Coffee-addicted UK is top-five destroyer of species biodiversity

Jun 7, 2012
Anna McKie

Scientists link imports of commodities such as tea, coffee and palm oil to habitat destruction and find UK alone threatens 285 species

BRITAIN IS one of the worst contributors to the destruction of global biodiversity through the goods it imports. As such it is a major offender in the Earth’s “sixth major extinction event”.

The UK comes fifth in a league table compiled by Australian researchers. The only countries which outdo us are Japan, France and Germany, with the USA taking the top spot for the most devastating consumption habits.

The wildlife of Indonesia, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Sri Lanka are some of the worst affected by international demand for their exports.

The report published in the journal Nature links the IUCN Red List of threatened species with data on trade in 15,000 commodities. "This is the first time, to our knowledge, that the important role of international trade and foreign consumption as a driver of threats to species has been comprehensively quantified," say the authors, led by Dr Manfred Lenzen of the University of Sydney.

"We found that 30 per cent of global species threats are due to international trade.

"Human activities are causing Earth’s sixth major extinction event - an accelerating decline of the world’s stocks of biological diversity at rates 100 to 1,000 times pre-human levels."

The UK’s imports alone threaten 285 species abroad, with our continuing appetite for tea, coffee and palm oil being some of the worst destroyers of habitat.

For example, the clearing of large areas of rainforest for everyday coffee bean consumption has led to a loss of habitat and food supply for the black-handed spider monkey (above), which is now on the brink of extinction in Central America.

Similarly, exports of cocoa, coffee and palm oil has meant significant destruction to the habitat of nine endangered species in Papua New Guinea. This includes the elusive northern glider, a long-tailed marsupial whose survival now hangs in the balance.

Other examples of trade which has led to habitat destruction and biodiversity loss include rubber exports from Malaysia, exploitative fishing in the Philippines and Thailand, production of bananas and tobacco in Colombia, and minerals mining in Ghana, reports the BBC.

Separately, a study by Greenpeace adds to the negative picture. It discovered that canned beef sold in Tesco contains meat sourced from JBS - a company which allegedly facilitates the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

Cattle ranches are a leading cause of deforestation, with much of the products (beef and leather for example) sold in the West. The Guardian reports that JBS has been found selling meat from ranches sited in illegally deforested areas, adding to the loss of biodiversity. Tesco says it has ceased sourcing canned beef products from JBS.

Despite this small victory, the situation looks set to worsen, says Nature, as countries like China and India increase their wealth, expand their middle classes and boost their demand for consumer goods.

To tackle the issue, Dr Lenzen at al argue that governments must take an active role and issue trade sanctions, alongside more comprehensive environmental labels on products that incorporate biodiversity and a shift in agricultural practices. Barney Foran, a co-author of the study in Nature, told Reuters: "We think that widespread certification and labelling are a must."

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Thanks for this really interesting article.  The ever increasing demand for agricultural commodities, driven by both a growing population and a growing middle class with more economic muscle, is indeed worrying.  But it is important to understand that it doesn't need to be this way and people do not need to stop drinking their daily tea or coffee - just be more aware of its potential impact.  The end of your article points to one solution, "widespread certification and labeling..."  If consumers are both looking for and demanding this from the brands they buy then change can be made to happen.

For example, if UK consumers buy tea of coffee carrying the Rainforest Alliance "green frog" seal they know that the tea or coffee they have been drinking has been grown on farms which comply with strict sustainability criteria.  This includes gowning under shade where possible, re-establishing native forests and protecting fresh water courses among other things.  What is more farmers who farm this way often find they can grow more on the same area of land, and it is of better quality, giving them a better price for what they produce.  So the big loose your article highlights can be turned into a win, win by consumers demanding and farmers applying proper sustainability practices where our commodities are grown.