Coral reefs are often seen as the tropical rainforests of the ocean. They only occupy one percent of the ocean floor and yet contain 25 percent of the ocean’s biodiversity. That amounts to roughly two million species!
And as if homing so many of the planet’s animals and plants weren’t enough, coral reefs also provide countless invaluable services. Roughly a quarter of the ocean’s fish species use coral reefs as nurseries. They also act as natural barriers to coastlines when it comes to storm surges and erosion. And they are often the center of many long-held cultural beliefs and practices around the world.
Sadly, these beautiful and important marine communities are facing their biggest threat in the history of their existence. Current coral communities descend from ancestors that began forming roughly 50 million years ago and, in that time, have not seen a foe as great as modern man. Natural threats to coral reefs come and go, but human activity is waging an unprecedented and relentless attack on these wonders of nature. And regrettably, this assault has largely to do with what choices people make in their everyday lives around food.
Corals Under Fire
There are a number of threats to coral reefs worldwide. Some threats are natural and include storms, extremely low tides, and variations in environmental factors including temperature and salinity. These threats alternate with the natural rhythms of nature. It is the man-made threats to coral reefs that are becoming especially concerning, however. These range anywhere from pollution, to gathering of fish and corals for aquariums, overfishing, fishing with harmful practices such as dynamite, and, of course, climate change.
Of all of the causes of destruction to coral reefs, it is a human diet that relies on animal protein that is especially harmful to these amazing communities. Animal agriculture contributes to massive emissions of green greenhouse gases, furthering climate change. This business also sends a massive amount of runoff waste into waterways, eventually reaching coral reef communities and doing a mountain of harm.
Climate Change and Coral Reefs
Climate change is a threat to anything and everything, coral reefs included. And animal agriculture has a lot to contribute when it comes to this problem. While exact estimates vary on just how much animal agriculture is contributing to climate change, it is cited by many as being the leading cause of climate change, even more so than transportation. So we can stand to reason that animal agriculture is also one of the biggest threats to coral reefs. But how exactly does climate change impact coral reefs?
As has been mentioned, coral can be stressed by changes in water temperature. Sometimes this element varies naturally within the ecosystem. Corals already require warm water to survive, typically in the 68- 90 degree Fahrenheit range. However, unnaturally warm waters spell disaster for coral reefs. Zooxanthellae becomes stressed by higher water temperatures, and leave their happy homes in coral polyps behind. That means a lot less food for the coral which take on a bleached look and may eventually starve and die if the zooxanthellae don’t experience cooler water and thus reason to return to coral polyps in enough time.
Climate change is also destructive to coral reefs in the increased atmospheric carbon dioxide that often ends up in the ocean. Upping the carbon dioxide dissolved in the marine ecosystem increases the acidity of the water. And this makes for a very bad situation for corals trying to form their calcium carbonate exoskeletons. Their growth slows down, eventually to a tune of 50 percent of normal capacity once carbon dioxide levels double in the water.
If corals can’t eat because they’re zooxanthellae buddies have packed their bags, and they can’t grow because the water is too acidic, the entire ecosystem is threatened. And all for someone’s hamburger or pork-chop.
There are a variety of runoff pollutants that threaten coral reefs. These include oil, industrial waste and untreated sewage that can poison the diverse species living in a coral community. Animal agriculture also provides coral reefs with a number of pollutants that cause stress and eventual death to both coral polyps and the zooxanthellae they rely on.
First, animal agriculture can cause increased nutrient inputs in the form of excess nitrogen and phosphorous into the water column. This encourages algal growth which eventually eats up oxygen and blocks out sunlight. Less oxygen is available to the variety of reef animals that need it, and organisms like zooxanthellae don’t get enough light to photosynthesize. The system becomes overloaded by only a few organisms whose populations have gone rogue, and a healthy and diverse coral reef community struggles to exist.
Sedimentation is yet another harmful impact that the animal agricultural system has on coral reefs, and produces similar results as nutrient overloads. Soil often erodes away from agricultural practices that are not maintained sustainably. It can block out sunlight, similar to excess algal growth, and make it difficult for anything in the coral reef needing photosynthesis to survive. Sediments also have the potential to carry pollutants attached their structure, smothering corals in a blanket of toxic sludge.
Finally, animal agriculture also sends a great deal of pollutants downstream, eventually coming into contact with any nearby coral reefs. To raise animals, feed crops are needed which can often rely on a great deal of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. And animals such as cows and chickens may be given antibiotics and growth hormones to maintain their health and size before slaughter. All of these extra chemicals often end up, to some degree, washing into a local waterway and potentially into a marine environment where they cause stress to coral communities, impacting early growth stages and causing coral bleaching. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that roughly one third of the Great Barrier Reef is now exposed to pesticides, making the threat of animal agriculture all too real for this natural work of art.
How Can You Help Coral?
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, like coral, to the brink of extinction. And yet, one in eight people still suffer from food scarcity.
“The real war against climate 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.
Given the major damage that animal agriculture is doing to coral reefs, doesn’t it make sense what the solution is? You have the opportunity at every meal to make choices that protect coral reefs and all the life in them from climate change and agricultural runoff. By cutting down or, ideally, cutting out animal products from your diet, you’ll be making a world of difference for these amazing ecosystems.
Our everyday 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. Join One Green Planet’s #EatForthePlanet movement.
How to Participate:
1. Choose a plant-based/vegan meal
3. Add #EatForThePlanet and @OneGreenPlanet in your update.
Let’s show the world how eating vegan/plant-based has never been easier or more delicious!
Click on the graphic below for more information
Graphic by Elizabeth Lee
Lead image source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr