Minimising ecological and social externalities in tropical crop expansion


With growing demand for tropical agricultural products, including palm oil, rubber and wood-pulp, there is an urgent need to find sustainability between natural ecosystems, people and economics. Each crop has an emerging crop-specific sustainability initiative in varying degrees of development aimed at reducing the wider environmental and social damage they cause (negative externalities). However, planning methods and resulting land-use plans of government resource-use agencies and industry rarely take into account competition between crops and agricultural externalities, which increases the conflicts between environment, society and different crop types for land.

Focusing on natural rubber in Southeast Asia and West Africa, our project aims to develop a spatial model for the expansion of rubber agriculture and simulate optimal landscape plans for multiple crops that maximize ecological, social and economic sustainability. In addition, via collaboration with a network of commodity producer and purchaser companies, we hope to assess the most relevant ecological and social impacts of rubber agriculture and expansion, and analyse different ways of internalizing externalities.

I am passionate about wider engagement beyond my department and my research. As part of a team of Grantham scholars tasked with producing an audit report to inform the University of Sheffield’s first Sustainability Strategy, we spent a few months in 2018 conducting the audit and writing a 50-page audit report (read the strategy here).

I am also part of the Sustainability Committee at the Students’ Union, where we represent the student voice in the SU and at the University via different platforms. We also organise events to engage students about sustainability issues (ranging from the injustice in fast fashion; debating a ban on meat sales at the SU; and social events to bring together sustainability-minded people), and campaign for changes at the university.

Outreach and impact

A group of Grantham Scholars went to the Time Is Now protests in London, where they met with Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield. Maria was one of them, and she explained why in this interview.

Read: The Time Is Now: Grantham Scholars at ‘mass lobby’

Publications, social media and blogs

Freshly opened cempedak and its gorgeous fleshy fruits
Freshly opened cempedak and its gorgeous fleshy fruits. Photo credit: Maria Wang

Can you name a wild animal from Malaysia? Not many can. This is just one of the facts Maria learned at a conservation conference hosted in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of her home country.

Read: Photoblog: Can you name a wild animal from Malaysia?

Maria also wrote a blog about her work during her MS studying cempedak. Cempedak is a fruit that grows in Maria’s home country of Malaysia.

Read: Cempedak, A Funky Tropical Fruit You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Cempedak was also the focus of Maria’s first first-author paper.

Find Maria online:

Research group webpage
Google Scholar

Maria Wang Mei Hua


Dr David Edwards

Department of Animal and Plant Sciences


Martin Hollands

Birdlife International

Roman Carrasco

National University of Singapore