Resurfacing Biodiversity, from a Sustainability Standards Perspective

Nearly half of the world’s population is directly dependent on biodiversity for their livelihoods. Today over 3.2 billion people depend on biodiversity for their livelihoods, but the globe’s biodiversity resources are being depleted at an alarming rate. In Europe alone, the cost of biodiversity loss is estimated about 3% of its GDP, or €450m (£400m), a year [1].

If we are going to address the issue of biodiversity, we also have to look at the fundamental issues of poverty and economic diversification,” said Pamela Coke-Hamilton, director of the international trade and commodities division of UNCTAD.

Many of the most vulnerable people depend directly on biodiversity to fulfil their daily subsistence needs. Biodiversity is also at the center of many economic activities, including those related to agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism. Biodiversity boosts ecosystem productivity where each species, no matter how small, all have an important role to play. In other words, species depend on each other. Today, humans and livestock consume 25-40% of the planet’s entire “primary production”, i.e the energy captured by plants on which all biodiversity depends and over 25% of global fisheries are being overfished at unsustainable levels [2]. Reduced biodiversity pose detrimental impacts on humankind, which includes economic cost to pay due to biodiversity loss, reduced food security, increased exposure to diseases, unpredictable weather, loss of livelihoods etc.

World Wild Fund (WWF) noted that Biodiversity is our safety net. The good news is that for the first time in human history, we understand the impact we’re having on the natural world we love and depend on − and we know how we can start to mend the net. There is still time to reverse this loss of nature. But we need to act now or face catastrophic change.

Sustainably managed biodiversity products create jobs, reduce poverty, and contribute to livelihoods. Moreover, value is given to biodiversity.” added Pamela Coke-Hamilton.


Addressing global biodiversity issues with BioTrade Initiative (BTI)

BioTrade refers to those activities of collection, production, transformation, and commercialization of goods and services derived from native biodiversity under the criteria of environmental, social and economic sustainability. Since its launch by UNCTAD in 1996, the BioTrade Initiative has been promoting sustainable trade to in support of the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity and in building sustainable livelihoods. The Initiative hadeveloped a unique portfolio of international, regional and country programmes in 46 countriesThrough its partners, BTI is enhancing the development of biodiversity-based business and sectors through sustainable bio-resources management, product development, value adding processing and marketing, and fostering an enabling policy environment.

Learn more: UNCTAD BioTrade Initiative, BioTrade Principles and Criteria (PDF)

So what is in VSS that makes BioTrade Initiative the key to safeguard biodiversity?

Looking at the Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT) as a good example, the UEBT Standard defines ethical practices through “sourcing with respect” and innovation that contributes greatly to the world in which people and biodiversity thrive. It consists of seven principles built from the UNCTAD BioTrade Principles and Criteria, touching on important social, environmental and economic issues. Companies complying to UEBT Standards support biodiversity through their sourcing practices. In particular, the standards describes practices that reduce biodiversity loss, such as restrictions on forest clearing for cultivation or collection activities, protection of endangered species, and strict rules around the use of agrochemicals, and enhance biodiversity protection or enrichment, such as flower strips, hedges, projects to protect pollinators, organic practices, and other contributions to natural ecosystems.

According to a report compiled by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) on Standards and Biodiversity, the vast majority of requirements specified by agricultural sustainability standards focus on protecting ecosystems and natural habitats, which are effectively the central repositories of global biodiversity. Although requirements specifically requiring the protection of biodiversity are relatively rare within standards, practices targeting habitat protection have direct relevance to biodiversity protection. Moreover, the growing tendency of voluntary standards to include an increasingly holistic and comprehensive set of requirements related to production helps ensure that the mutually reinforcing linkages between soils, waterways, flora, fauna and entire ecosystems are similarly maintained and promoted through the breadth of practices stipulated by voluntary standards. As the report documents, the requirements currently contained in major agricultural standards show a strong degree of overlap, and thus alignment, with the objective of biodiversity protection. One of the principal questions addressed in this report is the degree to which such initiatives are “strategically placed” within the market to play a significant role in biodiversity protection where it matters most.

UNFSS’ take in integrating biodiversity conservation as an economic goal

The common trade-off between meeting biodiversity goals and accepting a large reduction in yield for example, is a painstaking commitment especially for smallholder farmers. For this reason, UNFSS will promote BioTrade Initiative among its National Platform partners to exercise biodiversity as one of its network’s agenda. UNFSS-BioTrade in-country activities can include:

  • national-level research study of biodiversity voluntary standards operating in key sectors as a basis of continual improvements and determining policy options
  • national-level thematic study on the impact of biodiversity in key sectors complying to voluntary standards on climate change
  • Research analysis to define indicators in order to measure biodiversity impacts
  • inter-ministerial/ public capacity building workshops on responsible practices and certifications (linked with market access)
  • national-led BioTrade Initiative program and identification of biodiversity-driven implementations, etc.


Please contact Ruby Lambert to find out more about these activities.


The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is a joint initiative of 5 UN Agencies (FAO, ITC, UNCTAD, UN Environment and UNIDO) that seeks to address these challenges. It is a demand-driven forum for intergovernmental actors to communicate among each other and engage with key target groups (producers, traders, consumers, standard-setters, certification-bodies, trade diplomats, relevant NGOs and researchers) to address their information needs and influence concerned stakeholders. It aims to provide impartial information, analysis, and discussions on VSS and their potential contribution to facilitate market access, strengthen public goods and achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most importantly, the UNFSS focuses on potential trade or development obstacles VSS may create, with particular emphasis on their impact on SMEs and less developed countries.

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