In the midst of an 8 year RAN campaign on Conflict Palm Oil that’s still going strong, the vast majority of people I speak to understand the connections between consumer demand for palm oil, deforestation and species extinction. The world is finally waking up to the ways in which palm oil is threatening the very survival of amazing animals like orangutans, tigers and elephants that depend on the fragile tropical rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia. But very few people are talking about our insatiable appetite for animal products and how it’s driving some of the biggest, most egregious corporations in the world to wipe out biodiversity as we sleep.
The livestock sector is now the leading cause of reduction of biodiversity according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and a recent article in Environment Magazine. Yep, that’s right. All those cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens raised for food and dairy products.
A recent report by the Zoological Society of London, in concert with WWF International, claims that in the past 40 years 52% of all the world’s wildlife has disappeared, with agriculture, urban development, and food energy production identified as the major threats. Studies find that a third of biodiversity loss is linked to livestock production, due to deforestation and land conversion, overgrazing and degradation of grassland, and desertification. A significant portion of this degradation is due to the trend in skyrocketing growth of monoculture animal feed crops. About half of birds worldwide are currently threatened by this destruction.
There may be no other single human activity that has a bigger impact on the planet than the raising of livestock, reports Time Magazine.
Livestock production currently takes up about 30% of the planet’s ice-free land and 75% of agricultural land globally (80% of US ag land). In the US, 260 million acres have been cleared for grazing and feed, which is 3 times the entire National Parks system. Raising livestock has also helped create the system of monocrops and pesticides that’s killing off pollinators and other wildlife in the US.
Due to the USDA’s failure to adequately regulate genetically engineered (GE) crops and the increasing use of pesticides needed to grow them, recent studies have documented a dramatic decline in pollinators and soil fertility. In 2013 the European Commission (EC) imposed a two-year ban on a class of pesticides known as “neonicotinoids,” now the world’s most widely used type of insecticide. In the U.S., neonicotinoids are currently used on about 95% of corn and canola crops, the majority of cotton, sorghum, and sugar beets, about half of all soybeans, and on the vast majority of fruit and vegetable crops. These pesticides impact all species that chew a plant, sip its sap, drink its nectar, and eat its pollen or fruit; these impacts cascade through an entire ecosystem, weakening its stability.
2,4-D is one of the ingredients in the notorious “agent orange” used by the US military to spray and defoliate large areas of Vietnam, and linked to major public health impacts, both on Vietnamese civilians and US soldiers handling the chemicals. Chemical companies pushing 2,4-D resistant crops as a quick fix to the epidemic of glyphosate-resistant weeds are making matters worse.
While there is of course huge variability farm-to-farm, mainstream grazing practices also destroy native vegetation, damage soil and stream banks, and contaminate waterways. The FAO determined that 70% of grazing land in drier climates is now considered degraded. In the US, grazing is the most destructive form of land use in the West, contributing to the demise of 22% of endangered species. On public lands alone, over 175 already threatened and endangered species are further threatened by the presence of livestock.
Louie Psihoyos of Oceanic Preservation Society makes the case in the riveting documentary Racing Extinction that the biggest factor influencing mass extinction is converting natural habitat into land for food.
As humans continue to spread our tentacles of development further and further into vast reaches of the planet, for everyday products like potato chips fried in palm oil or a steak from a cow that was raised in a feedlot, we must realize that we’re quickly approaching a tipping point. It would behoove us to deeply consider our footprint on this planet and how significantly we are interfering with the natural balance of earth’s ecosystem health, biodiversity, and climate.
 H. Westhoek et al., The Protein Puzzle. The Consumption and Production of Meat, Dairy and Fish in the European Union (The Hague, The Netherlands: PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, 2011).