island conservation economic toll

The Economic Toll of Invasive Species

A new study finds that China and the U.S. pay the highest absolute price and developing countries dependent on agriculture pay the highest relative price for the spread of invasive species. 

Experts have long known that invasive species disrupt ecosystems and threaten native wildlife. Now, research by Dean Paini and colleagues at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia furthers another discourse: the global economic toll of invasive species. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) focused on the threats invasive species pose to agriculture.

The Mediterranean Fruit Fly, for example, has spread throughout southern Europe, the Middle East, Western Australia, South and Central America, and Hawaii according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This invasive species ruins vegetables, fruits, and nuts. This pest is just one of many examples of invasive species that damage crops.

The study found that China and the U.S. rank #1 and #2 as sources of invasive species to the rest of the world. Having significant and diverse trade volumes and also being host to numerous invasive species within their borders, these countries inadvertently transport pests all over the globe.


Island Conservation Science Invasion Map

According to the study, China and the U.S. could pay the highest absolute price for invasive species, being the world’s biggest agricultural producers and harboring more invasive species than any other country worldwide. Costs include the loss of crops in addition to the expenses involved in pest management programs.

However, this high absolute cost is not enough of a loss to spark immediate and robust policy reform; a variety of industries untouched by the impacts of invasive species operate throughout China and the U.S. Although these countries must pay a price for agricultural losses and pest management, their economies will not collapse as a result of the expenses.

Developing countries, on the other hand, are extremely vulnerable to damages and expenses due to invasive species when considering the cost of invasion relative to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It turns out that developing countries that depend primarily on agricultural production pay the highest “relative cost” for invasive species. These countries cannot afford to lose crops or money due to pests; they do not have a diversity of industries to hold up the economy the way China and the U.S. do. If developing countries lose their crops, they lose their livelihoods.


Island Conservation science Harvesting Crops
Tea pickers in Kenya. By CIAT

In sum, the spread of invasive species, primarily facilitated by the world’s wealthiest countries, is expensive for all entities involved but is especially detrimental for developing countries whose economies are built on agricultural production. For all players involved, the bottom line is the same: the spread of invasive species is lose-lose and the costs will only increase over time. 

The researchers suggest:

The formation of an international body responsible for invasive species could not only enable the management of invasive species at the global scale but also provide those countries identified here as most vulnerable, with the information, and possibly the resources necessary to protect their borders and limit the further spread of invasive species.

The spread of invasive species comes at a high cost and is proving to be a major environmental and economic concern. Biosecurity measures and invasive species management programs can help to prevent the spread of invasive species and curb the damage they do. Such efforts are elemental in movement toward sustainability for the global environment and economy.

Feature photo: Agriculture in Uganda. By floschen
Read the study at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


About Sara Kaiser

Sara received a BA in anthropology from UC Santa Cruz in 2014. As a freelance writer and editor, she seeks to produce and highlight stories that support ecological responsibility, body awareness, emotional intelligence, and creative action, and reveal the connections between them.

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