June 7th, 2012 by
shipping containers

Shipping containers from Asia in the port of Oakland (Photo credit: MentalMasala/Flickr)

As a culture, we’re used to getting our products from just about anywhere in the world. In someone’s home, it isn’t uncommon to find coffee from Mexico, chocolate from Ghana, fruit from Ecuador, shrimp from Thailand and so on. We’ve gotten so used to it that we hardly notice. But the downside of having our stuff come from all over the planet is that we’re so far from the source, we don’t really register the environmental impact of our products.

A new study, recently published in the journal Nature, has taken the first fully comprehensive look at the ties between global trade and environmental impact. The team of researchers started with data on 25,000 animal species from the Red List — the list of species that are internationally recognized as threatened or endangered. Then, they looked at more than 15,000 products traded across 187 different countries and a stunning five billion supply chains, taking into account everything from the pollution created by manufacturing plants to the amount of deforestation caused by harvesting a product or the extent to which re-routing waterways for crop irrigation can affect local environments. By cross-checking all this information, researchers found that 30 percent of threats to animal species are a direct result of international trade.

orangutan

Orangutans in Indonesia are suffering extreme habitat loss because of the demand for palm oil (Photo credit: ArianZwegers/Flickr)

That number includes only direct effects of the supply chain, and doesn’t even take into account factors like the consequences of invasive species. Plants, fungi, diseases and animals can hitch a ride on shipping containers, in packing materials, in the bilge water of ships and a number of other ways to find themselves on our turf, making a new home for themselves in our native environments. As we know from our oh-so-pleasant dealings with critters like the gypsy moth and emerald ash borer, invasive species can cause severe and widespread damage all on their own.

Digging into the team’s data with greater detail, the researchers were able to pinpoint the products and countries that contribute the most to biodiversity loss, and those that suffer most because of it. They found that the U.S. was the top nation contributing to the problem because of its demand for imported goods — with Japan, Germany, France and England trailing not far behind. The flow of coffee and tea from Mexico to the U.S., for instance, is linked to 57 separate threats to species. On the other end of the supply chain, Indonesia, Madagascar Papua New Guinea, the Phillipines and Sri Lanka are paying the highest price, with the most loss of biodiversity.

Despite the fact that our international trade habits are driving species to the brink, it’s hard to imagine everyone suddenly agreeing to go without commodities like coffee or chocolate. So what can we do? The team that conducted the study hopes that their findings will lead to stricter regulations and better labeling practices so that consumers can be more aware of the impact of what they buy. Hopefully, they’re right. But I also hope that people concerned about the impact their products have on biodiversity will do some research beforehand on the brands they buy. A dollar may not go very far these days, but its impact can be felt around the world.