Nav: Home

Smart road planning could boost food production while protecting tropical forests

December 15, 2016

Conservation scientists have used layers of data on biodiversity, climate, transport and crop yields to construct a color-coded mapping system that shows where new road-building projects should go to be most beneficial for food production at the same time as being least destructive to the environment.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge, UK, the Kunming Institute of Botany and the World Agroforestry Centre in China say their study, publishing on December 15th, 2016 in PLOS Biology, is an attempt to explore a more "conciliatory approach" in the hope of starting fruitful discussions between developers and conservation experts.

The hope is that this "trade-off" strategy might guide governments, investors and developers to focus on road expansions that make the most difference for current agricultural areas, rather than projects that threaten to open up significant natural habitats for conversion to farmland.

As a proof of concept, scientists applied their technique to a specific sub-region: the Greater Mekong in Southeast Asia - one of the most biologically important regions in the world, and a place that has lost almost a third of its tropical forest since the 1970s.

They found that a number of current road proposals in Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia could destroy a wide swath of habitat while providing little benefit for populations and food security. They also found areas where new roads could increase food production and connectivity with limited environmental cost.

They have called on organisations such as the newly established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as well as Asian Development Bank to use such analyses when considering investment in future road expansion projects in the Mekong region - an area undergoing rapid development.

"It is estimated that by 2050 we will build 25 million km of new road lanes, the majority of which will be in the developing world," says Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science at Cambridge.

"Conservationists can appear to oppose nearly all new infrastructure, while developers and their financial backers are often fairly mute on the environmental impact of their proposals. This can lead to a breakdown in communication."

"The Mekong region is home to some of the world's most valuable tropical forests. It's also a region in which a lot of roads are going to be built, and blanket opposition by the conservation community is unlikely to stop this," says Jianchu Xu, a professor at the Kunming Institute of Botany in China and regional coordinator for the World Agroforestry Centre, East and Central Asia Regional Office.

"Studies like ours help pinpoint the projects we should oppose most loudly, while transparently showing the reasons why and providing alternatives where environmental costs are lower and development benefits are greater. Conservationists need to be active voices in infrastructure development, and I think these approaches have the potential to change the tone of the conversation," says Prof Xu. "If new roads are deployed strategically, and deliberately target already-cleared areas with poor transport connectivity, this could attract agricultural growth that might otherwise spread elsewhere."

For Balmford, this is perhaps the crux of the argument, and something he has long been vocal about: "By increasing the crop yield of current agricultural networks, there is hope that food needs can be met while containing the expansion of farming and so sparing natural habitats from destruction. The location of infrastructure, and roads in particular, will play a major role in this."

However, the researchers caution that the channeling of roads into less damaging, more rewarding areas will have to go hand-in-hand with strengthening protection for globally significant habitats such as the remaining forests of the Mekong.
-end-
In your coverage please use this URL to provide access to the freely available article in PLOS Biology: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2000266

Citation: Balmford A, Chen H, Phalan B, Wang M, O'Connell C, Tayleur C, et al. (2016) Getting Road Expansion on the Right Track: A Framework for Smart Infrastructure Planning in the Mekong. PLoS Biol 14(12): e2000266. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2000266

Funding: Chinese Academy of Sciences' Frontier Science Key Project (grant number QYZDY-SSW-SMC014). Received by JX. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany (grant number #13.1432.7-001.00). Received by JX. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

PLOS

Related Biodiversity Articles:

About the distribution of biodiversity on our planet
Large open-water fish predators such as tunas or sharks hunt for prey more intensively in the temperate zone than near the equator.
Bargain-hunting for biodiversity
The best bargains for conserving some of the world's most vulnerable salamanders and other vertebrate species can be found in Central Texas and the Appalachians, according to new conservation tools developed at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Researchers solve old biodiversity mystery
The underlying cause for why some regions are home to an extremely large number of animal species may be found in the evolutionary adaptations of species, and how they limit their dispersion to specific natural habitats.
Biodiversity offsetting is contentious -- here's an alternative
A new approach to compensate for the impact of development may be an effective alternative to biodiversity offsetting -- and help nations achieve international biodiversity targets.
Biodiversity yields financial returns
Farmers could increase their revenues by increasing biodiversity on their land.
Biodiversity and wind energy
The location and operation of wind energy plants are often in direct conflict with the legal protection of endangered species.
Mapping global biodiversity change
A new study, published in Science, which focuses on mapping biodiversity change in marine and land ecosystems shows that loss of biodiversity is most prevalent in the tropic, with changes in marine ecosystems outpacing those on land.
What if we paid countries to protect biodiversity?
Researchers from Sweden, Germany, Brazil and the USA have developed a financial mechanism to support the protection of the world's natural heritage.
Grassland biodiversity is blowing in the wind
Temperate grasslands are the most endangered but least protected ecosystems on Earth.
The loss of biodiversity comes at a price
A University of Cordoba research team ran the numbers on the impact of forest fires on emblematic species using the fires in Spain's Doñana National Park and Segura mountains in 2017 as examples
More Biodiversity News and Biodiversity Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.