Plant-based Diets Needed to Slow Biodiversity Losses and Save the Natural World
By Tyler, Global Vegans
By Tyler, Global Vegans
A widespread shift towards plant-based diets could help to reduce biodiversity losses and protect the natural world, according to a new report by think tank Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Considering the effects of global farming and consumption habits on natural ecosystems, the Food system impacts of biodiversity loss report calls the global food system the ‘primary driver’ of declining biodiversity.1 More specifically, it considers the far-reaching effects of an agricultural industry that relies on and stimulates demand for cheap food production - and how a shift towards plant-based eating could mitigate the ecological damage caused.
Describing a ‘cheaper food’ paradigm, Chatham House analyses the unsettling cycle of mass food production responsible for accelerating the devastation of our planet.
As global populations increase, so does the demand for inexpensive and readily accessible food products. In middle and high-income countries, meat and dairy products in particular are quickly becoming more popular. To meet this growth, farmers are being forced to convert more habitable land into crop fields and pasture and encouraged to use yield-enhancing insecticides and fertilisers.
These harmful chemicals severely weaken land quality and make it more challenging to keep up with the widespread demand for crops and animal products. This unsustainable cycle further lowers food production costs and leaves farmers reliant upon harmful and destructive farming practices.
Speaking to CNN, Tim Benton - one of the authors behind the report - said: "As we grow more food, it becomes economically rational to waste it, over eat the calories and feed grain to livestock so we can eat more meat.”
According to the report, which was published in February 2021, the conversion of forests, wilderness and other natural areas into land for agriculture has been the leading force behind habitat loss for the past 50 years. This has greatly impacted the biodiversity we rely on for oxygen, water and natural food sources.
Unlike the effects of climate change, the extinction of essential animal, bacteria and plant species is irreversible. Yet, without high levels of rich biodiversity, natural ecosystems will cease to exist as we know them.
Unfortunately, this change is already happening at an astonishing rate, largely motivated by intensive farming, hunting and pollution.
Worryingly, human consumption habits and unsustainable behaviours are accelerating biodiversity losses both on land and at sea. Today, more than a quarter of known mammal species, 41% of amphibian species and 13% of bird species2 are under threat of extinction, and in 2018, it was reported that commercial fishing now targets more than 50% of the ocean.3
Perhaps one of the most alarming statistics linking farming to biodiversity decline is that agriculture is a threat to 24,000 of the 28,000 species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. This isn’t particularly surprising, given that more than 50% of the planet’s habitable land is now dedicated to agriculture.4 This is in comparison to just 1% for urban environments, showing that the land used to produce food greatly outweighs the land used to house human populations.
It is now estimated that 88% of species will lose habitat due to agriculture by 2050, with some of the most significant losses predicted to hit Sub-saharan Africa, equatorial West Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia.5
According to researchers, changing our consumption habits could help to curb the worrying rate at which we are contributing to harmful biodiversity losses. Specifically, we need to adopt primarily plant-based ways of eating, which can be sustained using significantly less land and fewer resources than meat diets.
It is no secret that animal farming is extremely resource-intensive, despite accounting for only a fraction of the world’s calorie intake. In 2009, it was recorded that animal products accounted for just 37% of the protein consumed by people across the globe, despite being responsible for more than 75% of farming land use.6
According to the Food system impacts of biodiversity loss report, reducing global meat consumption will not only free up huge areas of habitable land for eco-systems to thrive, but also slow down the alarming effects of climate change. What’s more, this dietary shift could help to improve the health of communities across the world and minimise the risk of future pandemics, which are becoming more common as a result of growing zoonotic disease transmission rates.
The report also stresses the importance of promoting agricultural practices that support and stimulate biodiversity, which could see a move away from monoculture farming methods.
The science is clear: swapping meat-heavy diets for plant-based approaches is the only way to prevent irreversible environmental damage. It’s up to society to stop ignoring the facts.
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1. Tim G. Benton and others, Food System Impacts On Biodiversity Loss, Energy, Environment And Resources Programme, 2021 <https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/2021-02/2021-02-03-food-system-biodiversity-loss-benton-et-al_0.pdf> [Accessed 28 February 2021].
2. Damian Carrington, "What Is Biodiversity And Why Does It Matter To Us?", The Guardian, 2021 <https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/12/what-is-biodiversity-and-why-does-it-matter-to-us> [Accessed 28 February 2021].
3. Juliette Jowit, "Half Of World's Oceans Now Fished Industrially, Maps Reveal", The Guardian, 2021 <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/22/half-of-worlds-oceans-now-fished-industrially-maps-reveal> [Accessed 28 February 2021].
4. Hannah Ritchie, "50% Of All Land In The World Is Used To Produce Food", World Economic Forum, 2021 <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/12/agriculture-habitable-land/> [Accessed 28 February 2021].
5. David Williams and Michael Clark, "Almost 90% Of The World's Animal Species Will Lose Some Habitat To Agriculture By 2050", The Conversation, 2021 <https://theconversation.com/almost-90-of-the-worlds-animal-species-will-lose-some-habitat-to-agriculture-by-2050-152362> [Accessed 28 February 2021].
6. Janet Ranganathan, "Animal-Based Foods Are More Resource-Intensive Than Plant-Based Foods", World Resources Institute, 2021 <https://www.wri.org/resources/charts-graphs/animal-based-foods-are-more-resource-intensive-plant-based-foods> [Accessed 28 February 2021].