'Extreme' conservation could lead to malnutrition and disease, study finds

New research from scientists at the University of Aberdeen has found that expanding global land area for conservation, a key approach to protecting biodiversity, could have an adverse impact on human health and food security in some parts of the world.

Published in Nature Sustainability, the study modelled the potential effects of ‘extreme’ conservation that excluded human activities and strictly protected 30% and 50% of the terrestrial land surface for biodiversity. The research, a collaboration between the University of Aberdeen, the University of Edinburgh, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany found that when agriculture was displaced, global and regional food prices could increase, which in turn could affect food security and increase diseases associated with malnourishment. 

According to the researchers, those living in developing regions are likely to be worst affected by reduced food security related to stringent area-based protection. Conversely, developed world regions are largely insulated from the negative effects.

The research was part of ‘The Resilience of the UK Food System in a Global Context’ programme that was launched in 2016 and concluded in December 2021. It was cross-council funded by UK Research and Innovation’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Scottish Government.

Lead researcher and author Dr Roslyn Henry, from the University of Aberdeen’s School of Biological Sciences, who carried out much of the research while at the University of Edinburgh, explains: “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.

“Global area-based targets will require extending protected areas and restoring natural land. If this expansion restricts agriculture then the consequences may be felt in food production sectors with reduced food provisioning potentially compromising food security goals and human health, particularly in vulnerable regions.

“While our modelling study explores the extreme end of conservation measure 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.”

Principal Investigator Dr Peter Alexander, Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, added: “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 currently 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.”