in Da Silva's words, "help to make agricultural systems more sustainable in developing countries, especially those dedicated to exportation. Our study shows that this task should not only be done by exporting countries, but also by their trading partners, because all of us depend on pollination services, and would be affected by the declining pollinators populations."

The study suggests that exporting countries improve pollinator habitats through "ecological intensification practices (e.g. implementation of flower strips and hedgerows) that, consequently, could increase cropland productivity of many crop species." 

Part of the problem, however, is that conservation of natural areas comes with opportunity costs, meaning that when a landowner is forced to preserve natural areas by conservation laws, they are unable to expand crop production to make more money; but failure to ensure such conservation efforts can lead to bigger long-term problems. From the study: 

"Agricultural expansion is likely to increase isolation of croplands from natural habitat and to cause declines in pollinator-dependent crop yields, which in turn may accelerate the conversion of new natural areas to agriculture to sustain production in response to the international demand."

The study suggests that governments of developing countries should prioritize investments in precision farming (i.e. the use of modern technology to support more efficient management) rather than cropland expansion to increase land productivity, or "ecological intensification of farming practices" that can boost ecosystem services like crop pollination. Strategies that "consider socioeconomic benefits of nature conservation are essential to avoid ecosystem depletion in exporting countries."

Da Silva told Treehugger that making farmland management more pollinator-friendly "is a difficult challenge for human society, but I think that our paper can be a first step for this discussion." He gives the example of Brazil's soybean trade:

"For example, soybeans produced at large scale in Brazil could be less aggressive to pollinators if policymakers created environmental policies to stop deforestation or to reduce pesticides application. Another case is coffee and cocoa in African countries that could benefit from economic and market instruments, such as certified products or payment for ecosystem services. We should look at how international trade is associated with loss of biodiversity and its services, and how we could make this market more sustainable."

Tracking virtual pollination has the potential to become an important tool for international policy. This information can contribute to more sustainable supply chains and to the internalization of costs associated with ecosystem preservation. 

In Da Silva's words, "We hope that, by facilitating the identification of global economic connections mediated by ecosystem services, the work will stimulate a recognition of shared responsibility, in which all participants in the production process (farmers, consumers and politicians) are engaged to minimize environmental impacts."