Actions to promote conservation and biodiversity by closing off areas of land to farming could have a negative impact on human health and food security, according to researchers in Scotland, Germany and Austria.
The research even concluded that, depending on the strictness and severity of conservation measures, an increased risk of disease from malnutrition in developing countries is possible.
The study, published in the Nature Sustainability research journal, modelled the potential effects of “extreme” conservation that excluded human activities and strictly protected a portion of land surface for biodiversity.
The study – titled ‘Global and regional health and food security under strict conservation scenarios’ – looks at two scenarios: one with 30% of land protected; and one with 50%.
The research was carried out by the University of Aberdeen; the University of Edinburgh; the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria; and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany.
The research found that, when agriculture is displaced, global and regional food prices could increase, which in turn could affect food security and increase diseases associated with malnutrition.
According to the researchers, people living in developing regions are likely to be worst affected by reduced food security related to stringent area-based protection.
On the other hand, developed regions of the world would be largely insulated from the negative effects.
For the purpose of the study, researchers assumed that the protection of 30% and 50% of the terrestrial land surface is stringent and agriculture is totally displaced from these areas.
The authors acknowledged that the study is based on a certain level of assumption, due to the debate and uncertainty about what kind of biodiversity measures will be put in place in different locations.
However, they also said that, by exploring the strictest form of protection, researchers can “nevertheless explore the worst-case scenario, in terms of human health”.
Lead researcher Dr. Roslyn Henry said of the findings: “Area based conservation approaches are essential for achieving biodiversity targets. However, they will need to be implemented with care to ensure they do not compromise food security and human health goals, particularly in vulnerable world regions.
“While our modelling study explores the extreme end of conservation measures, our analysis provides insight into potential trade-offs between strict conservation measures and global human health. Quantifying such trade-offs and impacts can aid conservation planning and negotiations,” she added.
Dr. Henry is a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen’s School of Biological Sciences. She was previously a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.
The study’s principal investigator Dr. Peter Alexander – senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh – noted: “This work is important for improving our understanding of how unintended consequences could potentially arise through competition for land.
“The global land use and food system is highly complex and globally connected, as well as increasingly under pressure to provide, for example, food and other materials, suitable habitats for biodiversity, and mitigation and adaption to climate change.
“Even well intended actions that focus on one outcome may create substantial problems in other aspects or locations,” Dr. Alexander added.
The study was carried out as part of a research programme called ‘The Resilience of the UK Food System in a Global Context’.
It was jointly funded by a number of UK bodies, namely the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC); the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC); and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). The Scottish Government also co-funded the research.