Insights from the UNCTAD Conference on Trade and Biodiversity

How are biodiversity and the environment considered in global trade and commerce? One would think this question has been sufficiently answered, but the core of its debate has only started.

On March 25th and 26th, 2024, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) held a timely conference on the intersection between trade and biodiversity. The event brought together esteemed panellists and stakeholders from around the globe to deliberate on strategies to mainstream biodiversity into global trade processes and explore how nature-positive trade can support sustainable development and existing international agreements. As the triple planetary crisis (climate change, air pollution, and biodiversity loss) calls for urgent action and the search for solutions has revealed a need for change in our economy and development model, consumption and trade are naturally at the center of the discussions. Sustainable trade practices have been coined as a strategy to combat the economic drivers of biodiversity loss, and this topic has been raised by other international conventions, such as in COP28, where the “Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action” was signed.

I participated in two panels, “Mainstreaming Biodiversity into WTO Processes” and “Nature Positive Trade for Sustainable Development”, gathering insights that shed light on the importance of our work at CLEVER. Despite being set in a high-level discussion format, international organizations were willing to share how their work has tried to bring trade and biodiversity together, highlighting challenges and opportunities.  Organizations such as the WTO, UNCTAD, FAO, UNEP, international NGOs, and others shared initiatives and projects around the bioeconomy, biotrade, blue economy, payment for ecosystem services (PES), true cost accounting, ecotourism, and others. The Global Biodiversity Framework seems to be the foundation for aligning their own strategic plans, while the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement are also in sight.

The WTO stressed that their Trade and Environmental Sustainability Structured Discussions (TESSD) are intended to complement the work of the Committee on Trade and Environment and other relevant WTO bodies, showing that this topic is becoming more relevant in the organization since their 2021 Ministerial Statement on Trade and Environmental Sustainability. UNEP, as part of their Economics and Ecosystems and Biodiversity initiative, emphasized the importance of assessing the true cost of food in order to transform food systems, and that as nature’s value becomes visible, smallholder farmers should not carry the burden of the transition alone.

The general challenge also remains that including environmental aspects in trade is not ‘natural’, as it can create barriers beyond price, market, and national trade interest. Thus, to understand the best way to do so, a systematic approach and a larger change of economy per se are needed. For this, strong political will is required. Nonetheless, although all agree this is essential, there was a call to include certain concepts from prior agreed conventions (e.g., UNFCCC), such as the “common but differentiated responsibilities”, since working with trade systems also means dealing with global and historical modes of development. This point also incited discussions on the risk of misusing environmental aspects in trade for protectionism and, thus, distorting the market (giving the EUDR and CBAM as examples).

There was also a demand for more integration among international organizations, such as the WTO cooperating with environmental agreements (CITES and CBD). Certain topics were held as essential leverage points to focus on, such as addressing the misuse of hazardous pesticides, subsidies, and promoting sustainable agriculture. The significant role of regional trade agreements was also highlighted. Among the initiatives presented were the WWF’s “Codex Planetarius” to establish minimum standards for globally traded food, the WTO’s environmental database, the FAO’s biodiversity knowledge hub, and the G20’s Bioeconomy Initiative

In conclusion, the UNCTAD conference served as a critical platform for stakeholders to exchange ideas, share best practices, and chart a course towards a more sustainable and equitable future for trade, as biodiversity and environmental aspects are considered. These insights closely relate to our work in CLEVER, as it adds to our research and discussions on how international trade in agricultural and forest products affect biodiversity. Studying these links through qualitative (policy and governance aspects) and quantitative (biodiversity metrics) methods, the CLEVER team has been investigating and developing solutions for a more sustainable production and consumption. Through a science-policy interface strategy, CLEVER research intends to present knowledge and tools to influence decision-making, in collaboration with stakeholders from politics, the private sector and civil society. Informing ourselves and being part of current international discussions on the topic is a crucial part of our work.

Written by Rafaella Ferraz Ziegert from the University of Freiburg.

Feature image by Rosa Castañeda and tawatchai07 from Freepik.

Our decisions, as consumers, can generate impacts in very distant places – interview with Dr. Neus Escobar

CLEVER researcher Dr. Neus Escobar, from BC3, recently won the Audience Award at the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Conference, held in conjunction with the Spanish Presidency of the EU on 14-15 November 2023 in Toledo (Spain). She was among the 15 finalists selected from 170 MSCA projects to introduce her research and showcase the diversity of academic careers.

Neus presented her pitch ‘Tracking Chocolate to Fight Deforestation’ in the category ‘Exposure to Policy Making’. This topic summarized research insights from the MSCA-IF GIFTS (Global Interlinkages in Food Trade Systems) project. GIFTS is hosted by the Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3), which is also a partner in CLEVER, contributing to the development of indicators for biodiversity footprints and sustainability trade-off analysis.

What is the focus of your research in the GIFTS project? And what is the project about in general?

GIFTS is focused on the development of a global database that tracks supply chains of agri-food products across years, from the producing country to the country where consumption takes place, by distinguishing between food, feed, and non-food uses. The database is called Agro-SCAN and is entirely based on FAOSTAT data and includes 640 products, more than any similar database, and 181 countries. The objective of GIFTS is specifically to improve and expand Agro-SCAN in collaboration with FAO for estimating environmental footprints of food consumption. Ultimately, GIFTS aims to inform consumers’ decisions towards more resilient and sustainable agri-food systems in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.

What did you find so interesting about researching chocolate?

What makes chocolate an interesting case study is that many countries that are major chocolate producers do not produce cocoa beans. In fact, all cocoa bean production is concentrated in the tropics. This highlights the importance of international trade in securing global chocolate production, resulting in complex and interconnected supply chains. At the same time, this translates into large cocoa bean areas being virtually exported, for example, almost 90% of the total area harvested in 2020. The largest land footprints per capita are found in high-income countries such as Switzerland, Germany, United Kingdom, or Canada.

Why is it important to be aware of the environmental impacts of the products we use?

Our results show that global agri-food markets are strongly interconnected and that our decisions, as consumers, can generate impacts in very distant places, such as deforestation, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, environmental pollution, or loss of rural livelihoods. The database at the core of GIFTS helps increase transparency in global supply chains, meaning food and feed consumers can know the origin of the raw materials used, the countries involved and the impacts generated. This information is valuable to understand the intensity of the impact of our consumption and the benefits of alternative options.

What is the relationship between GIFTS and CLEVER?

GIFTS and CLEVER are very related and in continuous exchange, as both share BC3 researchers, tackle similar topics (trade mediated-impacts and sustainability analysis), and even started in the same date. Both GIFTS and CLEVER aim to provide quantitative evidence for informing policymaking towards cleaner and transparent supply chains. After GIFTS, I will join CLEVER for the completion of the analyzes on the impacts and trade-offs from several policy strategies aimed at preventing biodiversity loss.

How can your research in GIFTS help the CLEVER project?

GIFTS can complement supply chain analyzes for CLEVER in WP6 (Representing ecological footprints and policy-trade-biodiversity linkages in global modelling), as the database being developed includes quantities of products and co-products traded across supply chains, from producing countries to final demand. This can provide a global picture about the origin of the raw materials used for the supply chains of interest in CLEVER. This is also helpful to identify the stakeholders involved in production and trade of CLEVER commodities, and the subsequent impacts of biodiversity loss. At the same time, the indicators generated by CLEVER can ultimately be implemented in the Agro-SCAN database to measure biodiversity loss footprints of food, feed and non-food consumption, which includes industrial uses of biomass.

Interview by Rosa Castañeda from EFI.

Evaluating trade regulations in Forest-risk Commodities to protect biodiversity

The world’s forests and the biodiversity they harbour are significantly impacted by the global trade in forest and agricultural Forest-risk Commodities (FRCs), commodities whose production or extraction might contribute to deforestation or forest degradation, such as timber and soy. In the context of increasing international and domestic demand for these products, it is essential to understand how trade-offs and synergies of public policy and governance initiatives (e.g. conflicting social, economic and environmental goals) regulating global FRC value chains affect forest biodiversity. The CLEVER work packages 4 and 5, presented by Laila Berning and Rafaella Ferraz Ziegert at the forest policy science conference in Freiburg (Forstpolitikwissenschaftstreffen Freiburg), investigate this research question.

The three-day conference brought together international scientific researchers who study the interrelations of governance and politics in the realm of forest and environmental conservation through different angles of discourse, legitimacy, power, communication, management and more. The CLEVER project featured in a poster exhibition, sparking interesting discussions around the topics of commodity value chains, mixed policy regulations, and biodiversity conservation.

The CLEVER research teams from the University of Freiburg, the European Forest Institute, and TU Dresden, together with their research partners from Brazil (Center for Advanced Amazonian Studies, University Federal do Pará), Cameroon and Gabon (University of Dschang) are investigating the trade-offs and synergies between the European Union (EU) and tropical producer countries. By conducting a mapping of key policy and governance initiatives and value chains (Brazil-EU soy, wood pulp, and timber value chains, Cameroon-EU and Gabon-EU timber value chain, and India-EU key forest-risk commodities), the researchers will identify key leverage points for enhancing biodiversity conservation.

To identify the right mix of policy and governance initiatives, the CLEVER team is also interviewing a range of demand and supply-side stakeholders from governmental authorities, non-governmental organizations, certification bodies, research organizations, and the private sector. The project’s findings will help policymakers and stakeholders make informed decisions about sustainable biomass production and trade.

If you have any inquiries about the work packages, you can contact CLEVER project team leader at Freiburg Metodi Sotirov (metodi.sotirov (at), Laila Berning (laila.berning (at) or Rafaella Ferraz Ziegert (rafaella.ziegert (at)

Dr. Metodi Sotirov, Laila Berning and Rafaella Ferraz Ziegert – University of Freiburg

Written by Laila Berning and Rafaella Ferraz Ziegert – University of Freiburg