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Mapping the Conflict Between Farming and Biodiversity

The study ranks which commodities are sourced from regions with high priority for conservation. While previous studies have quantified the carbon, land, and water footprints of the agriculture industry, the threats to biodiversity and ecosystems from farming are poorly understood and thus often omitted. The new results are expected to assist with the formation of policies that protect biodiversity while preserving global food security.

The results have been made publicly available on Google Earth Engine, a cloud computing platform used for environmental analyses. The study covers 50 agricultural products sourced from 200 countries, and draws on farming data, a database of global supply chains, and new ecological models with conservation data for more than 7,000 species to estimate the conservation value of different areas.

Beef, rice and soy biggest footprint

The international research team, with members from Norway, the Netherlands and Japan, divided  into four tiers, based on their conservation priority, from lowest to highest. They then determined which individual agricultural commodities were produced in these different priority levels.

The researchers found that about one-third of all farming occurs in areas that were considered highest conservation priority. One pattern that emerged was that some staple commodities, such as beef, rice, and soybeans, tended to be produced in high conservation priority areas. At the same time, other substitutes, such as barley and wheat, were predominantly sourced from lower risk areas.

"A surprising takeaway for me was how much the impact of the same crop can vary based on where it is sourced from," said Daniel Moran, a senior scientist at the Climate and Environmental Institute NILU and a research professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU) Industrial Ecology Program who was also a co-author of the study.

Effects of climate change

The changing climate is expected to alter both cropping patterns and available habitats. The research team used their model to look at different scenarios to see how the interaction between wild biodiversity and farming would change under predicted 2070 temperatures.

Species are likely to colonize new territories in a warmer world, which could result in the emergence of new high conservation  areas or mitigate conflicts in current conservation hotspots.

While the researchers did not produce a detailed map forecasting future conflicts between agriculture and , the paper's supporting information offers some estimates of future competition under a range of scenarios.

"Our spatial approach is a valuable complementary method with other standard techniques to evaluate the impact agriculture has on . The knowledge gained from our study should help reduce the trade-off many nations associate with agriculture production and environmental protection," said Kanemoto. "It fills in a big missing piece in the footprint of food."

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