Just how bad is eating meat for the planet?

‘One person not changing off a meat heavy diet won’t make a difference.’ – 7.6 billion people

More and more people are becoming concerned about what affects their diet has on the planet and other people. Last year, doctors Poore and Nemecek from the University of Oxford compiled data from over 500 published papers to understand just how bad the food industry is for the planet, which parts are the worst and what can be done about it.

Recent science articles reveal some astonishing and shocking statistics of the impact our food, and particularly meat intake has on our Earth:

  • Agriculture contributes to a quarter off all human greenhouse gas emissions.
  • 14.5% of this is from livestock alone.
  • Agriculture is the biggest single threat to biodiversity.
  • Livestock takes up 83% of agricultural land, yet only provides 37% of our protein and 18% of our calorie intake.
  • Agriculture uses more freshwater than any other human activity, of this, livestock uses the most.

So if you thought the impact of the food industry is trivial, think again. It has impacts far exceeding animal rights, into global biodiversity, human societies and now the global climate. Even if you couldn’t care less about the planet and what lives there, a transfer off a meat diet would free up 3.1 billion hectares of space, to be used for other things. Moreover, as i explain here, livestock is uses four times as much antibiotics as humans, which is building up a resistance set to cause more human deaths than cancer by 2050. (https://swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/2019/05/11/antimicrobial-resistance-is-not-a-scare-story-its-happening-the-world-health-organisation-warns/)

The other thing many people suggest is that changing their diet won’t have a big impact. However, Poore and Nemecek ran a scenario where humans completely stop meat intake and found we could:

  • Reduce land use from food by 76%
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 49%
  • Reduce freshwater use by 19%

As i will explain in a following article, there are also major health benefits from switching to a meat free diet, so really its a win-win-win. So it does make a difference transferring off a meat heavy diet and it is important, so it’s time to stop.

‘One person not changing off a meat heavy diet won’t make a difference.’ – 7.6 billion people

Fairtrade doesn’t work: It’s time for the government to take responsibility for food injustice.

Cocoa farmers in the Ivory Coast face volatile prices for their product if they don’t meet Fairtrade requirements

If you donate to a food charity, Fairtrade seems the place to go. After all, it provides a decent living wage to the world’s poorest farmers, who themselves often suffer from malnourishment. There’s one slight problem though, Fairtrade places it’s product on the global capitalist market and as a result creates more inequalities than it solves.

Fairtrade releases a commodity, let’s say cocoa, on the capitalist market. As such, the commodity is competed for by huge multinational retailers and the price of cocoa is now more volatile and reduced overall. Whilst this doesn’t matter for those who get a decent price from Fairtrade, what about everybody else?

To get a fair price for your food, you have to meet certain standards and be able to speak and sign documents in English. Those who can’t meet these requirements are often the absolute poorest and so not only are they not getting Fairtrade prices, but the price of their cocoa has gone down.

But what can Fairtrade do? It is embedded within an inescapable global capitalist market that itself opposes. In this way, they fundamentally oppose their own actions. Now i’m not saying you shouldn’t donate to Fairtrade, it is far better than the alternatives. However, it raises the question of why a charity that doesn’t even support its own actions, is seen as the solution to food insecurity.

Elizabeth Dowler, from the University of Warwick found that not a single UK policy was dictated by food security. Instead, they ‘support’ charities like Fairtrade. This is a blatant passing of the baton and a deliberate hiding from responsibility.

Providing global food security should be at the top of government agenda, but instead the best they can do is say, ‘fairtrade and other charities can do it, we support them.’ This total negligence of the world’s poorest is unacceptable and responsibility can no longer be placed at the hands of charities.

Plenty more fish in the sea: the remarkable conservation success in the Gulf of California.

Biodiversity is flourishing the the Gulf of California since a conservation programme started.

Fish consumption has more than doubled in the last 50 years, leading to the over-fishing of a third of the worlds stocks. As a result, 90 species are at risk from extinction, including 40% of sharks and rays, which are important in ecosystem functioning.

It is easy to forget that fishing is not farming, it is hunting. On land, any animal that has ever been hunted for food has gone extinct. Luckily, the ocean is humongous and relatively inaccessible, so we still have a chance to protect our fishy friends from the same fate.

In the Gulf of California, Cabo Pulmo National Park was set up in 1995 and enforced a community based ‘no take’ zone, banning all fishing. Scientist Aburto-Oropeza studied the fish community in 1995, 1999 and then again in 2009.

After the first check up, they were disappointed to learn that the fish stocks hadn’t changed. You can imagine the excitement then, when ten years later fish biomass had increased by a ridiculous 463%, corals were thriving and sharks had started to patrol the ocean once more. Incredibly, the fish population had exploded so much that there was over-spill into surrounding area, boosting the yields of local fishermen.

However, these ‘no take’ zones only cover less than a percent of our oceans as it takes long term commitment and cooperation. Moreover, some of these have failed, due to a ‘top-down’ approach, where large companies have failed to use local expertise and reliable conservation methods to recover fish communities.

In any case, in a world where any environmental story is seemingly doom and gloom, it is nice to see a positive one!

Are we creating a ‘super weed’, and how scared should we be of herbicide resistance?

Roundup is the most common herbicide, but will it work for much longer?

Weeds cost the U.S economy a whopping 30 billion dollars a year by competing for our crop’s nutrients, but are in a constant and gruelling fight for survival with herbicides. These herbicides kill the weeds, increasing yields by a third. The fear is that weeds will become resistant, creating ‘super weeds’, and with three billion more people to feed in thirty years, will be a serious threat to food security. But how likely is this, and should we be worried?

Well, herbicide resistance is happening, all the time in fact. By slightly altering the shape of their proteins, weeds can avoid the toxic herbicide, and if the genes for that protein spreads into the next growing season, will compete with the crop for nutrients and reduce yields.

The response of farmers is simple: rotate the different kinds of herbicides and the weeds won’t be able to react in time. However, Dr Christophe Delye is concerned that herbicide rotation might work in the short term, but could promote long-term resistance to not one but all herbicide types.

Farmers often rotate their herbicides to kill weeds like these ones.

He explains that herbicides work by targeting a specific part of a weed, say, the amino acids. Until recently, we thought that the response of the weed was equally specific, altering just the targeted amino acid. The reality however, is that when stressed, the weeds exhibit a range of responses, on multiple parts of multiple genes and in doing so, gaining a slight resistance to all herbicides.

Keep doing this and eventually the ‘super weed’ will be able to avoid every toxic herbicide we throw at them.

So should we be worried? Although the chances of a dystopian and barren landscape in 50 years is unlikely, we already have so many worries in the food system (see links below), that reduced yields from herbicide resistance simply cannot be allowed.

Is the choice between agriculture and biodiversity really an ultimatum? https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/139

Multi-billion pound American companies deliberately cause famine in Malawi to increase their profits. https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/87
The Soil we Live on is Disappearing and it is YOUR Responsibility. https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/55

Is the choice between agriculture and biodiversity really an ultimatum?

A once diverse community is converted into a sea of golden wheat.

Land that used to harbour an array of life is being converted into vast expanses of tumbling golden carpets of wheat fields, relentlessly smothering and suffocating everything in its path. This planting of monocultures is considered the single biggest threat to biodiversity on Earth. However, nearly a billion people are malnourished, and with an extra 2 billion more people by 2050, we have to find more food from somewhere.

It may seem like an ultimatum between food or forests, but Dr Joern Fischer from The Ecological Society of America examines how food can be produced without human’s mass slaughter of anything living.

Fischer suggests that combining fields and forests by having fallow years, targeting areas for native wildlife to establish, or even just to have a row of trees at the boundary of the farm is enough to significantly increase biodiversity. Providing a lush oasis in the middle of the rolling dunes in wheat field deserts would not only save vital species, but make the crops less vulnerable to disease or shocks and stabilize and pump nutrients into the soil, ultimately increasing yields in the long term.

In Costa Rica, they have combined agriculture and natural forests to create a diverse, but productive landscape.

Fischer also notes the importance of creating corridors between ‘natural paradises’ or national parks. Every creature has a certain climate they thrive in, called their ‘climate envelope,’ outside of which survival is a struggle. Clearly, a polar bear would struggle in the Amazon and Trump (or Drumpf, which is his original family name) would struggle in any meaningful conversation. These natural refuges can’t move and so, with climate change, more and more species are suffering in a climate their not supposed to be in. Natural corridors would offer a network, like roads between cities, for creatures and trees to travel across in order to stay within their envelope.

It seems then that whilst intensification of agriculture is needed to feed the world, we can work with nature to produce more food, whilst maintaining oases for wildlife to thrive.

Multi-billion pound American companies deliberately cause famine in Malawi to increase their profits.

In 2002, Malawi was ravaged by an intense drought. On their last legs, genetically modified (GM) crop companies ‘came to the rescue’ by providing food for those at the brink of starvation. While it seems like a heroic action, a closer look tells a story of how massive businesses carefully manipulate drought, just so that they can sell their product.

Just years earlier, Malawi generated enough food for stockpiling, so that during droughts they would have a surplus. However, pushed by giant businesses, Malawi were forced to sell their excess grain so that foreign exchange could continue and debts could be paid. An action that led 3% of the population to die.

A brief respite from the drought occured in late 2002, early 2003, allowing Malawi to re-stockpile their grain. However, by this point they had accumulated a debt to these rich American investors and so had to sell the grain again.

Unsurprisingly, drought struck again in 2005, and with insufficient stores they looked for food abroad. Despite India offering food for a far lower cost, Malawi were in debt and so had to opt yet again for the more expensive American option.

This story demonstrates how market failures cause commodities to be of higher importance than human lives, with GM crop companies carefully and deliberately engineering a famine, causing unnecessary disease, death and despair. This shocking endless and inescapable injustice continues to this day.

The Soil we Live on is Disappearing and it is YOUR Responsibility.

Borrelli from the UN explains how poorer countries hold the key to sustaining our soils, but that everybody is responsible.

We rely on soil for almost all aspects of our lives, from the food and water we consume, the clothes we wear to the buildings we live in. However, a population rise, poor farming practises and changing land use has put immense pressure on this humble but essential resource, with 1,390,000,000,000,000 kilos of soil, or 2,800,000 football pitches, lost each year from erosion.

For the average person soil is known un-affectionately as filth, dirt or muck, for big companies as a kind of self sustaining gold mine and for farmers as a means for economic survival. The result is a global population that overwhelmingly and catastrophically underappreciate its importance.

Borrelli uses complex models to explain how poorer countries hold the key to future soil sustainability as they have more pristine land to exploit, such as the Amazon in South America, and a population growing faster than anywhere else in the world. A cocktail for potentially astronomic soil erosion.

Taken at face value, the models would seem to suggest that poorer countries are the issue and that they should take responsibility. However, as Borrelli indicates, part of this is just that these are countries that haven’t already destroyed their soils, as most western countries have done. Furthermore, the land is often used to produce exotic food, clothes or materials for westerners that blissfully ignore where the products have come from and the implications their consumption has. These goods are often produced in dangerous conditions for low wages, all to the tune of western CEOs that will never set foot on the farm or factory.

Whilst it remains true that the most important land for ensuring soil survival is the land in poorer countries, this is a global issue, and one that takes global responsibility. Poorer countries and their farmers need help from the rest of the world, including you, if we are to have any hope of sustaining this precious resource for future generations.