Tag Archives: deforestation

The Blue Planet Prize: What does it mean in 2012?

ImageYesterday, it was announced that Drs. William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel will receive the Blue Planet Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious environmental awards, for their work in creating the Ecological Footprint—a tracking or measurement of the impact we have on our planet. Since 2003, Rees, Wackernagel and their Global Footprint Network have used a data-determined metric as a monitoring device tracking how sustainable (or unsustainable) we are living. Their group and global partners now span six continents and apply the impact of the Footprint to many projects. As of 2012, they report that humans are in overshoot mode because we are using the equivalent of more than 1.5 planets to provide the resources taken, and to absorb our GHG emissions. One of their goals is to “increase international media outreach to broaden our message.” The work of this group is remarkable, and can serve as an important tool as we assess and then correct the detrimental effects we impose on our planet. They are to be truly commended.

But knowing that we are in an overshoot, unsustainable mode and actually taking the right steps to correct this are two separate issues. It is how we can best use this tool that becomes the question. The Global Footprint Network make it perfectly clear that they are “not anti-trade, anti-technology, or anti-GDP.” They are informational based only and “make no judgment about the value of technologies” or “the benefits, disadvantages or fairness of trade.” As such, it is left up to our nations’ leaders, policy makers, business leaders, and individuals to first become aware of the information provided by the Ecological Footprint and then to create change—if sustainability is their goal. The Global Footprint Network has come to the same conclusions as many other organizations in that “climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, fisheries collapse, food insecurity and the rapid extinction of species are all part of a single, over-arching problem: humanity is simply demanding more from the Earth than it can provide.” However, as with other organizations, the Global Footprint Network stumbles with providing specific reasons and then a viable direction as to resolution—we need a clear pathway toward sustainability, not simply hearing recited observations that we are not there. Fundamental change is in order and it begins with conveying realities.

I can help with the clarification. This would be my approach: Our global demand to eat animals, without proper economic regard or reflection of resource use, has caused food production systems to become the largest contributing factor to our unsustainable Ecological Footprint. The raising, slaughtering, and consumption of animals—livestock, wild caught fish, and aquaculture—is the primary cause of Global Depletion. It is not a factory farm or “agribusiness” problem. It’s an eating animals problem. Our demand to eat animals is responsible for 30-51% of all anthropogenic ghg emissions and climate change, 80% of the deforestation of tropical rainforests, 100% of the overgrazing, 100% of the fisheries collapse, 100% of the food insecurity issues (with factors we can control), and at least 50% of the rapid extinction of terrestrial and oceanic species. This is what needs to be said.

So Drs. Rees and Wackernagel are quite right in stating that “climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, fisheries collapse, food insecurity and the rapid extinction of species are all part of a single, over-arching problem: humanity is simply demanding more from the Earth than it can provide.” They, and the world however, need to identify the reasons, spell out the fact that although there are other contributing factors, our food choices as they involve animals and animal products are the largest single issue. We need to use this valuable information to create change, not simply point our finger at a generality that a problem exists. Although specifying the major cause of our ecological overshoot appears to be difficult for everyone to do, it is actually the easiest to identify and correct—simply begin eating all plant-based foods. No animals. Now.

I encourage everyone to take the information Rees and Wackernagel have so skillfully assembled, assign the major causative factor for overshoot, make the change to a fully plant based diet and then inspire others to follow suit. We have the information. Let’s do something with it.

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

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.”


A Day In The Life…Of Our Rainforests

How was your day? It wasn’t so good for our rainforests. Let’s take a look at what happened to them just in the last 24 hours. Why? Because it’s a quick assessment of our Earth’s lungs, given that rainforests account for more than 20% of the oxygen produced on our planet. So what did happen today there? Sadly, another 70,000 acres of rainforests were destroyed today and along with it, researchers estimate we lost more than 130 species of plants, animals and insects—now extinct. Ecosystems destroyed, medicinal plants we will never see again. Some rainforests, such as those in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Malaysia (the severely dwindling habitat of the Orangutan) are being destroyed because of the planting of palms for oil, predominately by large corporations such as Cargill—at the rate of 20 square miles of rainforest loss PER DAY. While this may seem horrific, the picture is much worse with other rainforests where many more acres than this are being destroyed per day due to another reason. Over 70% of the rainforests in other parts of the world such as Brazil are still being converted to cattle operations or for crops to feed cattle and other livestock. What can you do about this? 1. Stop eating animal products. That would be a good start. Eating meat is simply fueling the demand to produce more livestock. This is whether you are eating animals produced directly from rainforest areas or not. With every bite of meat, you will still be contributing to the world-wide demand for these products. 2. Encourage all those around you to stop eating animal products, thus reducing demand and beginning to change this unnecessary cultural influence. When we lose rainforests, all of the following occurs:

Loss of biodiversity
Depletion of soil
Disruption of water cycle
Greenhouse gas emissions and climate change
Loss of ability to produce oxygen
Flooding and drought cycles increased
Loss of medicinal/anti-cancer plants
Loss of indigenous tribes

The U.S. has been and still is the largest importer of Central and South American beef. Over 20 million acres of rainforest each year are destroyed to produce cattle to slaughter and eat as food. Millions of acres are also destroyed each year to grow crops such as soy to use as feed for cattle, chickens and other livestock. There needs to be a change and you can help by refusing to eat any type of livestock whether it has come directly from a rainforest area or not. When overall demand for livestock diminishes, so will the needless destruction of our rainforests.

Please read more about rainforests in Comfortably Unaware, Chapter IV.