Globally sharing land and its ecosystem functions through international trade

Land is a finite resource that has to be shared among humans, and with other species. International trade of land based products is affecting the way we are sharing land, both by changing global production patterns and by transferring the benefits of land from exporting to importing countries. This blog post reports on two presentations held in a webinar organised by the GLP Working Group on Telecoupling Research in April 2021 (the recording and slides are available here). The first intervention by Nicolas Roux provided thoughts on which functions of land should be shared, and how international trade of agricultural commodities affected the share of land between humans and other species over the last few decades. The second intervention by Abdullah Shaik discussed the fair share of cropland between producing and consuming countries constrained by planetary boundaries.

In his presentation, Nicolas Roux started from the premise that human land use is estimated to affect more than 70% of the global ice-free land area, leaving little unaffected land for nature. Yet, since land is diverse in terms of its productivity, and how intensively humans use it, it is important to complement land area based studies with studies, for example, examining how human land use is affecting ecosystem functions, when seeking to measure how benefits are shared between humans and other species. Net primary production (NPP) is one of those ecosystem functions, which play a major role in the functioning of land ecosystems. NPP is the amount of biomass (expressed as Carbon, dry matter or energy) produced by primary producers (plants, etc.) through photosynthesis. It provides energy for all species that eat other plants or animals, making it a central function to ecosystems on land. Humans are appropriating NPP by converting the land, for example from a forest to a grazing land or cropland, and by harvesting biomass through agriculture and forestry. By appropriating NPP, humans are reducing the carbon intake of primary producers, hence reducing energy available to other species (affecting biodiversity), but also changing evapotranspiration and the water cycle, or enhancing wind erosion. The quantity of NPP appropriated by humans is called Human Appropriation of NPP, or HANPP.

Between 1986 and 2013, the share of HANPP rose from 24 to 27% of the potential NPP, mostly due to an increase in harvest (largely of soybeans) rather than land-use change. In a former study, Roux et. al. identified that for agricultural products the share of HANPP embodied in international trade rose from 10 to 16% in the same period, changing the origin of food and other agricultural commodities. The study showed that while the changes in origin of agricultural products reduced HANPP between 1986 and 1998, mostly linked to trade within continents, in the latter part of the period changes in origin increased HANPP, due to increasing intercontinental exports from tropical regions (Roux et al. 2021).

Currently, the authors are identifying which trade flows of commodities with particular ecosystem risk that are primarily affecting HANPP. Preliminary results showed that in 2013, cattle meat consumed in the USA had important impacts on NPP in Canada. They also found that Chinese consumption of pig meat affected NPP in Brazil. Pig meat consumption in China also affected the USA, Argentina and other countries. Measured through HANPP, the footprint of Chinese pig meat consumption was larger abroad than domestically (this did not hold in terms of land area). A small part of the pig meat consumed in China was produced in the EU, which itself depended on importing feed from South America. Nevertheless, one should be careful in not overstating these so-called spillover effects, as most of the animal products produced in the EU with European feed, were consumed in the EU. Nonetheless, spillover effects should be acknowledged, as they may generate governance loopholes.

In his presentation, Abdullah Shaik presented a different approach to quantify trade induced cropland footprints in the context of planetary boundary framework (Shaik et al. 2021). They undertook a global assessment of the utilisation of national environmental limits for cropland due to consumption and production of agri-food products. Through their research, they attempted to allocate safe operating space to countries and assess their progress towards responsible consumption and production mandated under the SDG 12.

They downscaled the global land-system change planetary boundary for cropland use and assigned environmental limits to countries. They identified that domestic consumption, imports and exports of cropland footprints embedded in agri-food commodities created a complex web of teleconnections among countries. Therefore, they allocated national environmental limits for consumption and production perspectives to individual countries. National consumption-based environmental limits for cropland use were allocated to countries based on the fair-share approach. That is, each country received a share in the global environmental limits based on its population. Alternatively, national production-based environmental limits for cropland use were allocated to countries based on their biophysical cropland limits. That is, each country received a share in the global environmental limits according to its available cropland area. 

They further assessed national consumption-based and production-based cropland footprints against nationally defined environmentally limits. The results showed that many high-income countries exceeded their environmental limits for consumption and production. Countries with high population were within safe consumption based environmental limits, but were over-utilising their production-based environmental limits. They also found that countries with low population and large cropland areas were putting stress on their cropland resources to produce food for exports. 

In summary, the study provided insights to countries in the context of their utilisation of the downscaled land-system change boundary. It highlighted the importance of responsible consumption and production patterns amid complex trade teleconnections to achieve SDG 12. To conclude, the authors suggested pathways to countries to reduce the impact of consumption on production countries - all of which is necessary to safeguard the land-system change boundary and achieve SDG 12.

This webinar shed light upon the effect of international trade on the way land is shared between humans and other species, and across producing and consuming countries. It suggested that international trade of agricultural commodities may have hampered conservation efforts. Furthermore, international trade distorted the distribution of land between sparsely populated and densely populated countries, hence affecting the achievement of their respective planetary boundaries. These effects should be carefully considered in global land governance, to foster efforts on conservation, environmental justice, and life within planetary boundaries. Ways forward would be for countries to develop official accounting schemes and set legally binding targets for the domestic and international impacts of their production and consumption of land based commodities, to compensate for their impacts happening elsewhere (especially in economically poor countries) and to set conservation and justice as core targets of international trade agreements and other trade governance mechanisms.

Roux, Nicolas, Thomas Kastner, Karl-Heinz Erb, and Helmut Haberl. ‘Does Agricultural Trade Reduce Pressure on Land Ecosystems? Decomposing Drivers of the Embodied Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production’. Ecological Economics 181 (1 March 2021): 106915.

Shaikh MA, Hadjikakou M, Bryan BA. National-level consumption-based and production-based utilisation of the land-system change planetary boundary: patterns and trends. Ecological Indicators. 2021 Feb 1;121:106981.