As difficult as it may be to fathom, the little and seemingly insignificant choices that we make every single day add up to major impacts on the world around us. From the number of plastic shopping bags we carry out of the grocery store, to how we make our morning coffee, and even what kind of toilet paper we use, it all is proving to have a measurable ripple effect out into the natural world.
And what about mealtime? You eat several times a day, every day, and diet choices you make have consequences for the environment.
Whether you decide to eat a double bacon cheeseburger from a fast food joint or an organic kale salad you grew in your own garden, you are having an impact on the patchwork of ecosystems that make up our planet. From aquatic habitats to land covered in feet of ice, waving grass, or towering trees, nature cannot escape the influence of your food choices. Here are six ecosystems where the impact of your diet is showing up:
One of the ecosystems directly in the line of destruction by food production is grasslands. While grasslands are fantastic at supporting native herding species like bison, the introduction of animals like cattle and sheep for food production is proving destructive. Currently, 33 percent of land worldwide is used to grow livestock feed, and 26 percent of land is used to graze cattle. This means that the livestock system takes up around 50 percent of arable land across the planet.
Livestock competes with native species for water and food, and can also fragment habitat for migration – a trend that is showing up all over the globe. In South America, the native wooded grasslands of Brazil have been reduced by half due to cattle grazing and growth of livestock crops like soybeans. Less than five percent of the prairie that originally covered the United States is intact having been destroyed largely by livestock and farmland.
2. Coral Reefs and Marine Environments
Coral reefs may not be in danger directly of being developed to grow crops or graze animals, but food production very much threatens these “rainforests of the sea.” Despite their important ecological role of acting as habitat for over two million marine species, coral reefs are under threat and part of the blame rests on climate change stemming from food production.
Climate change is one of the largest threats to coral reefs. Ocean water that is growing warmer and more acidic results in coral bleaching where corals lose the symbiotic algae they live with, eventually leading to death. A change in water temperature of one degree Celsius is predicted to cause roughly a 16 percent coral die out. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that livestock production is responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions while other organizations like the Worldwatch Institute have estimated it could be as much as 51 percent. As you can see, a portion of the pressure placed on corals has to do with our decision to support the meat and dairy industry.
The impact of food production on marine environments goes far beyond merely touching coral reefs and can actually harm entire coastlines all over the planet. Harmful algal blooms (HAB’s) are a big buzzword now when it comes to agriculture’s impact on marine ecosystems. Agriculture is a major source of nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen that get washed into the ocean where they spur the rapid growth of algae, resulting in HAB’s. Some algae are toxic and cause a variety of issues for the coastal ecosystem including the poisoning and death of animals like fish and otters, as well as reduced economic uses of the coastline for activities like shellfish harvesting and recreation. The Gulf of Mexico dead-zone is a massive example of how our maintenance of intensive animal agriculture can harm large swaths of water along our coasts.
Deforestation in the name of agricultural development may not be a new concept, but it still bears mentioning. Forests are increasingly being cleared both for grazing and livestock feed. Four million hectares of forest are destroyed in South America alone every single year. Much of this land is converted to soy farms for animal feed. Central America has lost roughly 40 percent of its forest land to pasture over the last four decades. Being as tropical deforestation is blamed for roughly ten percent of climate change, removing forests for food production is only furthering our loss of biodiversity worldwide.
4. The Arctic
It’s no secret that ice in the arctic isn’t doing so well in light of increasing global temperatures. In fact, temperatures in the Arctic have increased twice as fast as temperatures in the rest of the world! And since 1979, satellite records indicate a loss of Arctic sea ice at a rate of 6.9 percent per decade. As the ice melts, habitat is lost for a myriad of unique Arctic animal species including polar bears, walrus, and reindeer. But what does this loss of the Arctic have to do with food production?
The ecosystem that sits at the top of the world may be far removed from civilization, but climate change is still a very real threat. Livestock are constantly releasing carbon dioxide from respiration as well as methane from digestion which are both greenhouse gases. In fact, livestock release 44 percent of the world’s anthropogenic methane and 52 percent of the world’s anthropogenic nitrous oxide every year. The impact of livestock on this ecosystem might not be as direct as the other examples, but the sheer volume of greenhouse gases that are being released into the atmosphere because of our appetite for meat and dairy cannot be overlooked.
5. Freshwater and Local Waterways
Whether it’s a lake, river or stream, how we grow and produce the things we eat can have major impacts on freshwater ecosystems. Runoff from agricultural operations is not too kind to these habitats. Manure has historically been disastrous for bodies of water that neighbor livestock operations. Hog, cow, and chicken manure have contributed to the spread of parasites as well as massive fish die-offs. In addition, manure is the source of ammonia which can harm aquatic life. Freshwater ecosystems can also become overwhelmed by nitrates, having their natural ability to filter the nutrient out compromised as nitrate levels rise. In short, having animal-based food production in close range to streams, rivers and lakes essentially make these areas dumping grounds for all of the waste the farm itself could not absorb, thus harming wildlife in the process.
Humans are also prey to the consequences of agricultural runoff. Nitrogen from manure easily converts to nitrate which can be carried through waterways and into local water systems. Consumption of nitrate contaminated water can lead to fatal blue-baby syndrome. In addition to this, antibiotics, pesticides, and heavy salts from manure can also make their way into water systems. Remember, we’re part of the larger ecosystem as well so when our actions impact the environment, more often than not we also feel the consequences.
You Can Make a Difference With One Simple Choice
Knowing how your food choices have a very real and noticeable impact on ecosystems and wildlife all over the globe, aren’t you feeling ready to make sure your diet aligns with your environmental values? You can absolutely create big change for the better for all of our wild places.
One Green Planet believes that our global food system dominated by industrial animal agriculture is at the heart of our environmental crisis. This destructive industry currently occupies over half of the world’s arable land resources, uses the majority of our freshwater stores, and drives greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, this system causes rampant air and water pollution, land degradation, deforestation and is pushing countless species to the brink of extinction. And yet, one in eight people still suffer from food scarcity.
“The real war against ecosystem destruction is being fought on our plates, multiple times a day with every food choice we make,” says Nil Zacharias, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of One Green Planet, ”one of the biggest challenges facing our planet, and our species is that we are knowingly eating ourselves into extinction, and doing very little about it.”
As the leading organization at the forefront of the conscious consumerism movement, it is One Green Planet’s view that our food choices have the power to heal our broken food system, give species a fighting chance for survival, and pave the way for a truly sustainable future. By choosing to eat more plant-based foods, you can drastically cut your carbon footprint, save precious water supplies and help ensure that vital crop resources are fed to people, rather than livestock. With the wealth of available plant-based options available, it has never been easier to eat with the planet in mind.