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Economic expansion and land use cause bird extinction

Population growth, economic expansion and the associated land use caused an increase in the number of bird species facing extinction and a reduction in carbon storage worldwide. These are the findings of an international team of scientists, also from the Leiden University Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML), in an article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution on 4 March.

Agriculture is not conducive to biodiversity
Agriculture is neither conducive to biodiversity nor to the bird population (photo Tom Fisk, Pexels).

More bird species face extinction

First author Alexandra Marques and colleagues combined biophysical and economic models for their research. They estimated that between 2000 and 2011 the number of bird species facing extinction as a result of agriculture and forestry increased by between 3% to 7%. During the same time period, plants and trees stored 6% less carbon worldwide.

Loss of natural habitat

Global population growth and economic development create an increasing demand for agricultural and forestry products, which means that more of the natural habitat on earth is converted into agricultural land. Without sustainable management, this can have a negative effect on biodiversity and the processes within the ecosystem, such as carbon or CO2 storage.

Oil-seed production biggest impact

Cattle farming was found to be responsible for almost a third of bird extinctions, but the biggest increase in biodiversity impact was associated with oil-seed production (including palm and soybean oil). The researchers also found that forestry activities for timber and wood fuel extraction reduced the potential for carbon storage by around 30%.

Commercial forestry
Commercial forestry (photo Pok Rie, Pexels).


The researchers used ‘EXIOBASE’, the global input-output database that CML helped develop, to link international supply chains. They thus showed the increasing distance between the places where organic materials are grown and goods produced and the places where they are consumed. In 2011, 33% of the impact on biodiversity in Central and South America and 26% of the impact on biodiversity in Africa was caused by the consumption of goods in other parts of the world. What stands out is that the financial crisis that broke out in 2008 is apparent in the article’s statistics: the impact on the environment was also lower at the time. 

Shift needed

To tackle the biodiversity crisis, the researchers call on governments to recognise the impact of their economic activities and to promote a shift to economic development with a low impact on biodiversity worldwide.


The researchers used datasets from the international FAOSTAT database, which is compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. It contains data on land use that is divided into 14 categories, including all agricultural and forestry activities. For the relationship between production and consumption, the researchers used the EXIOBASE model. This is a Multi-Regional Input-Output Model (MRIO model) that CML and its partners helped develop. The researchers used distribution maps to determine the decline in bird species.

Increasing impacts of land use on biodiversity and carbon sequestration driven by population and economic growth by Dr Alexandra Marques et al. in Nature Ecology & Evolution, 4 March 2019.

The article is one of the results of the EU ‘DESIRE’ project (Development of a System of Indicators for a Resource efficiency Europe), which was led by Prof. Arnold Tukker from CML and TNO.

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