The State of Agricultural Commodity Markets 2022


The negative externalities of trade

Trade can also generate negative environmental externalities, as production for exports can result in unsustainable freshwater withdrawals, pollution, biodiversity loss and deforestation. Trade channels economic incentives to producers across countries and, combined with weak or inadequate regulatory frameworks, can lead to negative environmental outcomes.

Trade policies can be used as tools to address such shortcomings. Environmental protection is foreseen as a legitimate justification for trade measures under the WTO rules and many recent trade agreements embed environmental clauses in an attempt to balance economic and environmental trade-offs.

Unsustainable freshwater withdrawals

Nearly all water on the earth’s surface is found in the oceans, ice caps or glaciers, and only 1 percent is available freshwater.176 Agriculture accounts for 72 percent of freshwater withdrawals worldwide, mainly for irrigation, and contributes to water stress. About 1.2 billion people live in areas where severe water scarcity challenges agriculture.177 In sub-Saharan Africa, water availability per capita declined by 40 percent over the past decade, and most of the African continent reached per capita water levels considered insufficient to meet water demand for food and other sectors.178

Agricultural production is a key driver of resource use and can lead to unsustainable water withdrawals. Because trade channels economic incentives to producers across countries to expand crop production, many observers postulate a relationship between trade and unsustainable water use. About 11 percent of groundwater depletion is estimated to be embedded in the international trade of crops.179 Another study estimates that between 2000 and 2015, food trade grew by 65 percent, while the share of unsustainable irrigation embedded in agricultural exports increased proportionally less, by 18 percent.180 This suggests that trade is not necessarily the leading driver of water scarcity and that, although it can generate a negative environmental impact, it is also efficiency enhancing, as unsustainable irrigation increased much less than agricultural exports.


Agricultural intensification and the increased use of fertilizers and pesticides have contributed to soil pollution. Using nitrogen and phosphorous in excess of what is needed for optimal plant growth causes soil pollution and leads to soil acidification, salinization, and the contamination of groundwater and surface water bodies. Pesticides can also harm the environment and soil health, particularly when overused or applied using poor practices.181

Trade enables countries to outsource their pollution by importing agricultural products rather than producing them. A study using virtual grey water flows to explore the globalization of agricultural pollution points to wide differences across countries in terms of pollution distribution through trade.ab While the grey water concept is not widely used, the study provides interesting insights, indicating that pollution is rising and increasingly concentrated in relatively few countries, and notes a positive relationship between increases in trade and increases in pollution. Importantly, the study suggests that external pollution footprints (that is, due to trade) are small compared to internal footprints (due to domestic production), indicating that local conditions are the key drivers that frame farmers’ practices.182

Biodiversity loss and deforestation

Biodiversity loss is strongly linked to land use changes and, as markets do not account for its cost, insufficient regulation and law enforcement in the producing region can result in negative outcomes (see Box 3.1). Forests host most of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, and reductions in forest cover imply a significant biodiversity loss. Forests contain over 60 000 different species of trees. They are habitats for 80 percent of the world’s amphibian species, 75 percent of bird species and 68 percent of mammal species. Tropical forests contain about 60 percent of all the world’s vascular plants.183

BOX 3.1Trade and biodiversity: The importance of regulation

Poorly regulated markets are more prone to generating negative environmental externalities through trade.

A study demonstrates the profound effects of strong and sustained international demand on biodiversity, in this case, the North American Bison.242 The analysis focuses on how market factors interacted and led to the near extinction of the North American Bison in the late 1800s through trade. First, technological innovation in Europe enabled calf hides to be substituted for buffalo hides in production, and it strengthened significantly the demand for the latter. Second, the global market allowed for the demand for buffalo hides in Europe to be met by imports from the United States of America, which caused widespread hunting of the relatively small American buffalo herd. As a free, open-access resource, the North American Bison herd was nearly entirely captured by the late 1880s.

Another study243 explores the causal effect of trade on the collapse of fish stocks. The analysis shows that the collapse of fish stocks in Japan led to increased sourcing of fish from the international market to meet domestic demand. At sufficiently high domestic prices, international markets serve as a transmission channel, and contribute to the collapse of fish stocks in other countries when these stocks are an open or poorly regulated resource. The study also finds that sustainably managed fishery resources do not collapse due to an increase in global prices, supporting the argument for adequately regulating catches.

These examples underline that adequate regulatory frameworks are necessary to ensure the sustainable use of natural resources, and national legislation is crucial to delimit the actions of market agents. At the same time, multilateral cooperation is indispensable in the case of mobile resources (such as transboundary fish stocks) or shared resources (such as the global atmosphere).

Landscape transformation affects the natural habitat of fauna and flora, and while some species may adapt to such changes, many will not. A projection exercise on species extinction due to changes in land use (including the increase in cropland, pastures and urbanization) estimates that 25 percent of projected global extinctions could be due to changes in land use for agricultural production to meet export demand.184

Two-thirds of global forests are located in only ten countries (Figure 3.3). This implies that the vast majority of global biodiversity is hosted by only a few countries, making local contexts the focus of discussion to secure global biodiversity. Nearly half the world’s forests are tropical (45 percent).185 Humid tropical forests contain the highest biological density and stand out as highly significant reservoirs of global biodiversity. In the tropics, the conversion of forestland into other uses accelerated throughout the twentieth century, driven by demographic growth, technological innovation and economic development. In recent decades, increased market integration has also played a role in this process.

FIGURE 3.3Evolution of forest area in selected countries, 1990–2020


The sourcing of agricultural products can strongly impact local biodiversity and species conservation. Products originating from biodiversity hotspots have a disproportionate impact on local biodiversity and species conservation. A study estimated the biodiversity impact of soy exports originating from the Brazilian Cerrado by tracing the product to its origin down to the municipality level. The findings suggest that soy imports by the European Union had a significant impact on the habitat loss of the maned wolf and the giant anteater in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil between 2000 and 2010.186 The impact of exports to the European Union on the habitat loss of these species was nearly as large as the impact linked to soy exports to China, despite the significant difference in terms of volume between them. This occurs because the exports destined for the European Union were sourced from locations that were richer in terms of biodiversity, and underlines the importance of local context in generating trade-induced environmental externalities.

Globally, the annual rate of forest area reduction has been declining from 0.19 percent during the period 1990–2000 to 0.12 percent between 2010 and 2020.187 The unprecedented level of connectivity between economies places some of the economic drivers of land use changes beyond national borders, with global markets channelling the incentives for the expansion of agricultural land and land use change, including at the expense of forestland.188

Agricultural expansion is seen as the leading cause of deforestation, and the literature on the interlinkages between trade, agricultural expansion and deforestation is Agricultural production of cattle, soybeans and palm oil – all products with sustained international demand – accounted for 40 percent of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2010.189 In some cases, an increase in agricultural exports can lead to decreases in forest cover, although the size of this effect depends on local conditions.190 For example, a study focusing on Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay estimated that as much as 50 percent of agricultural land increase in these countries was driven by trade but the remaining half of the associated deforestation was tied to production destined for domestic markets.191 In addition to agricultural exports, the level of development and population pressures are also found to be drivers of deforestation. Trade openness contributes to amplifying economic activity, accelerating other trends that put pressure on land resources, such as income and demand growth, and urbanization and dietary changes.

Agrifood systems fare as the second-largest greenhouse gas emitting sector after the energy sector, and in 2019 accounted for 31 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Land use changes alone, including deforestation and peatland degradation, accounted for 7 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.192 A recent global study on the linkages between trade and deforestation indicates that a portion of tropical deforestation-related emissions can be linked to trade (up to 39 percent).193

Forests are an important part of the solutions to climate change. Through the process of photosynthesis, forests remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and integrate it into their mass, acting as CO2 sinks when they grow.194 Deforestation leads both directly to increased greenhouse gas emissions because the carbon stocked in trees is released when they are removed, and indirectly because of the loss of carbon sinks as land is geared towards other uses with lower carbon-storing capacity. Although deforestation takes place at the local level, climate systems are interconnected and the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions extend beyond national borders, making climate change a global externality. The international community has been addressing climate change for decades, but progress has been uneven across countries, in part because aligning global objectives with national priorities remains an extraordinary challenge (see Part 4).195 In the last two decades, countries, subnational governments, civil society and the private sector have adopted the objective of reducing, halting and reversing forest loss, including through commitments and initiatives such as Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15, the Global Forest Goals, the New York Declaration on Forests, the Consumer Goods Forum Resolution, the Amsterdam Declarations, the United Nations Secretary General’s initiative on Turning the Tide on Deforestation and, more recently, the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use. Many of these initiatives define specific goals for decoupling agricultural production from deforestation.

Many importing countries are aware of their environmental footprints and have taken measures to reduce their role in deforestation and forest degradation pressures. The 2013 European Timber Regulation, for instance, disallows the commercialization of illegal timber and its derived products in the European Common Market. In 2021, the European Commission put forward a legislative proposal to ensure that palm oil, soy, wood, cocoa, coffee, cattle and their derived products entering the European Common Market are all “deforestation-free”, regardless of the legality of the related deforestation in the country of origin (see Box 3.2). As the location from which exports are sourced can determine the impact on the environment, the proposed legislation includes provisions for traceability and geo-referencing. Digital technologies can facilitate the traceability of products throughout the value chain, and better traceability can promote trust and foster the adoption of sustainable practices.196

BOX 3.2European Commission proposals for regulating deforestation-free products and corporate sustainability due diligence

Deforestation-free products
In November 2021, the European Commission released a proposal for legislation to minimize the presence of products associated with deforestation in its supply chains. The proposed legislation asks that supply chain operators working in the European Union ensure that products entering the European market (palm oil, soy, wood, cocoa, coffee, cattle and derived products) are deforestation-free.244 Operators are required to collect, retain and make available upon request information about the deforestation-free status of their operations, most notably the geo-location of where goods were produced in the countries of origin. Operators would also be responsible for undertaking due diligence in their supply chains.

The proposed regulation set 31 December 2020 as the cut-off date for deforested or degraded land to be put into productive use. National authorities would be responsible for performing checks upon operators and traders and financial penalties are foreseen for non-compliance. The legislation anticipates a review at the end of a provisional three-year period. It also requires an evaluation of the feasibility of expanding the regulation to other ecosystems (beyond forests) and products within two years of entry into the regulation. This proposal differs from previous initiatives in two important ways. First, it goes beyond the concept of illegal deforestation by imposing a zero-deforestation requirement. Second, it places significant weight upon the private sector, which would become de facto active enforcers of the regulation. If the proposal is adopted, the regulation will provide a transitional period during which traders and operators would have 12 months to arrange appropriate due diligence systems before placing the products concerned on, or exporting them from, the European market. The European Commission’s approach to reducing deforestation is comprehensive and it has pledged to support trading partners in strengthening forest governance, developing legislation, fostering capacities and increasing the transparency of supply chains while considering the rights of forest-dependent communities, indigenous peoples and the needs of smallholders. The exact outcomes of such a policy framework are yet to be determined, as it is a nascent proposal, that has yet to be passed into legislation and the literature on similar measures is scarce.

Corporate sustainability due diligence
In February 2022, the European Commission published a proposal for a Directive on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence requiring companies of different sizes to identify, prevent and mitigate social and environmental impacts in their supply chains.245, 246 The legislative proposal aims to encourage responsible sourcing by ensuring that social and environmental considerations are embedded into corporate governance, company management, operations and relationships with upstream suppliers. If adopted, the new rules will ensure that businesses address adverse impacts through trade and sourcing, including in their value chains.

Specifically, companies will be required to enhance cooperation with suppliers to reduce negative impacts in supply chains, monitor their due diligence measures and those of their suppliers, and establish a grievance and remediation procedure. The proposal considers agriculture as a high-risk priority sector and requires certain large companies to have a plan to ensure that their business strategy is compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5 °C in line with the Paris Agreement. The proposal encourages companies to adopt and implement the risk-based due diligence framework from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)-Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Guidance for Responsible Agricultural Chains, referenced in the legislation’s text as the agricultural sector framework for responsible sourcing and development. Some of the European Union Member States, including France and Germany, already have their respective legislation on due diligence in place.

Although the proposal is encouraging, companies in upstream supply chains operate in settings marred by development challenges, and as end-recipients of due diligence (and deforestation) related legislation, these upstream businesses will be expected to address and mitigate risks according to pressure from downstream retailers, traders and companies in the European Union.

Many tropical countries are making efforts to curb deforestation and forest degradation, as well as to strengthen legal compliance and verification. The private sector sourcing in these countries is also increasingly engaged in finding solutions to weaken incentives for deforestation. The Soy Moratorium (SoyM) in Brazil serves as an example of private sector commitment to support the public sector in halting deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. The SoyM is a permanent commitment by the major soybean traders in Brazil not to commercialize soybeans produced in areas deforested after 2006 in the Brazilian Amazon. The agreement was highly successful, and contributed, among other measures, to a significant decrease in deforestation in the Amazon between 2006 and 2014.197 However, deforestation levels in the Amazon remain a concern and are difficult to address. For instance, there is indication that reductions in deforestation rates within the Brazilian Amazon increased deforestation pressure on neighbouring countries with less stringent regulation, accelerating forest loss in Colombia, Paraguay and Peru.198

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