Category Archives: biodiversity

Biodiversity and Food Choice: A Clarification

ImageThere needs to be a correction, and also modification of a particular concept, to the recently published article I had written for the North American Vegetarian Society (“Meat: no longer just a factory farm issue” in Vegetarian Voice 2012) regarding biodiversity loss. The “30,000 per year” extinction or loss of species statement I made is actually referring to species of animals, plants, insects—not simply animals (although the “animal” kingdom technically includes insects). This figure was first brought to light by Harvard naturalist and emeritus professor of biology, Edward Wilson (The Diversity of Life, Harvard University Press 1992) and supported by Niles Eldridge (Life in the Balance, Princeton University Press 1998). Others such as Georgina Mace, Paul Ehrlich have extinction estimates as high as 70,000 to 130,000 species per year (7,000 to 13,000 times the background rate).

After speaking with and interviewing numerous researchers with the Species Survival Commission of IUCN (The World Conservation Union) and COBD (The Convention on Biological Diversity), about this topic over the past four months, I now feel there are many uncertainties surrounding attempts at quantifying the exact number of species becoming extinct per year. For this reason, it is more meaningful to view our planet’s current loss of species and the impact of our food choices in the following manner:

  1. We are losing species of life as well as ecosystems on Earth at an unprecedented and alarming rate, estimated to be anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times the “background rate”—that which had been seen for the previous several thousands of years. Therefore, it is this massive rate of extinction rather than number of loss that becomes a more meaningful metric and cause for concern.
  2. It is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately predict the number of species loss per year because of a number of factors. One of the largest unknowns is the exact amount of species that we have on earth, which is a needed component when attempting to determine total numbers of species loss when using an extinction prediction equation. This is one of the reasons the Species Area Curve Relationship method of extinction calculation has led to speculation and wide ranges of numbers of extinct species. It is the feeling of most researchers today that although we have identified approximately 1.8 million species on our planet, there are most likely between 10 and 30 million that exist.
  3. Regardless of the exact number of species becoming extinct per year, it is alarming at best and can be most attributed to loss of habitat—and the predicted future escalation will be due to habitat loss combined with climate change.
  4. With estimates of 45% of all the land mass on Earth used by animal agriculture and 1 to 2 trillion fish extracted from our oceans each year (by fishing methods such as trawling, purse seine, long lines, explosives and other techniques that are damaging ecosystems)—eating animals (fishing and livestock production) is the largest contributing factor in habitat loss and constitutes the second largest sector implicated in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions which lead to climate change.

There has been widespread thought that marine species were more resilient to extinction and our further exploitation. However, there is finally a growing amount of evidence that fish and wildlife in our oceans are as, or more, vulnerable to extinction than many terrestrial and freshwater species. Despite continued massive harvesting of sea life from our oceans, it is generally agreed upon by researchers not affiliated with sustainable certifying organizations that the amount and distribution of threatened marine species is, at best, “poorly known.” Our demand to eat fish cannot be taken out of the equation when discussing our abuse of natural resources, eventual loss of species, and climate change.

Habitat loss is far and away the most pervasive threat to terrestrial animal species, impacting 86% of all mammals, 88% of amphibians, and 86% of all birds. One in every eight birds, one in every three amphibians and one in every four mammals is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the near future. Overexploitation of animals for consumption remains a second major factor for extinction such as can be seen in wild meat trade in Africa and Southeast Asia and all hunting endeavors on land, globally.

Current biodiversity assessments (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, IUCN Red List, and the Global Environmental and Biodiversity Outlook) now generally agree that land use change, modification of river flow, freshwater pollution, and exploitation of marine environments are the most significant drivers of biodiversity change and loss of species. Eventually, ocean acidification and climate change will become increasingly important. With overharvesting sea life in our oceans and raising livestock on land (grazing or CAFOs), our demand to eat animals and animal products remains the largest contributing anthropogenic factor to those accepted drivers of loss of species on Earth.

Let’s eat plants, not animals, and inspire others to do the same. Dr. O

Meet Jane

ImageThis is a story about Jane, a cute, cuddly, trusting and innocent 10 month-old real life koala. It’s not so much about her life directly as it is about a major disconnect—and a necessary reconnect that I’ll begin to weave for you. Jane’s life has been affected by the food choices we make on a global basis. “How can that possibly be,” you would surely ask—after all, the food we eat comes from a grocery store or a restaurant.

Similar to its effect on many other species living on our planet, the beef you are eating today has a profound impact on Jane and other koalas in two ways. First, since the U.S. is the second largest importer of Australian beef in the world (following Japan), the meat you are eating may have actually come from Australia—part of the 200,000 tons ($1 billion worth) we import each year from their country. Second, even if the beef on your plate today is not directly from the grasslands of Australia, it is one of the building blocks of the meat and dairy industry that casts its ominous shadow over our planet. With every bite of beef you take, it is effectively stamping another vote of support and creating the demand for more and more livestock to be raised and slaughtered throughout the world. This then perpetuates Global Depletion (see the book, Comfortably Unaware) of our planet’s resources and creates substantial increases in risk factors for loss of our own health. As we continue to demand more meat, dairy, and fish products to eat in our country we are also closing our eyes to the true costs to produce those animal products—whether here in the U.S. or in other countries. Until we recognize the true value of the resources and health implications of eating animals, irreversible losses on many fronts will continue to occur. We need to impose an eco and health risk tax on all animal products that are produced, purchased from other countries (such as Australia), and sold to consumers who want to continue eating them. We need to make the entire chain of responsibility pay for the real cost of producing that food. Accountability needs to be established by affixing an appropriate economic value to animal products that reflects all resource (eco) cost during production and to us (health) after consumption, is long overdue and it should be translated into a mandatory tax. For instance, if the habitat and lives of koalas (or biodiversity anywhere on Earth) are lost by the production of an item consumed by humans, then that loss should be paid for by all those responsible.

As with nearly every other country in the world, Australia is a major cattle producer and consumer, expected to become one of the top beef producers and exporters in the world by the end of 2012 along with Brazil and the U.S. (among other things, we have the distinction of holding the #1 spot for beef production in the world in 2011). With the importing of over 2 million head of cattle and 800,000 tons of fresh beef and veal in 2011, the U.S. also has become the world’s second largest importer of beef, following only Russia.

Australia is considered a grass fed wonderland because most of their 200 million sheep and cattle raised annually are being pastured. Even so, Australia is seeing an increase in cattle going to feedlots and being “finished” on grain prior to slaughter, expecting this trend to grow to 31% of all cattle raised by the year 2020. In the U.S. there is heavy marketing and media coverage about grass fed/pastured livestock products, however, the USDA predicts our country will see a 4% increase this year (2012) in cattle that will be raised, or at least finished, on grain in feedlots instead of being 100% grass fed. This is largely due to the demand for grain fed meat by Mexico, the largest importer of U.S. grown beef, who favor the ‘marbled’ taste of grain fed cows and the obvious fact that grain fed cattle in confined (concentrated) feed operations are simply more efficient to produce and with much less land usage than in grass fed situations—which is still a few thousand times less efficient than using land to produce plant foods for us to consume.

As you drive the roads through any cattle district in Australia, you will see many, many cattle and sheep, a few kangaroos, and an occasional wallaby among other things. One sight that you will not see, though, is the one of miles and miles of corn or soybean feed crops as can be typically seen along any stretch of highway in the U.S. (especially in the Midwest). This is because cattle raised in Australia, do in fact, graze for most their lives—but it is with heavy land use and an irreversible toll on wildlife. The loss of biodiversity is blatant and measurable and, unfortunately, it is with an apathetic view.

Among the many livestock operations I am visiting in Australia, there is a region in Gippsland, Victoria that represents one of those very few areas in the world where resources such as water, land, and even their climate are considered ideal for ‘sustainably’ raising livestock. Streams and spring water are abundant and pasture can grow year round, so it has become a prime location for grass fed livestock operations such as cattle, pigs, sheep, and even goats. It is also Australia’s premier area for grass fed dairy operations. The trend seen in Gippsland and across Australia is to produce smaller cows and in less time by keeping them milking at their mother’s side in pastures and then letting them grass feed until 10 to 11 months of age and slaughtering them at an average weight of 265 kg (583 pounds). This method is, of course, fueled by demand—in this case, by Japan and the U.S. for meat from smaller, younger cattle. Interestingly, from a land use standpoint, this method of “sustainable” agriculture occurring in the most favorable conditions in Australia, and perhaps in the world, still uses minimally 2.5 acres to raise just one cow. When it is all said and done, that one cow will provide 300 pounds of meat, which results in 120 pounds per one acre of land used in one year. For reference, an organic vegetable farm, just down the road from these livestock operations in Gippsland, produces on average 5,000 to 10,000 pounds per one acre of food such as tomatoes, fast growing greens, and herbs, that are infinitely healthier for us to consume.

Although throughout Australia, the total number of farms has decreased, the size of an average farm (by “size,” I am referring to the number of livestock raised as well as acreage of land) is increasing, similar to what is occurring in the U.S. However, cattle farm operations in Gippsland remain smaller, averaging 50 to 500 head of cattle per farm and they adhere strongly to ‘grass fed/pastured’ philosophies of operational methodology and marketing protocols.

The concept of ‘humane’ is largely relegated to disease reduction in livestock, with all governmental agencies such as the Department of Primary Industries, Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), Australia Department of Agriculture and Food, etc. being more concerned about the quality of meat as the end product than the true physical, mental, and emotional state of an animal. For example, the very small section allocated to the welfare of animals raised for food that can be found in Western Australia’s Animal Welfare Regulations for the Pig Industry (adopted from the Australia Department of Agriculture and Food) states that the floor space in a stall for a sow should “not be less than 0.6 meter wide by 2.2 meters long” and that a sow with piglets should “not be confined for more than 6 weeks at a time in a farrowing pen less than 5.6 square meters.” This means that a sow can have the luxury of being confined to a space 23 inches wide by 6 feet long without being ‘inhumane’ and if with piglets, can be kept up to one and a half months, without being let out, in a pen 6 feet by 9 feet with its 10-12 piglets. Try that yourself sometime (with or without piglets) and then revisit this definition of ‘humane.’ Also, there are minimal enforceable measures.  This year (2012), the MLA voiced weak concern about the method of slaughter for their transported sheep ending up in the Middle East (99% of all exported sheep from Australia end up in Middle Eastern countries). With this small exception, there is a conspicuous lack of concern or regulation about the need for humane transport and humane slaughter of any livestock—knowing, of course, that there is ultimately no ‘humane’ method for us to slaughter another living thing.

As I pointed out earlier, Australia is among the largest producers and exporters of beef. This, of course, is at the expense of the health of their country—loss and inefficient use of their resources and the declining health of their citizens.

Although beef consumption is slightly declining within our own U.S. population, we are the second largest importer of beef from Australia, which is contributing to deforestation and loss of biodiversity in that country. Grazing livestock currently use over one billion acres of land in Australia, or more than 56% of the entire land mass of this country (http://www.anra.gov.au/topics/land/landuse/index.html) The rate of deforestation in Australia is increasing as quickly as anywhere else in the world with 600,000 acres lost in 2011. The majority of this forest destruction is in areas where koalas live, or once lived, therefore the world demand for beef equates into more land needed to raise cattle which results in forest loss, turning this land into pastures, which destroys the natural habitat of koalas—it’s all connected.

Hence, Jane’s family and thousands of other koalas are killed yearly primarily from direct habitat loss but also indirectly when they are hit by cars and attacked by dogs while moving on the ground in search of eucalyptus trees that were cut down in order to raise cattle. Jane is left orphaned, ending up in a remote sanctuary fighting to regain her health and parameters of life that had gone fairly undisturbed for the previous 25 million years and yet taken away in a matter of minutes by an invisible, insidious force called food choice. Jane represents species everywhere on our planet that are being devastated by livestock operations that are fueled by our demand to eat animals.

We need to think about Jane when you see beef or any other form of animal product that is considered ‘food’ for us to consume. Whether it has come directly from Australia or any other country, plucked out of our oceans, or even raised in your own back yard—meat is not ‘food’; it is a destructive human induced process.  Ask Jane.  Image

The Barriers We Confront

ImageInfrequently, I will receive an email that I feel is so far beyond comment that it should be discarded as merely written by detractors. But, it is this very type of correspondence that reminds me of the daunting task at hand, because similar to the person who contacted me with the email below, the vast majority of individuals in the world today have at least some barrier which impedes them from becoming aware and adopting the healthiest dietary regimen—consuming only plant based foods.

First let’s look at his comments posted on our Comfortably Unaware Facebook page as well as on my blog site:

John Wadford RD/PHD commented on Not Entirely Perfect in “The Land of Oz”.

“Actually Dairy and meat are healthy for us and not bad. Moderation is the key because if you over-eat thats when you get obese. No diseases are linked to meat or animal products. Thats a vegan lie and myth. Quit being a liar and saying meat and animal products are bad. I have taken numerous nutrition courses and I know whats good and bad. Limit carbs and junk food and fast food. You will be fine. Eat red meat twice a week and other days eat lean chicken and fish. Been proven very healthy. Eat veggies and fruits as sides/snacks.”

And my response:

I am pleased to see your correspondence, Dr. Wadford, because it brings to light interrelated issues for me along this journey. One is just how difficult my mission can be while disseminating information about the reality of our food choices. With your comments, we are witnessing a seemingly intelligent, learned individual such as yourself (“RD, PhD”), who somehow has missed the boat with the thousands of peer reviewed articles, studies, findings, and conclusions of scientists worldwide for the past 40 years as well as the position statements of every health organization in the world today that now recognize the benefits of a plant based diet.

Since you are an RD, and assuming that refers to a Registered Dietician (having, as you stated, “taken numerous nutrition courses” and “know what’s good and bad”), I thought I would provide you with the Position Statement of the American Dietetic Association, the governing body for licensing of at least one of your credentials, copied from their Journal published three years ago. This Position Statement is essentially the same statement they had initially made six years earlier that I’m sure you have seen, and one that every RD should certainly already be familiar with:

“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Vegetarian diets are often associated with a number of health advantages, including lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels, and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) and lower overall cancer rates. Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and have higher levels of dietary fiber, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals. These nutritional differences may explain some of the health advantages of those following a varied, balanced vegetarian diet. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes. A vegetarian diet is defined as one that does not include meat (including fowl) or seafood, or products containing those foods.” J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109:1266-1282.

Some of the many obvious questions and suggestions that arise for me following the reading of your comments are (with an honest attempt at subduing any sarcasm):

  1.  What educational institutions were you attending and what subjects were you studying to have information such as found in the above Position Statement overlooked?
  2.  It seems that before you would accuse a researcher such as me, as a “liar” and “spreading vegan myths”, and you make rash and blatantly false statements such as “no diseases are linked to meat or animal products” you should do some homework on the updated subject (although even in Plato’s era 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, it was known that eating only plant based foods was much healthier than the raising and killing of animals for their ‘Republic’).
  3.  Your comment to “eat red meat twice a week and other days eat lean chicken and fish. You’ll be fine. Been proven very healthy”, indicates to me that you and those with similar thoughts need to rethink how you are approaching your own eating habits let alone those of others, and make a solid attempt at enlightening yourselves to the origins of your food choices—and the ill effects on our planet, animals, and ourselves. This will obviously require a serious reconstructing of those factors that influence you and your decision-making—all those cultural or emotional hurdles that haven’t allowed you to see clearly or be open to what is in front of you (ie. reread the Oz blog now and try to view it more correctly as reality instead of propaganda and you will learn something valuable and meaningful).
  4.  Remember that it is not just human health that I am concerned about and therefore am conveying—it is the health of our planet, our resources, and all life we share this Earth with as well.

Even the overtly sluggish and highly political USDA has had to succumb to the preponderance of evidence of the many health benefits of a purely plant based diet. On June 2, 2011, they introduced a version of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine’s vegan dietary guidelines with the Food Plate—leaving “dairy” off the plate, demoted to a small peripheral position, and completely replacing “meat and seafood” with the section called “protein” which more appropriately guides U.S. citizens toward healthier plant based alternatives.

Remember, Dr. Wadford, that the evidence had to be so overwhelming for the USDA to ignore its strong political ties to the meat, dairy, and fishing industries in order to recommend this new plant based food plate.

Yet, somewhere along the way, you and all other like minded registered dieticians, physicians, educators, authors, politicians, organizations, media, and general public have allowed some other form of influence—most likely cultural, social, and psychological—to suppress the overwhelming abundance of facts and findings that from a human health standpoint, eating animal products carries with it a significant risk of contracting any or all of the four most common diseases in our country (coronary heart disease, malignancies, cerebrovascular disease, and diabetes) as well as any one of the five most common cancers (colon, lung, breast, pancreatic, and prostate) as well as numerous other disease states and precursors such as hypertension and obesity.  Once again, this is not my opinion—it reflects the findings and opinions of every major health organization in the world.

The blog I posted about Dr. Oz that elicited your comments also made it clear that even if eating animals were healthy for us (which, obviously is a myth), it is not healthy at all for our environment—grass fed/pastured or not. It is also not healthy for the other species of living things lost along the way (livestock are implicated in over 50% of all lost biodiversity including 30,000 newly extinct animal species per year) or for the animals raised in the process.  Even if livestock are raised “humanely,” they are still slaughtered—which, for all but the anthropocentric, could only be considered entirely inhumane if not barbaric.

Since there are very few who understand the argument of how our demand to eat animals—whether in factory farm settings or not—adversely impacts our planet, it becomes more of the focal point of my lectures, blogs, and books. I happen to call it Global Depletion, but it is essentially about sustainability. Eating animals is simply not sustainable. I have recently introduced and am now advocating use of the term relative sustainability because raising, slaughtering, and eating billions animals factually uses resources, some irreversibly, that we can ill afford to lose—and there are many plant based options that are much kinder to our planet. So while I pointed out that Dr. Oz needs to reevaluate his advocating beef and fish from a human health standpoint, it was also from an ecological point of view that he has never favorably or correctly positioned in the equation. All the facts and figures related to Global Depletion can be found in my first book, Comfortably Unaware and in my lectures, found at www.ComfortablyUnaware.com, –which, once more, are factual reflections of the state of our planet—not simply my opinion.

And lastly to what can be seen as your lack of understanding or appreciation for the overall intent of the Dr. Oz blog, as being one component of the larger picture of my incentive to increase awareness. My objective with that particular blog and in general is quite simple—to provide a healthier and more peaceful food choice path for everyone. It is not about creating arguments or debates. However, it is also not about supporting an archaic animal based food production system purely because of universally found and culturally influenced myopia. Quite simply, eating animals IN ANY FASHION uses too much land, energy, and water, creates unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions, is responsible for a massive loss of biodiversity, plays a significant role in world hunger, and justifies the inhumane slaughtering of billions of animals annually—all while increasing the risk of contracting many disease states after consumption. This is not about generating debates where one faction is ill informed and emotionally driven, it’s about perpetuating a better way for all of us, including you, to eat and live.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to further assess the barriers we confront while inspiring others to become aware.

Dr. O

What Was Missed At Durban

ImageThe 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference concluded Sunday morning (December 11) in Durban, South Africa. Although there was the usual drama that accompanies these conferences, ministers finally reached an agreement on a new text, referred to as the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, that will see the Kyoto Protocol extended into a second commitment period by a number of countries. While this may seem promising, it marked the 17th time that a global climate change summit displayed the continued and blatant omission of addressing food choice as a significant factor.

In order to appreciate why this is so important we should first review what the event is all about. In 1997, 194 nations drafted and adopted the Kyoto Protocol—an international treaty developed from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to identify and mitigate human influencing factors on climate change. Nations now gather annually as part of the Conference of the Parties (COP).

The intent of COP, then, is to essentially find methods of reducing the production of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) into our atmosphere by the three principal component gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Greenhouse gases (which also include water vapor and ozone) are those that absorb and emit infrared radiation. The Protocol, as a legally binding agreement, was entered into force in 2005 with the objective to reach a target reduction of 5.2% GHG emissions from the 1992 levels by the year 2012. Commitments in the Kyoto Protocol were based on “joint implementation”, “clean development mechanism”, and “international emissions trading.” Emissions trading was established to allow nations that can easily meet their targets to sell credits to those that cannot.

Although some strides have been made since 1997 with the Bali Action Plan in 2007 (COP 13) and the Cancun Agreements reached at COP 16 in 2010, the conferences have been characterized as seeing minimal progress in their first fourteen years due to differences in opinion between developed countries and also because the treaty applied to only industrialized nations—“37 Annex I countries” as referred to in the Protocol—but imposed no mandate on developing countries which includes emerging economic powers and significant GHG emitters like China, India, Brazil , and South America, Mexico, and Korea. As of December 2011, the U.S. has not and will not agree to an extension of Kyoto beyond 2012 or sign the treaty unless there is a balancing of requirements between developed and undeveloped countries. The Cancun Agreements realized the need to commit both economically strong as well as developing countries by proposing a Green Climate Fund (GCF) to help deliver financial aid to poorer nations. The GCF was proposed to mobilize $100 billion annually from private and public funds but has yet to see implementation.

As of early 2011, many scientists felt the existing Kyoto pledges were far less than what was needed to reach the UN’s goal of keeping a temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius, the calculated maximum amount above which we will likely see truly catastrophic effects. China, India, and the U.S. are waiting until a mandatory review of new science findings scheduled for 2015. This caused postponing the redrafting of internationally binding GHG emission commitments and involvement of unsigned countries until then. With this delay, it is predicted that global warming will reach 3.5 degrees Celsius or worse in coming years. (Climate Action Tracker, 12-6-11)

The negotiations in Durban revolved around extending the Kyoto Protocol, inclusion of all nations into a binding contract, and adoption of the GCF. In last few and extended hours of Durban amidst heated debate, an agreement was made by more than 190 nations to do just that—to continue towards a treaty that will include all emitters, define and enforce goals, and implement the GCF by 2015 which will be fully in force by 2020. Nations also agreed to create measures that would involve preserving tropical forests and the development of clean energy technology.

The World Resources Institute described the results at Durban as a “major climate deal” that would lead to better negotiations. While on its surface, the results at Durban could be construed as purposeful, even successful, the conference did little more than simply keep future talks viable—an agreement to agree. Major emitters such as China, India, and the U.S. are still not bound and so the outcome at Durban should be viewed as unsatisfying to anyone striving for real change in GHG emission policy. Alden Meyer, director of policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists responded by saying, “The decisions adopted here fell well short of what was needed.” The U.S. chief American climate negotiator, Todd D. Stern, stated that he was “hopeful that negotiations in coming years would produce a more equitable arrangement.” Since the primary goal of these COP meetings is to reduce the impact human activities have on climate change, one would have to view them as unsuccessful, since GHG are in fact on the increase and major contributing sectors, such as the meat, dairy, and fishing industries have not been properly addressed.

Regarding climate change, most researchers agree on the following:

  1. Global warming is occurring
  2. Climate change is worsening
  3. Major destructive and catastrophic events—flooding, droughts, rise in sea levels, melting of polar ice caps, etc. will occur and are directly proportional to rises in Earth’s temperature
  4. Climate changes are related to increases in greenhouse gases
  5. Anthropogenic (human induced) GHG emissions are large enough, beyond natural emissions, to be a significant contributing factor to global warming and climate change
  6. The largest sectors for anthropogenic emissions are energy and agriculture, together comprising more than 95% of these human induced GHG emissions
  7.  The single largest component of agricultural emissions are those from raising livestock, which contributes between 20% and 51% of all total GHG emissions globally (energy+agriculture)

Although wider acceptance of a Protocol extension and inclusion of all nations into a binding international contract now seem a delayed but future possibility, there remains an obvious omission from any COP discussions and implementation strategies. What is clearly missing from this list above is a #8, which would connect the final dot—that, since raising livestock is one of the single largest contributors to human induced GHG emissions and since the objective of all annual COP meetings is to mitigate human induced GHG emissions, then we simply need to stop raising livestock.  However, this would necessitate definitive and legally binding universal language stipulating that all countries “stop raising and eating animals”—with strict, time activated, and enforceable measures in effect. To date, policy makers have been unwilling to do this and there has been no such statement or regulation in the mix. With or without annual international climate change summits, with or without signed agreements, proper progress will not be made with reducing GHG emissions until the issue of food choice is on center stage and raising livestock is eliminated by all nations.

More on this subject can be found in the book “Comfortably Unaware.”

Just Let Them Live: the simple fallacy of omega 3s

We continue eating fish and exploiting sea life for many reasons. Along with strong cultural and societal influences, the recent impetus has been for their omega 3 content. We all know that these essential fatty acids are very important (referred to as “essential” because they are necessary for proper functioning of various cells, organs, and systems and our bodies are unable to produce them, therefore having to be obtained from our diet). However, it is how and from where we obtain them that are even more important. For instance, a 3 oz. serving of unsustainable Cod as a source provides 150-200 mg. of omega 3s, whereas one tablespoon of very sustainable Chia seeds provides over 2,000mg of omega 3s. Some of you may want me to discuss conversion ratios of alpha linolenic acid (ALA, the type of omega 3 found in plants) to DHA and EPA (the two primary forms of omega 3 found in fish), and that’s fine because the numbers are still there. And, what about flax seeds with 1,200 mg per tablespoon, walnuts, or hemp? All are exceptional sources of omega 3s as well.

If you view this with a different but more accurate perspective, we all need to understand that no fish actually has omega 3 fatty acids themselves. And, therein lies the fallacy.

Not one fish produces omega 3s on their own.  Omega 3 fatty acids are found in microalgae or plants, which every fish has to eat in order to obtain them. Or, they need to eat other smaller fish that have consumed microalgae along the way.

So, in addition to finding omega 3s in plants, why don’t we just start going right to the source ourselves? My thought is that all those concerned should eat microalgae, like spirulina or chlorella, and skip right past fish and the ecological baggage that comes with producing and harvesting them, and bypass the health issues with consuming them. Just let them live.

Ninety seven percent of the world’s population eats fish. And, if you eat fish primarily because it’s healthy for you, then perhaps you should take a closer look at just what those health benefits are. Every fish you eat has saturated fat and cholesterol. Also, no fish has phytonutrients or fiber. Both are some of the most beneficial substances you could consume. Phytonutrients are those substances that will improve your immune system, reduce the likelihood you’ll develop cancer, and provide you with anti-inflammatory properties. All of these properties are extremely important and can be found only in plants. Thus far, we are not doing so well with the “healthy” aspect of fish are we? Fish higher up on the food chain, such as tuna, and those living the longest will have a large probability of containing higher levels of heavy metals, dioxin, and PCB contamination. And all fish caught anywhere in our oceans will contribute to bykill and the loss of interdependent and poorly understood ecosystems. But there are those omega 3s everyone is talking about, aren’t there? Remember though, you can get them from plants.

Forty seven percent of all fish consumed in the world today come from aquaculture (fish farms), which are growing faster than any other food sector. All fish grown on fish farms need artificial supplementation to obtain omega 3s. Typically, these factory farmed fish require a diet of fish meal, fish oil, and whole fish that were taken out of our already heavily depleted oceans in order for them to achieve appreciable amounts of both DHA and EPA. In fact, 87% of all fish oil and 53% of all fish oil produced in the world is fed to factory-farmed fish.

What about omega 6’s or 9’s? Do you need these? Omega 6, Linoleic Acid (LA), is an essential fatty acid as well—you need it, but in less amounts than what the typical person in our country is consuming. The healthy ratio of omega 6 fatty acid intake to omega 3 fatty acid is 4 to 1. But our current average intake is in a ratio of nearly 20 to 1, because of all the various foods we consume that have been made with heavy amounts of canola, corn, and other types of vegetable oils, and processing which tend to contain large amounts of omega 6 fatty acids. Linoleic acid is an upregulator of inflammation. Your body does need LA but not in such large amounts and not so imbalanced. That’s where omega 3s come in—which are down regulators of inflammation. Meaning, they suppress inflammation. So omega 3s help reduce your likelihood of developing chronic diseases of inflammation such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, etc. But always keep in mind that any animal products you eat actually contribute to the development of these diseases so rather than an over focus on intake of omega 3s you should be first looking at reducing intake of inflammation promoting products derived from animals. Meaning all animals—livestock, chickens, and fish.

Omega 9, or oleic acid such as found in olive oil, is another important fatty acid but your body can produce it from other unsaturated fatty acids so it is not considered essential. It’s also interesting to note that olive oil’s well documented healing properties and health benefits are from its high amount of polyphenols (antioxidants) from the olive plant itself—not from the fatty acid or oil content directly.

Here are some additional insights. When you consume alpha linolenic acid (from chia, flax, hemp, walnuts, green leafy vegetables, etc.), your body converts it to DHA and EPA at a rate of 1-9%, but 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines has recommendations of ALA at 1.1-1.6 g/day because your brain only needs 3.8 mg and your body can store and assimilate DHA/EPA (converted from ALA or otherwise) for up to 2 yrs—with a half life of two to five years. And, once again, there are over 2 grams (2,000 mg) of omega 3s from ALA in just one tablespoon of chia seeds. Omega 6 (LA) competes with conversion of ALA to DHA/EPA if omega 6 to omega 3 intake ratios are more than 4:1, therefore impeding your body’s ability to assimilate and use omega 3. Minerals such as zinc, selenium, magnesium as well as all vitamin Bs, and C also help with absorption of omega 3s from plants.

If you do skip fish and go right to the source, you could eat microalgae such as spirulina—used by the Aztecs and in Chad dating back to the 9th century. Spirulina has omega 3s in the form of DHA, EPA, and ALA, numerous phytonutrients like beta carotene and a complete amino acid profile with low amounts of methionine and cysteine (two amino acids found in all animal products that contribute to various disease states). Spirulina has shown to have strong anti-inflammatory effects, cardiovascular benefits, and has even demonstrated to slow the progression of HIV by inhibiting replication. For those concerned about protein—ounce for ounce, spirulina has four times more protein than fish, chicken, pork, or beef. It is also a source of vitamin B12 and is easily digested. It is one of the richest, most nutrient dense of all whole foods with over 2000 enzymes and phytonutrients. In terms of global growing applications and with respect to the potential for global depletion, spirulina can produce up to 1500 times more protein per acre than beef and it grows in both salt and fresh water.

Chlorella is another great choice for omega 3s, providing two to three times as much protein as fish or other animal products with all essential amino acids, vitamin B12, and many other vitamins and minerals.

The average American eats 16 pounds of fish per year but the 2010 USDA Guidelines recommends doubling the amount of seafood we eat because of “health benefits”. Health benefits to us? To our planet? To the fishing industry? Our country consumed 5 billion pounds of seafood in 2010. Perhaps it would make sense for the USDA to inform consumers of all the health benefits of eating plant based foods, the many and significant advantages these foods have over eating fish, and emphasize the continued global depletion that occurs with every bite of fish that we take. It also, then, would make sense for all influential organizations and our media to spend at least the same amount of time disseminating the reality of the negative effects of our choice to eat fish as is spent on them being a source of omega 3s. Everyone needs to know the full impact eating fish has on the health of our planet and on our own health. It is time to become aware. Instead of mass producing, harvesting, catching, killing and eating fish—just let them live.

Biodiversity Loss and More Rainforest Thoughts

Depletion of our land on Earth due to our choice of foods encompasses a number of topics—direct and inefficient agricultural land use, feed crops produced for livestock, and even depletion of our food supply, or world hunger. (Please refer to Chapter V, Comfortably Unaware, “Whose land is it anyway?” Global Depletion of Our Land)

These are important issues that we will continue to touch on, but I think it’s important to, once again, discuss on how our food choices are affecting the loss of other living things on earth—our plants, animals, and insects. The loss of biodiversity is happening so quickly to so many species that it can only be considered a 6th era of extinction.  But, this one is much different than the previous 5 because they were all caused by phenomena out of our control whereas this one, we are actually creating.  The question is why? There are a few primary reasons—unprincipled or poorly planned urban sprawl and pollution are certainly major factors—but certainly one of the major reasons is due to what we are requesting to eat, on a global basis. Scientists have divided our planet into 825 terrestrial “ecoregions” (as well as 450 freshwater and a number of oceanic ecoregions) each defined by its own distinct set of animal and plant species as well as climate. Of all these land ecoregions, almost ½ are reported to have livestock as a current threat. The World Conservation Union reported last year that “most of the world’s endangered or threatened species” on their “Red List” are suffering habitat loss due to livestock—not due to agriculture—but to livestock. The most recent Convention on Biological Diversity was just held in Nagoya, Japan last October as a follow up to the one held in 2002. Here were their findings: They agreed that none of their goals from 2002, for lessening the rate of biodiversity loss, were met. Then they confirmed that the main pressures for the rapid loss of species are all increasing in intensity—which are habitat change, overexploitation, pollution, invasive species, and climate change. And then lastly, all countries reworked their “targets” and strategies to meet them. Here is what they came up with: They agreed to protect 17 percent of the land area of the world that remains (as I pointed out in “Comfortably Unaware”, we now know livestock are already using 30 to 50% of the entire land mass on earth so their thought at Nagoya is to protect 17% of what’s left over for all the other millions of species of living things…) and there was agreement to protect 10 percent of all our oceans by the year 2020. So, you can see my concern. Also, there were no political or economic motives established and nations can police themselves with a “flexible framework”.  That’ll probably work. Let’s see—the Javan Tiger: extinct due to habitat loss from livestock. The Tasmanian Tiger: extinct due to habitat loss from cattle (actually the last one was killed by a farmer because it was in his “hen house”). Giant Eland, Howler Monkey, Red Wolf, and Jaguar: all endangered because of the advancement of livestock operations, and there are tens of thousands of other examples. Great Apes such as the Mountain Gorilla (only 350-450 remaining), Chimpanzee, Lowland Gorilla, Orangutan, and other primates are all endangered—in one way or another—because of the decisions made about food, which results in habitat loss or overt slaughtering of these individuals. In our oceans, pick any of the 80% of all fish species that are now overexploited, with many endangered. And the list is even longer with species of plants and insects. Nearly all concerned researchers agree that the primary causes of the rapid biodiversity loss we are witnessing on our planet today is by pastured or grazing livestock on land, and by unsustainable fishing practices in our oceans. There has been no improvement in a global resolution because we are failing at addressing the primary issue. Nowhere in the resolution from Nagoya, adopted by nearly 200 countries, is exact wording to effectively address our choice of food as it involves animals.

We need to touch briefly on rainforests again. They seem so far removed from all of our daily lives and yet so critical for our existence. Rainforests have been heavily impacted by our choice of foods, and it is time for some important updates. On average, 34 million acres of Amazon’s rainforests have been lost every year since the 1970’s. This number has declined for a number of reasons, to around 20 million acres in 2009. That’s 20 million acres of rainforests gone forever, destroyed in just one year. Certainly, this is an improvement—but it’s still far too much and there needs to be zero tolerance. I don’t think there should be one acre lost. Why? Because of the immense importance of rainforests, the primary reason for destruction is not justified, and we can’t replace them in our lifetime. Therefore, zero tolerance. About 80% of all rainforest loss is due to raising cattle with another 10% due to growing crops to feed them. It’s still happening today, the same reason, just less acreage is being destroyed. It seems like this really shouldn’t involve you, right? Well, until very recently, the U.S. has been the single largest consumer of Central and South America beef. We have many multi national companies that perpetuate the demand here and abroad for animal products or for feed crops that directly come from rainforests. Regarding crops, 80-90% of all soy grown worldwide is fed to livestock—not to us—and most of this soy is grown on rainforest-cleared land. The corporate producers of meat products—Cargill, Georgia Pacific, Unical, Texaco, etc. as well as the food retailers will continue clearing rainforest until we stop the demand for animal/livestock products. Recently, there have been millions of acres of rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia that are being slashed and burned to grow palm oil. This oil is used for alternative fuel, but also for the food industry. We do not need palm oil as a dietary requirement and the biofuels generated from these palm plants are in many ways contributing more to climate change than the fossil fuels they are intended to replace. For every acre of primary rainforest that is cleared and replaced with palm oil, there is 65 times as much carbon released into the atmosphere as can be saved annually by using the palm oil as a fuel substitute. Indonesia is losing 7 million acres of rainforest per year. This is the habitat of the orangutan and many other wonderful species of living things. There is a sickening, thick shadow of smoke that can now be seen looming over these countries from peat fires of all the acres of rainforests being burned daily. Rainforests produce 20% of world’s supply of oxygen and also serve as tremendous carbon sinks because they take carbon dioxide out of our atmosphere and sequester it into the soil, long term. How perfect. So, with any discussion about climate change or greenhouse gas emissions, we will always need to include discussions regarding rainforest management. And, therefore, with any discussions about climate change, rainforest management, or even sustaining our future life on Earth, there will always need to be specific attention given to why we kill and eat animals.

The Rainforest is home to over 5 millions species of plants, animals, insects—over ½ of all living things on our planet. They shouldn’t be lost because of our choice of foods or our collective indifference. Let’s all make a change.

Please read more about this and other areas of global depletion of our resources and our own health in “Comfortably Unaware.”