Our modern-day food system bears little resemblance to the way humans have traditionally provided sustenance for themselves and their families. In times gone by, most human communities around the globe were supplied with food by small farms and land holdings within the area. However, with the advent of modern crop-growing technologies in the twentieth century – together with an unprecedented explosion in the planet’s human population during this century – food production became highly industrialized and mechanized.
The use of artificial pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemical products in modern-day agriculture is widespread. At the same time, there has also been a push toward consuming far more meat and dairy produce than our ancestors would have had available to them. The vast majority of this meat and dairy comes from animals who have been raised and slaughtered on cruel factory farms, where they are deprived of any opportunity to express their natural instincts. The use of genetic engineering to maximize the size of farm animals has become more and more prevalent. Recent decades have also witnessed a massive growth in the production of highly processed food products that bear little resemblance to anything that humans would have eaten in the past.
There are many indications that this has taken a huge toll on our health. In the developed world, rates of obesity, heart disease, strokes, and cancer have risen dramatically over the past few decades. Much of this increase has been linked to our dietary habits – in particular, our high consumption of meat products. In 2015, processed meat products such as bacon, ham, salami, sausages, and beef jerky were listed as class I carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a sub-agency of the United Nations’ World Health Organization. Fresh red meats like steak, pork, and lamb were listed as class 2a carcinogens, as they are associated with pancreatic, prostate, and colorectal cancer.
However, the negative impacts of our food system are not just felt by humans, or even by the unquantifiable number of animals who lose their lives to this system every single day. Habitat loss, species extinction, and acceleration of climate change are just a few of the devastating effects that our eating habits have had on the planet. Ancient rainforest has been cleared at an unprecedented rate over the past few decades in order to make way for cattle ranches. The animal agriculture industry occupies 45 percent of the Earth’s total land area, while 33 percent of the planet’s arable land is exclusively devoted to growing livestock feed. Not to mention, the livestock industry is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector – and it uses a majority if the world’s fresh water.
There is one highly significant victim of our food system that is seldom acknowledged, but without which we would not be able to sustain our lives as we know them: the oceans. How exactly are they impacted by our eating habits?
1. Our Modern-Day Food System Generates High Levels of Greenhouse Gas Emissions that Accelerate Climate Change
Without the oceans, life as we know it would be impossible. They regulate our climate, provide sustenance to millions of people around the world, produce 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe, and serve as a home to vast numbers of wild animals, birds, fish and crustaceous species, all of whom play a pivotal role in managing the particular oceanic ecosystem to which they are adapted. The oceans also absorb approximately 30 percent of the greenhouse gases we produce … and this, sadly, is proving to be their downfall.
Since the later years of the eighteenth century (when the Industrial Revolution began), planetary emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide have steadily risen. The natural function of these gases is to exert a warming “greenhouse” effect on the Earth’s atmosphere by trapping a certain amount of heat from the sun. However, these gases are now having an overly powerful effect on the atmosphere, thanks to rapid clearing of the planet’s rainforests (which naturally act as carbon sinks that regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere by storing any excess amounts of the gas), together with humans’ increased reliance on fossil-fuel-based industrial activity. Beef production in the Amazon rainforest is one example of how our food system has contributed to this problem. Cattle ranching occupies an estimated 80 percent of the deforested land area of this rainforest. About 232,000 square miles of Amazonian rainforest have been cleared since 1970 alone. At present, the Amazon rainforest holds 90 to 140 billion metric tons of carbon that would further increase the worldwide rate of climate change if it were to be released.
Since 1950, the increased prevalence of greenhouse gases has caused the Earth’s average yearly temperature to increase by one degree Fahrenheit. Last year, it emerged that our greenhouse gas emissions have even managed to cancel the next Ice Age, set to take place in 50,000 years’ time! When the oceans absorb this higher concentration of greenhouse gases, they become warmer and more acidic (due to the excess carbon dioxide being converted into carbonic acid). This is driving the loss of many marine species who require cooler, more alkaline environments in order to thrive. Oceanic acidification is also damaging and killing vital coral reefs (which serve as a habitat for an incredible 25 percent of the world’s marine species).
Researchers from the University of British Columbia have recently discovered that climate change will have a negative impact on 89 percent of the world’s fishing countries. Sadly, the hardest hit countries will be small island nations such as Tuvalu or Kiribati, where residents rely on seafood as a primary means of sustenance, in comparison to the situation in developed countries, where high seafood consumption is largely a matter of taste preference, instead of an important means of survival.
2. High Levels of Pesticide Use Lead to the Creation of Oceanic “Dead Zones.”
Eutrophication – a process whereby an environment becomes enriched with nutrients – occurs when excess nutrients enter a stream, river or ocean, encouraging algae growth on the surface of the water. These excess nutrients commonly come from nitrogen- and phosphorus-based fertilizers, which are used to speed up the growth of plants intended for human and animal consumption. As the algae spreads, it forms large algal blooms on the water’s surface. Unfortunately, these blooms typically absorb nearly all of the dissolved oxygen content in the water, rendering that environment incapable of supporting its other forms of plant and animal life.
Algal blooms can also be hazardous to marine life because of the toxins they produce. If the bloom is made up of an algae species that produces toxins, it is known as a Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB), which can cause disease and death to shellfish, turtles, marine birds, animals, and fish. HABs can also be extremely dangerous to people if they enter human drinking water supplies. An area with a high amount of HABs or other algal blooms is typically unable to sustain life, and becomes known as a dead zone. In 2014, it was estimated by One World One Ocean that around 405 dead zones exist in our world’s seas.
Animal agriculture has been heavily implicated in this phenomenon, due to the large volumes of fertilized feed crops that need to be produced in order to make farmed animals reach their slaughter weight as well as the sheer volume of excrement produced by farm animals. Last year, it was revealed that a single animal agribusiness corporation – Tyson Foods Inc. – dumped 104 million pounds of pollutants (including nitrates, fertilizer run-off, chemicals, and animal waste) into U.S. waterways from 2010 to 2014. This figure was significantly higher than the pollutants dumped by oil and gas giant ExxonMobil.
The number of dead zones is set to double every ten years if our current rate of pesticide run-off and nitrogen pollution continues, with many researchers believing that our oceans could be more dead than alive in forty years’ time.
3. Our High Appetite for Seafood Could Leave the Oceans Empty of All Life Within the Next Few Decades
Overfishing is another grave threat to the health of our oceans and the animals who inhabit them. Aggressive modern-day commercial fishing methods such as long line fishing, bottom trawling, and the usage of purse seine nets often devastate large areas of a targeted oceanic ecosystem by removing far more fish than was intended.
A sobering study published in the Nature Communications Journal last year found that fish catch levels around the world have been, on average, 50 percent higher than official estimates by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The study revealed that global fish catch levels peaked in the mid-1990s at 130 million metric tons, and have been strongly declining since then, “due to countries fishing too much and having exhausted one fish after the other.” The 2010 global catch level was approximately 109 million tons.
Untargeted marine animal species, such as sharks, small whales, dolphins, and rays, frequently end up entangled in commercial fishing trawlers’ nets as “bycatch” – in spite of the fact that they are not usually the intended catch species. Around 40 percent of a typical fishing fleet’s catch is made up of these animals, who often die as a result of the shock and trauma of being pulled from their homes. Meanwhile, an estimated 80 percent of the oceans’ fish stocks are fully- or over-exploited. Many conservation experts believe that our oceans could be empty of fish by the year 2048 … but the truly chilling news is that even if they do not become devoid of life by that date, they could end up containing more plastic than fish.
4. Plastic Food Wrappings Are Anything But Convenient for Marine Animals
Sadly, even the material that is used to wrap most of our food can cause enormous problems for marine wildlife. Plastic pollution is one of the most serious threats currently being faced by oceanic ecosystems. The human addiction to convenience, in the form of plastic bags, bottles, microbeads, synthetic clothing materials, cups, drinking straws, and food packages – to name just a few of the many plastic items that we use and discard every day – are threatening 700 marine species with extinction. 270,000 tons of plastic debris cover the surface of our oceans, while an estimated 8.8 million tons of trash make their way into the oceans every single year.
In the North Pacific Ocean alone, marine animals end up ingesting between 12,000 and 24,000 tons of plastic, with results that are often fatal. Worldwide, about 100,000 marine animals consume plastic every year. This has knock-on effects for those who eat seafood, as these tiny fragments of plastic travel up the food chain and ultimately find their way into human digestive systems, having picked up a variety of dangerous water-borne chemicals during their travels.
What Can You Do to Help?
One of the most powerful steps that you can take, as an individual, is to reduce or end your consumption of meat and dairy products. It has been estimated that one person who decides to leave meat and dairy off their plates for a year could slash their carbon footprint in half and save 200,000 gallons of freshwater resources. You can go further by choosing to stop consuming fish and other seafood, which will help lower the demand for these products and save vulnerable marine ecosystems. Cutting down on your usage of plastic is another important action you can take to help preserve the health of our oceans. While it may seem daunting to make these changes to the way we live our everyday lives, it is vital that we make an effort, for the sake of our ability to continue existing on this planet. The sad truth of the matter is that if the oceans die … we die.
The good news is we can all make a difference with our daily habits, join One Green Planet’s #CrushPlastic Campaign to learn more.
For more information on the connection between animal agriculture and the oceans, check out these resources:
- Animal Agriculture – Killing More Than Just Cows. How Farm Run-Off Threatens Marine Life
- What Does Your Love for Cheese Have to Do With Dying Coral Reefs?
- These 5 Charts Show Us Exactly How Important it is to #EatForThePlanet
- One Green Planet’s #EatforthePlanet Campaign
- 10 Alarming Facts About Overfishing
- How Our Obsession With Convenience Impacts Marine Animals
For more information on how your food choices impact the world’s ecosystems, check out the #EatForThePlanet book:
Lead Image Source: Wikimedia Commons