An academic from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health in Truro has co-authored a report identifying 15 issues that could affect the diversity of life on Earth in 2013.
They include using synthetic DNA to genetically modify organisms, soaring demand for coconut water, and competition for land to grow plants for fish farming.
Professor Michael Depledge, one of The European Centre for Environment and Human Health's leading academics, co-authored the report. The centre, which is part of the University of Exeter Medical School, also helped to fund the study.
The emerging issues are the result of an attempt to pinpoint threats, opportunities and developments that are not widely recognised, but which need further research in case they turn into big problems for biodiversity.
Professor Depledge said: "In this paper we've identified both new threats and opportunities presented by a number of emerging issues.
"It is perhaps telling, however, that most of the effects we have on the natural environment continue to give rise to negative consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem services."
So-called horizon scanning is used by private and public organisations to inform processes related to policy, risk assessment, strategic planning, and innovation.
In the study, published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 19 experts were invited to submit up to five little-known issues they thought could affect biodiversity in the near future. The group came up with 72, which – after some debating – they whittled down to 15.
Many of them relate to new forms of energy production, changes in how we produce or store food, and synthetic biology – the creation of new forms of life in the lab. Most sit squarely in the "threat" camp, but a few could be seen as opportunities that might end up benefiting the diversity of life on Earth.
"We hope horizon scanning will help us identify emerging threats to biodiversity before rather than after they've had a major impact," said Professor Ken Norris from the University of Reading, The Natural Environment Research Council's biodiversity theme leader, who also co-authored the study.
The study was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the European Centre for Environment and Human Health and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.