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What do monarch butterflies, honeybees, rainforest habitats, orangutans, and songbirds in the tropics have in common? The average, uninformed grocery consumer is negatively affecting them all.

In this day and age where technology reigns, agribusinesses are not only affecting ecosystems in our own backyard, but also in far-flung regions around the world as well with the overuse of pesticides and habitat-destroying farming practices.

However, as consumers, we can educate ourselves and make more environmentally responsible choices that help the planet and its other inhabitants!

Here’s a guide to several wildlife-unfriendly food choices to avoid and why, and some easy substitutions you can make that are more environmentally responsible and allow you to consciously make a better choice for the planet.

1. Help monarch butterflies by saying good riddance to genetically modified corn, soybeans, and their derivatives by opting for non-GMO products instead

Why? These “Roundup ready” crops are contributing to declining monarch butterfly populations across the country.

Monarchs engage in one of the longest annual migrations in the animal world, flying from the southern reaches of Canada down to Mexico for the winter, then back northward again in the spring.  Dependent on the milkweed plant for every stage of its life cycle, its host plant is being destroyed by large-scale agriculture and the pervasive spraying of glyphosate herbicide or “Roundup.”

Through genetic modification, most modern corn and soybeans have been created to be immune to the effects of this herbicide, while the naturally occurring, non-modified plants (a.k.a. “weeds”) are effectively killed, including the vital milkweed.  With large-scale areas now devoid of the monarch’s host plant, the population is dwindling.

What you can do: Avoid GMO corn, soybeans, and the products that are derived from them (corn syrup, soybean oil, etc.). There are many environmentally conscious companies out there today that pledge not to use GMO ingredients in their products, so take advantage of these options and don’t contribute to the decline of the monarch! Planting a Monarch Waystation in your backyard is a great idea too!

2. Help honeybees by purchasing organic produce and avoiding neonicontinoid pesticides

Why? These pesticides have decimated our native honeybee population. With $14.6 billion worth of crops in the U.S. dependent on pollination by honeybees, a huge portion of our agricultural system relies on these insects. It is believed that this particular pesticide affects the immune system of the honeybees, rendering them unnaturally susceptible to illness, disease, and death.

What you can do: By purchasing organic produce and avoiding this pesticide, you will be supporting sustainable agriculture methods and helping the honeybee population too! If you want to do even more to help these invaluable pollinators, devote a section of your garden to bee-loving plants.

3. Help Support the world’s rainforests by choosing sustainably-sourced chocolate

Why? The practice of harvesting unsustainable cacao, the raw beans from which chocolate is produced, has devastating effects on the rainforest. Native cacao trees grow in the shaded understory beneath the canopy and have a lifespan of approximately 100 years. Advances in agriculture have now allowed for the development of a tree that grows in full sun and produces a higher yield, but has a lifespan of only 30 years or so.

To accommodate this new variety, invaluable acres of rainforest are clear-cut. Pesticide and herbicide use is prevalent, leading to contamination of the land and water. As the trees age, stop producing, and die, more rainforest is cleared to acquire land for new plantings and so continues the destructive cycle.

This deforestation affects the entire ecosystem, particularly migratory birds that use the rainforest as their overwintering grounds. And of course, with entire habitats destroyed, the other countless rainforest residents such as reptiles, insects, and mammals are impacted as well.

What you can do: Indulge sustainably! Check out the National Confectioner’s Association’s guide to the major chocolate companies and their stances and efforts (or lack thereof) toward producing a more sustainable product. If your favorite brand doesn’t make the cut, switch to one that does!

4. Help endangered orangutans by avoiding palm oil and by purchasing more sustainable alternatives

Why? The palm oil industry not only destroys precious tropical rainforest habitat, but it is also a main cause of the population plummet of the orangutan. Palm oil trees can grow in any tropical region, but nearly 90 percent of palm oil is produced in the biodiversity hotspots of Malaysia and Indonesia. Over 90 percent of orangutan habitat has been lost in the last 20 years, and if current trends hold, the population will be extinct within five to 10 years.

Due to its affordability and availability, palm oil is present in almost half of all household goods in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and England, from foods to toothpaste to laundry detergents.

What you can do: Avoid all products containing palm oil; certain loopholes allow some companies to be labeled “Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified” or “Green Palm” while still contributing negatively to the environment. Look out instead for products that use sustainable oil alternatives such as coconut, peanut, soy, or canola as replacement ingredients for palm oil.

5. Help migratory songbirds by switching from conventionally grown coffee to sustainably grown shade coffee

Why? Coffee plants originally evolved as a shade-loving shrub found only in the understory of tropical rainforests. Now, advances in genetic agricultural engineering have allowed scientists to create a sun-tolerant plant, which increases bean production and thus generates more profits for conventional growers.

Pesticides are used heavily on modern coffee plantations and soil erosion is common. As is the case with all habitat loss, many species suffer, but migratory birds are especially affected by land loss associated with modern coffee production. Over 150 migratory bird species have seen a 50 percent drop in their populations as a direct result of the switch from cultivating shade grown to sun grown coffee.

What you can do: Opt for the better tasting, more environmentally responsible shade grown varieties. Not only is it better for the planet, but small-scale local farmers will benefit also. Look for packaging that indicates the product is bird-friendly, shade grown, organic, or fair trade.

These small changes can have big impacts. Being informed and adopting a more sustainable diet is good for everyone — humans, wildlife, and the planet as a whole!

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Image source: William Warby / Flickr