Biodiversity is the key link in everything on Earth. It provides ecosystem services for free. When Woody Allen still did stand-up, he had a joke that remains a classic of the Human Nature genre: A man comes into a psychiatrist’s office and says to the doctor, my brother thinks he’s a chicken. The doctor asks how long his brother has been like this. The man replies since he was a kid. The doctor says, What!? This is a treatable condition! Why didn’t you bring him to me sooner? Long pause while the man looks left, and then right and finally back at the doctor, and says, I needed the eggs.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, the planet is paying too high a price for these eggs, and they should know.
For half a century the WWF has been leading conservation, sustainability, and climate warming education efforts in over one hundred countries. Recently, Duncan Williamson, their food policy manager in the UK, completed a study called Appetite for Destruction, and it is this study that offers us a chance to revisit the chicken joke.
The report finds that the crop production necessary to support the worldwide livestock industry puts an unsustainable strain on our global natural resources. The consequent disappearance or infection of soil, water, and air becomes the driving force behind the wide-scale loss of biodiversity.
Williamson uses the poultry industry as a prime example of this ecological budget-busting practice. We know there are 23 billion poultry animals on the planet at the moment—enough for about three animals each. These animals are grown in intensive industrial factories. “[ ] They don’t have access to the outside, so they have to be fed on something, and their feed tends to be maize and soy.”
Maize and soy are grown in enormous monocultures which tend to be in parts of the world which have either already converted a great deal of their land to agriculture, as in parts of the United States, which have had previous biodiversity loss, or in areas of the world which are almost the agriculture frontier, such as the Cerrado region in Brazil, where land that was originally rich in biodiversity has been clear-cut and converted to grow single crops of animal feed.
The scale of biodiversity loss is enormous. According to the United Nations, 60% of global biodiversity loss—that is at the genetic, species, and ecosystem levels—is attributable to the food system.
The clearing of land for agricultural purposes is part of the history of civilization. With the cutting of forests in Europe, uncountable species were lost, and farming became the food source for urban development. This is the historical biodiversity loss in which we live.
But current agricultural frontiers are opened now in the context of our understanding of what is vitally at stake. In Brazil, the assault on biodiversity is not simply from the cattle industry. About five percent of global biodiversity lives in the Cerrado region south of the Amazon. In this tropical savanna there are jaguars and anteaters, Capuchin monkeys and zebra, mottled Tapir, Lemur, Toucan, and countless butterflies, insects and flowers. Yet, it is one of the most rapidly disappearing landscapes in the world. The singular motivation for clearing this land is to grow soybeans to feed poultry, pigs, and dairy cattle for other parts of the global market.
The escalation in our meat consumption is unique in world history. According to Williamson’s study, “We have never eaten this much meat. And we’ve never treated it so lightly.”
Williamson recalls growing up on a chicken farm in the UK, where they had about 400 chickens—which was considered a big farm in those days. They would eat chicken meat “about once a month in the 1970s, because it was an expensive meat and it was a treat. Now the average person in the UK and the US eats chicken every single day. And in America, I believe, the total amount of chicken that is eaten per year is about 50 kilograms per person.”
It is not just the volume of meat consumption that has changed, of course, it is the quality. Chicken breasts never used to be this big. Chickens never used to reach maturity so fast. And chickens never used to be fed a regular diet of antibiotics and hormones.
One of the drivers behind the growing human resistance to antibiotics is its over-presence in all the industrial farmed meat we eat. Appetite for Destruction reveals that Industrial agribusiness is the potential hotbed for zoonotic diseases—animal diseases which can transfer to human populations.
We are also seeing reduced levels of nutrition in the meat itself, and this should be no surprise since the very definition of a healthy animal is one that is hunting for food, and burning off calories in its own environment. In this way, a healthy animal has a varied diet fuelling its muscle cells and hemoglobin with oxygen and nitrogen and all the elements that constitute a life of free movement. Without that baseline of health, no animal is going to produce nutritious fibre.
For Williamson, “We’re eating more. We’re getting less.”
The world map generated by this WWF study shows that in every location, “biodiversity loss is related to habitat conversion or overfishing, and the driver behind habitat conversion, which is things like deforestation, is, without doubt, the food industry.”
The most biodiverse parts of the world tend to be in South America and parts of Africa, Indonesia, other places. Those are some of the regions of the world where land is less valued as real estate, and tend to still be quite fertile when the rains are reliable. “These,” Williamson points out, “are the ones targeted for agricultural expansion.”
The singular fate of these parts of the planet is to be converted to commodity crops, such as palm and soya—the very crops driving the current food system—being fed to the animal agriculture industry.
Among the effects of industrial agriculture and industrial meat farming, the most obvious is loss of land. People are being forced to leave their land when it becomes valuable to grow feed there. But these are parts of the world with the poorest record-keeping and law enforcement, so we can only deduce that traditional ways of life are being lost.
More and more people who used to have a varied, locally based diet have stated to convert to the western diet, and with it, the threads that tie families and communities together are broken. People eat faster, and eat on the move. This generation does not consume what their parents or grandparents ate, and with this loss of communal meal preparation and eating, there is a loss of social cohesion. Williamson notes, “We’re losing a lot of social cohesion as a result of it. And this is probably impacting the choice of foods we have, the crops we grow, and how we interact as a culture. So we’re seeing what people are classifying as a homogenization of the human population.”
In the language of Free Trade, this realignment is call “harmonization,” where the standards that determine international agreements are based on “financialization” and the lowest possible costs of production. In this light, it should be no surprise that agriculture has been victimized in the same way forestry has been valued. Trees are only measured by GDP when they are cut down. The contribution they make to the quality of life of the planet is not measured in the calculation.
And yet, biodiversity is the backbone of life. Without it, there would be no crops whatsoever. Biodiversity is the key link in everything on Earth. It provides ecosystem services for free.
At the moment, we are lucky enough to have bees pollinating our plants every day, everywhere. There are about 20,000 species of bees making our food grow. Consider what our food would cost if this were a service for which we had to pay!
Biodiversity cleans the air and the water. Trees and bull rushes suck carbon dioxide out of the air…any tree, any bullrush, anywhere.
A good golf green would not be possible without a rich mix of grasses to produce it.
Human wellbeing requires proximity to the biodiversity of Nature. Virtually all of our medicines originate in surprising and unexpected patches of the environment. Most pharmaceutical companies look to biodiversity as key to their future discoveries.
There are at least 7,000 edible plant species available now, and Williamson urges everyone to heed the study’s recommendations to preserve those species, and change our diets to healthy varieties that preserve the integrity of the biodiversity of the planet. “We need to have significantly less industrially raised livestock. We need to reduce stock in numbers, and that would overall change the picture. And if we just did things like that, we could have a balanced system. I think we can get to the future we need to get to, but we do need to look at it. We also need to explore what we feed the industrial livestock. It is crazy that we’re feeding food that could be either fed to people or is grown on land, which could be used to grow food for people, and feeding it to animals—I mean, the land that’s being used solely to grow maize. Imagine if we used that to grow vegetables and fruit. We’d have so much more benefit from it, so much healthier diets, and it would make fruit and vegetables a lot cheaper for us to eat.”
Publisher’s Note: Judith Stapleton is a writer in the fields of science and medicine.