Food Systems & Sustainable Agriculture

Bioinvasion in Supply Chains: A Cause of Environmental and Economic Damage

As companies evaluate their supply chains for financial and environmental risks, an important issue to watch out for is bioinvasion. This occurs when species are first introduced and then spread in regions where they weren’t previously found.

An invasive species can be introduced by natural forces. For example, the wind could pick up seeds from plants on a continent and deposit them on an island. But as global supply chains connect once-isolated parts of the planet to the international economy, trade is increasingly driving bioinvasion. While individuals can introduce invasive species to an area by selling them as pets that later escape or are released into the wild, companies can also unintentionally introduce species when they hitch rides on agricultural shipments, like insects and fungi on produce. Researchers have found that countries that participate more in trade also have higher numbers of invasive species, as the Washington Post reports.

Environmental Consequences

Rapid growth in populations of invasive species can cause serious harm to an area’s ecosystem. The exotic species may prey on others, for example, or crowd them out by depleting crucial natural resources. This, in turn, can kill off native species, possibly to extinction. Invasive species may also introduce diseases and damage crops.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service states that out of the 1,300 species protected by the Endangered Species Act, more than 400 are threatened by invasive species that prey on them, displace them, or consume resources they need. The wood stork and the Key Largo woodrat are endangered species at risk due to bioinvasion in Florida. In Guam, the invasive brown tree snake has already caused the modern extinction of 10 native bird species.

Damage caused by invasive species can reverberate throughout an ecosystem. Whenever a native population is reduced or displaced by an invasive species, there’s a domino effect, as species that depended on the threatened species for food are also reduced, and species that were previously kept in check by it are allowed to proliferate. This all adds up to a huge threat to biodiversity, which benefits not just nature, but also contributes to the economic and social well-being of humanity, according to MIT.

Financial Costs

The costs of invasive species can add up quickly. For example, rats introduced into the United States are estimated to destroy grains and other products worth upwards of $27 billion per year, according to research by David Pimental of Cornell University. On top of this, rats also cause fires by damaging electrical wires, and they can spread dangerous bacteria like salmonella. As of 2007, the total economic cost of all invasive species in the United States was estimated to be $120 billion a year. That estimate includes not only the value of lost crops and property but also the cost of controlling invasive species.

Companies and their investors have several reasons to be concerned about exotic species beyond their environmental impact. Clearly, invasive species can destroy property and eat products before they reach the market. And businesses may have to pay significant sums of money to manage these introduced pests. If bacteria is introduced into a product, for example, the result could be costly recalls, lawsuits, and damage to a company’s brand. Fires and other accidents caused by property damage from invasive species can also expose businesses to lawsuits and harm their reputations.

National and local governments are responding to the danger of invasive species with regulations that aim to curtail their spread. For example, in the United States, some states are cracking down on the transport of aquatic species. The Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners recently instituted a rule that requires boats being transported across the state to open their drains so that they don’t inadvertently carry aquatic organisms, as the Sierra Sun reports.

But because the damage from invasive species can be so severe, companies shouldn’t wait for regulators to act. Instead, they should identify any risks of transporting species through their supply chains and take steps to prevent costly consequences.

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