It may seem like the simple act of buying a product as one individual has little impact on animals and ecosystems, but single acts practiced by many individuals accumulate into massive worldwide problems.
For decades we’ve heard of animal extinctions caused by human activity, but it is only more recently that explicit connections are being made between the consumption of particular foods and ingredients, and particular animals.
As particular foods and ingredients are consumed by a growing human population, the factors affecting the endangerment of species are exacerbated. Knowing which foods and ingredients are connected to which forms of environmental destruction is the first step in aligning our consumption habits with animal protection and sustainability. Here are five things to avoid to save the earth’s species.
Wolves are constantly under threat within the United States as they are perceived as a threat to livestock. Wolves are being targeted in an extermination campaign sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to protect cattle interests. The Mexican Grey Wolf has already gone extinct in southwestern ecosystems due to “predator control systems” crafted to protect livestock.
Similarly, wild horses, despite being outnumbered by cattle fifty to one, are considered grazing competitors on public lands where grazing rights are purchased from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) by cattle ranchers. Wild horses are round up and killed to preserve grazing areas for cattle.
The threat that beef production poses to wildlife also extends to the tropics, where deforestation is putting jaguars on the brink of extinction. As deforestation drives the destruction of jaguar habitat, it also destroys the habitat of its natural prey, leading jaguar to untypically prey on domestic cattle. This means that jaguars are dually threatened by deforestation itself and by direct hunting when they threaten the bottom line for cattle interests. So, raising cows for human consumption is dangerous not only for cows, of course, but also for wildlife.
2. Palm Oil
As the highest yielding vegetable oil crop, palm oil is cheap and efficient. With over 50 percent of processed foods containing palm oil and its prevalence in other commercial goods like soaps and dog food, palm oil production is taking its toll on ecosystems and wildlife. While efforts are being undertaken to produce sustainable palm oil, it’s current rate of use coupled with its currently destructive production practices mean that unless we change our practices immediately, these may be the last days of some of our beloved earthlings.
Perhaps the most notable species to be decimated by the palm oil industry is the orangutan. These cuties, with which we share 96.4 percent of our, are victims of habitat destruction. The dominant method of making room for more oil palms is to slash and burn. The result is the direct killing of orangutans by fire as well as over 80 percent of their habitat being destroyed in just the last 20 years. This leaves them with an estimated 25 years to extinction.
Similarly, deforestation to produce palm oil has taken its toll on the tigers of Sumatra and Malaysia. In just two years time, from 2009 to 2011, approximately two-thirds of Sumatran tiger habit was overcome by palm oil plantations. The result is that fewer than 400 wild tigers are left in existence.
3. Commercial Fishing
As Richard Oppenlander has stated, the current state of our oceans means that all fishing is overfishing. While some may find it difficult to empathize with the fish we eat – despite the fact that current research indicates their sentience beyond the shadow of a doubt – who doesn’t love dolphins, whales and turtles? Well, these are the creatures threatened when we purchase commercial fish.
Destructive fishing practices include: bottom trawling, which involves massive dragnets that sweep the ocean from floor to roof; poison fishing, which involves injecting cyanide and other chemicals into reef crevices to scare fish out into the open; and dynamite or blast fishing, which involves explosives that kill fish who are then captured from the surface water.
In addition to destroying coral reefs and plant life, which itself threatens the foundation of marine ecosystems, these methods are responsible for the direct killing of huge numbers of fish, turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals, many of which are already endangered. Over 7 million tons of marine life is caught and killed annually as an unintentional result of commercial fishing. This results in the injury or death of over 650,000 marine mammals every year.
4. Non-Organic Corn and Corn Products
While we’re increasingly aware of the negative effects of pesticides for human health, their mass use in industrial farming has also posed significant threats to other earthlings, particularly the tiny black and yellow foundation of plant life on earth, the bee.
The mass collapse of bee colonies has become a focus of scientific scrutiny over recent decades as we’ve witnessed the disappearance of as many as 96 percent of four of the most common bumblebees in the U.S., while hundreds of other bee species have gone extinct.
While theories on “colony collapse disorder” range from blaming viruses to pollution to cell phones, the theory that currently holds the most weight involves a class of pesticides called “neonicotinoids.” One study found a 94 percent collapse rate in colonies exposed to this kind of pesticide.
Corn is one of the crops that is most affected by this class of pesticides. Almost all corn grown today is Bt corn, developed by Monsanto. Bt corn has been genetically modified to include pesticide-resistance from seed. When this insecticide is ingested by bees, the Bt binds to receptors within the bee’s stomach lining and prevents him from eating.
With only a small fraction of corn feeding people directly, in order to avoid the consumption of Bt corn we must take into account its role in producing high fructose corn syrup, a cheap sweetener added to many processed foods, and animal foods, where 30 percent of the world’s corn is used as feed.
5. Shark Cartilage and Shark Liver Oil
Like other marine life, sharks are often killed as bycatch by the fishing industry. But there are two additional products that are pushing sharks toward extinction, in the form of supplements and cosmetics, with properties that we can obtain from cruelty-free sources.
The first is shark cartilage, or chondroitin sulphate, which can also be sourced from other animals, such as cattle. From wound healing to relief from intestinal inflammation to a cure for cancer, this supplement is being touted as a cure-all, effectively making it the new snake oil.
Despite industry claims that this is merely a by-product of the shark fin and shark meat industry, the species targeted for the highest quality supplement is the blue shark, whose meat is not consumed due to high urea levels.
The second product to decimate shark populations is shark liver oil, used in cosmetics and advertised for its high content of essential fatty acids. Not surprisingly, it is also touted as a cure for cancer. Shark oil supplements are often mislabeled as fish oil to hide the questionable sourcing behind the product. And, like all fish-based omega-3 supplements, they are contributing to the destruction of marine ecosystems.
As long profits can be obtained from any and all shark species for any and all parts of shark bodies, we can expect that commercial fishing will continue to kill over 100 million sharks per year. The result is that several species are now considered vulnerable or endangered.
With so many plant-based alternatives to every traditional food, ingredient, supplement and cosmetic product, we can change our consumption habits to benefit endangered species and put a halt to the largest mass extinction event in 65 million years. Every individual act either contributes to the problem or is part of the solution.
Lead image sources: Sky Slicer/Flickr, Jerry Mercier/Flickr, Eric Kilby/Flickr, Mark Dumont/Flickr, Roger Smith/Flickr, Byron Chin/Flickr, Michael Dawes/Flickr, deeje/Flickr, Treesha Duncan/Flickr, Matt Kieffer/Flickr