Letter | Published:

International trade drives biodiversity threats in developing nations

Nature volume 486, pages 109112 (07 June 2012) | Download Citation


Human activities are causing Earth’s sixth major extinction event1—an accelerating decline of the world’s stocks of biological diversity at rates 100 to 1,000 times pre-human levels2. Historically, low-impact intrusion into species habitats arose from local demands for food, fuel and living space3. However, in today’s increasingly globalized economy, international trade chains accelerate habitat degradation far removed from the place of consumption. Although adverse effects of economic prosperity and economic inequality have been confirmed4,5, the importance of international trade as a driver of threats to species is poorly understood. Here we show that a significant number of species are threatened as a result of international trade along complex routes, and that, in particular, consumers in developed countries cause threats to species through their demand of commodities that are ultimately produced in developing countries. We linked 25,000 Animalia species threat records from the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List to more than 15,000 commodities produced in 187 countries and evaluated more than 5 billion supply chains in terms of their biodiversity impacts. Excluding invasive species, we found that 30% of global species threats are due to international trade. In many developed countries, the consumption of imported coffee, tea, sugar, textiles, fish and other manufactured items causes a biodiversity footprint that is larger abroad than at home. Our results emphasize the importance of examining biodiversity loss as a global systemic phenomenon, instead of looking at the degrading or polluting producers in isolation. We anticipate that our findings will facilitate better regulation, sustainable supply-chain certification and consumer product labelling.

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We thank C. Pollock and M. Hoffmann from the IUCN and A. Symes from BirdLife International for advice on using the Red Lists. The work described in this paper was financially supported by the Australian Research Council through its Discovery Project DP0985522 and its Linkage Project LP0669290.

Author information


  1. ISA, School of Physics A28, The University of Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia

    • M. Lenzen
    • , D. Moran
    • , K. Kanemoto
    • , B. Foran
    • , L. Lobefaro
    •  & A. Geschke
  2. Graduate School of Environmental Studies, Tohoku University, Sendai 980-8579, Japan

    • K. Kanemoto
  3. Institute of Land Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, Albury, New South Wales 2640, Australia

    • B. Foran
  4. Department of Business and Law Studies, I Faculty of Economics, University of Bari Aldo Moro, 70124 Bari, Italy

    • L. Lobefaro


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M.L. and D.M. conducted the analysis and prepared the figures. M.L., D.M. and B.F. wrote the paper. K.K., L.L. and A.G. prepared the data.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to M. Lenzen.

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