How Sheep, Cows, and Goats Kill Tens of Thousands of Species
In a hurry? Skim to the heading you like :-) Or see this summary.
Airports, ports, transport of all sorts are desperately blockaded. 🚧 It’s the last attempt to prevent the spread of the deadly virus from Asia.
This is not the story of COVID-19. It’s instead the plot of John Christopher’s novel from 60 years ago, The Death of Grass.
In the novel, Christopher describes a plant virus that was deadly to the world’s cereal crops — like wheat, rice, corn, etc. 🌾
- Due to this, massive famines start in Asia.
- The Americas try severe quarantines to stop the virus from reaching them.
- But as the virus spreads, anarchy and looting starts.
- Governments plan to bomb major cities as a form of population control. 😶
- And people frantically try to grow potatoes as a source of food.
By the way, cereal crops made up over 35 percent of the world’s crop production in 2020 (Source). Ie. Our agricultural system really does have such little biodiversity, plant viruses are a real-world threat. And though Christopher’s novel is science-fiction, could you really say this sci-fi nightmare doesn’t seem at least 1% plausible?
And that worries me. 😕 I’m not ready to live in a world where it seems at least 1% plausible that such an extreme disaster could happen. That’s why I’m writing this article on how to fix the cause behind such extreme disasters: biodiversity loss.
Biodiversity loss is a neglected area of environmentalism. You don’t hear many dire news reports about it. But its damage is even more permanent than climate change, plastic pollution, etc.
Once we lose a species, we lose it forever.
It’s like how we lose time in life. We cannot get it back. But the clock is always ticking down. We’re currently losing species around 1000x faster than the natural rate (Source) 😱
The only time we can solve this problem is NOW! Not by 2030 or 2050. NOW. So I’ll now show which actions need to be taken and why. A few questions I’ll answer:
- Why does losing species matter?
- What is threatening biodiversity the most? 😿
- Which solutions try to fix that?
- Why are the current solutions not enough?
- What can we do next?
Why does losing species matter?
There are three big benefits that ecosystems with biodiverse species bring.
Biodiversity Helps us Earn Money 💰
Half of the world’s GDP ($44T USD) is highly or moderately dependent on nature’s services. (pg. 103)
Does that sound too big? Here are some examples to show why biodiversity has such a large impact:
- $235B — 577B USD of annual crop production are at risk from pollinator loss. (Source)
- 70% of cancer drugs are inspired by nature. (Source) 💉
- Fish consumption provides 3.3 billion people with at least 20% of their protein. And fisheries employ 59.5 million people. (pg. 70)
This is also true for even one species! Mangrove trees provide $65B in flood protection benefits every year. If they were lost, 15 million more people would be flooded per year! 🌊 (Source)
Biodiversity Maintains OUR Habitat (Not Just Other Animals’)
In ecology language, ‘biodiversity provides ecosystem services.’
To be more blunt:
Without biodiversity keeping the environment livable, humans would die (period). 💀
For more concrete examples, here are how a few species help us:
- Regulating air quality and regulating climate. Ex: Micro-organisms called diatoms produce 20% of Earth’s oxygen every year. This is more oxygen than all forests produce! (Source)
- Pollinating and dispersing seeds. Ex: 80% of crop pollination comes from 2% of bee species. (pg. 21) 🐝 A decline in bee species diversity hugely harms our food production!
- Foming and protecting soil. Ex: In a single gram of soil, there are thousands of species of bacteria. (Source) Scientists have no clue what 99.99% of the species in soil do. (pg. 34) Yet, we need some soil quality to grow food, build homes, build roads, and more!
- Regulating natural disasters. Ex: 200M people rely on coral reefs to protect them from storm surges (pg. 70) Multiple island nations are literally sinking into the ocean without species to protect them 😱
The More Species, the More Innovation
Specifically, the novel innovations are called ‘biomimicry’: reusing nature’s innovations for our purposes.
This can be as ‘real’ as using the shapes of streamlined animal bodies in engineering designs. And as ‘abstract’ as using ant communication in social media networks. 💭 There are hundreds of examples! But to name just three:
- Several medicines are found from fungi. Fungi make molecules to compete with other species. In fact, researchers analysed just 24 fungal species and found 1000 ‘bioactive’ molecules! These are molecules that affect other forms of life… Ie. they could help create new drugs. (Source)
- Honey bees send ‘scouts’ to search for food. If the scouts find food, they return to the hive and vibrate. 🔊 Then, other bees follow the scout to the food and repeat the same vibrations when they get back. Over time, they reach ‘consensus’ on where to go! Delivery companies are copying this strategy to find the best route for product deliveries (Source)
- Moths have tiny spikes (200–300 nm long) on their eyes. These act like tiny ‘guide rails’ that trap light rays. So light doesn’t reflect off of moths’ eyes. Now, NASA is using spikes like moths on a space telescope! 😮 It stops light from bouncing off the telescope so it can be detected. (Source)
Again, without biodiversity, we wouldn’t be alive! So which issues do we need to fix that threaten it?
What threatens biodiversity the most?
Five main issues:
- Habitat loss
- Invasive species
- Climate change
But habitat loss is the biggest threat to 85% of threatened and endangered species. 😱
And when we look at population decreases for species (a slighly different metric), it’s the same picture:
Since habitat loss is the biggest issue right now, I’ll focus on it. But note that the other issues also have massive costs and some are growing rapidly. As one sidenote, the cost of damages caused by invasive species is growing 6x every decade. 😱 It’s estimated at over $50B/year globally. (Source)
Still, to focus on habitat loss:
- It’s what you imagine. Species can’t live in an area if we build a road on it or cut down its trees or mine it for resources, etc.
- But to appease biologists yelling at me, ‘habitat loss’ isn’t the proper term and the general issue is ‘modifying habitats in any way’. 👀
So what causes habitat loss?
The majority is caused by land use for agriculture. Specifically, ‘grazing’ lands for cows, sheep, and goats. Here are some numbers:
- Note how 49% of habitable land is used for agriculture.
- 78% of that is tied to animal agriculture — 67% for grazing lands specifically (Source).
- And basically all grazing lands are used for cows, sheep, and goats. (Source)
So why do cows, sheep, and goats need so much land?? 😕
The issue is that factory farms also require a lot of ‘input’. Energy use, water use, construction costs, equipment costs, processed feed, etc. (Source) In much of the developing world, it’s cheaper to start raising cows, sheep, or goats by letting them eat/drink whatever’s in the environment.
Also, 2/3 of the world’s agricultural land is ‘non-arable’ (Source and pg. 8). This means the land only grows inedible plants like grasses, not human food. BUT cows, sheep, and goats have extra stomachs for digesting plants like grasses that we can’t digest. So for each farmer, it makes sense to put the land to some use by growing livestock.
But natural ecosystems don’t have a say here. For them, it would be better for farmers to leave non-arable land unused! 😮 Unfortunately for them, this doesn’t happen. And even worse, more natural ecosystems (and the species they house) are being destroyed to grow livestock.
Meat Consumption Kickstarts Biodiversity Loss
As the most important example, 60–75% of new grazing land in Latin America is from cleared forests. (Source) This is the worst place for that! 😖 7 of the world’s ‘biodiversity hotspots’ are in Latin America.
And it’s not just Latin America. By 2050, several developing countries are expected to increase the amount of land they use for raising livestock by over 30%! 😱 They include China, the Philippines, Ecuador, and Brazil. (Source)
Why such large increases? Because meat and milk production is set to expand >45% (outpacing population growth) from 2000 to 2030. (Source) And cows, sheep, and goats make up nearly all milk production and 25% of meat production.
RECAP: Growing demand for products made from cows, sheep, and goats → increased grazing lands → habitat loss → Biodiversity loss 😵
SO — to stop the whole chain, we have to reduce demand for products made from cows, sheep, and goats. Starting with food products.
This doesn’t automatically fix existing habitat loss, but prevents more from happening.
Reducing meat/dairy demand is the PREREQUISITE to fixing biodiversity loss
P.S. There are MANY other reasons to reduce meat/dairy demand besides fixing land usage and biodiversity loss. See here for details. Anyways, it’s extra great to work on this problem 😊
Current solutions to reduce animal products?
*When I say ‘animal products’ from now on, I mean meat and dairy from sheep, cows, and goats. This covers the most ‘problematic’ animal products. But I won’t keep writing that out 😁
Let me introduce you to:
The three R’s of reducing animal product s— replace, remove, reduce.
We can REPLACE Animal Products with Substitutes
The point is that the substitutes resemble meats without containing animal-based products. Ie. Same price, same taste, same nutrition, etc.
There are two ways this is done:
- Cell-based products grow tissue from animal cells instead of living animals. Think laboratories instead of factory farms. Details here.
- Plant-based products combine many plant-based ingredients to mimic animal products. For meat, it starts with proteins from plants like soy, peas, or wheat. 🌾 Then, many other ingredients are added to make the plant protein have meat’s flavour, colour, texture, nutrition, etc.
These alternatives are much better for the planet than most meat!
We Can REMOVE Animal Products from Diets
Here, we don’t try to mimic animal products at all. We just change which dishes we eat. A commission of nutrition experts call one alternative The Planetary Health Diet. It could:
- Feed 10 billion people
- Stop the destruction of existing ecosystems
- Reduce premature mortality by 10–11 million each year
- Ensure all adequate nutrition
- And still provide variety for different dishes! 😋
Here’s what it looks like:
Asides from completely changing diets, people also change specific parts of diets. Ex: People started eating meat replacements like tofu or seitan 2500 years ago (Source) More recently, there are also several milk substitutes like almond milk, soy milk, rice milk, … (Source)
We Can REDUCE Animal Product Purchases
This is the ‘indirect’, ‘sneaky’, or ‘path of least resistance’ approach — depending on who you ask 😁
Basically, you use subtle ‘nudges’ (technical term: behavioural interventions) to change consumer’s purchasing behaviours. Some examples:
- Reduce the serving size of meat so people buy less meat overall. Ex: 13% less meat in restaurant dishes = 13% less meat consumed (Source)
- Make plant-based products more ‘visible’ by adding them to the top of the menu, amidst regular meat in supermarkets, etc. (Source) Ex: In 60 Kroger stores, putting plant-based meats next to regular meat raised their sales 23%. (Source)
- Personalised counselling to encourage lower meat consumption. Like sharing meat-free recipes or text message reminders ☎️ (Source)
Though there are also less ‘field-tested’ ideas. Ex: Tax meat purchases, provide discounts on plant-based meals, include plant-based meat alternatives in celebrity endorsements or TV in general, and more. (Source)
Why aren’t these solutions enough?
There are four main barriers
#1 CURRENTLY, Alternatives Cost Too Much 💸😢
Animal product alternatives grown from cells in the lab can cost tens of thousands of dollars per pound!
Yes, this will decrease in the future. But ‘cell-based’ products aren’t even near ready to make a dent in the issue in 2022. (Source) So I’ll conveniently stop talking about them now 😁
Plant-based products, though, already (almost) do the job. Ex: Plant-based meat alternatives are on the higher end of regular meat prices. The largest plant-based meat company, Beyond Meat, sells its product for $5.70/lb. Compared to $4–6/lb for regular meat. (Source)
Still, the good news is plant-based meat alternatives will likely be cheaper than regular meat eventually!
- The ‘raw input’ for plant-based meat (wheat protein, soy protein, etc.) costs 4–12 times less than animal proteins. 😊
- The main cost in plant-based meats is processing raw inputs. Ex: they use 2–3x as much energy to produce as pig/chicken meat (Source) 😕
- So reduce those processing costs (which many companies are working on) and this issue will go away. 😊
#2 CURRENTLY, Most Alternatives are Unheard Of
When it comes to ‘nudges’ to reduce people’s animal product purchases — the strategies are basically 100% restricted to academia.
Companies and nonprofits do use other strategies to change people’s behaviour (ex: gamification). Those, however, aren’t supported by meat consumption research.
Scientists have researched, but not used solutions. And companies/nonprofits have used, but not researched solutions.
You could call it a literal chicken or the egg problem… 😖
And for other solutions like changing diets and animal product alternatives — now, consumers aren’t aware. Ex: In the US, 36% of consumers are entirely unfamiliar with plant-based meats. (Source) And who knows what that number is like in less developed countries?
#3 As You May Have Noticed, Humans Don’t Like Change 😕
For animal product consumers, taste and nutrition concerns are the biggest reasons for keeping on eating animal products. Ex: For US consumers, 72% of people prefer regular meat. (Source) And there are several reasons why:
For nonprofits, the heads of multiple vegan advocacy groups have told me how it’s difficult to change existing strategies to more researched ‘nudges’. Because nonprofits already have staff specialised in one intervention (ex: lawyers for policy work). (Source)
For governments, it can be very hard to implement programmes to change citizens’ diets without pushback.
- Ex: 68% of people in Germany, France, and the Netherlands support meat taxes (one type of ‘nudge’ to reduce meat consumption). And you can certainly find less liberal countries in the world. (Source)😶
- Though some countries, like China, have publicly declared goals to reduce meat consumption by 50% by 2030. (Source)
#4 The Right Solutions in the Wrong Places?
No matter which level of this problem you look at, we’re focusing too much on developed countries.
Ex: I showed this map from earlier on the biodiversity hotspots in the world. Notice how South and Central America, Southeast Asia, and East Africa are the areas for most concern for biodiversity loss.
Or for meat production, China, Brazil, Russia, and India have the biggest role. (In the US/Europe, meat production is ‘greener’). (Source)
Yet, look at where alternative protein startups are located. See any differences?
In 2019, almost all meat alternative startups were in the US or Europe.
And the same is true for research on conservation or animal product reduction strategies!
- Ex: We only have full data on conservation financing for 25 (mainly OECD) countries, and partial data for another 55 countries. (Source)
- Ex: From 1970–2017, 57% of cost reports on invasive species came from North America. (Source) Elephant in the room much? 🐘
- Ex: Only 14% of conservation cost-effectiveness research was from South America and Central Africa (home to 50% of the world’s species ). (pg. 9)
Clearly, the places we’re focusing our solutions on aren’t the places that most need help.
Which new solutions would be better?
Finally, I wish I had some perfect strategy to suggest to turn this problem around. I’ve tried brainstorming, talking to scientists, analyising, and more… But I just can’t find people in the field willing to go beyond their own expertise (ex: nonprofit work, research, etc)😕
That’s why the best I can offer are the ingredients needed for good future solutions (in case anyone reading wants to take this problem on 😉)
- Reduce high costs and high energy use of alternative meats
- Reduce lack of awareness/high processing of alternative meats
- Combine behavioural nudges (researched and commercial).
- Focus on solutions in East Africa, South and Central America, and Southeast Asia.
- Increase cooperation between researchers, nonprofits, and companies in the field.
Key Takeaways 🔑
- Biodiversity loss is a ticking time bomb. A lost species is lost forever.
- Half of the world’s GDP depends highly/moderately on natural services.
- Without biodiversity keeping the environment livable, humans simply die.
- Growing demand for products made from cows, sheep, and goats → increased grazing lands → habitat loss → Biodiversity loss
- The three R’s of reducing animal products: replace, remove, reduce.
- High costs/low awareness in meat alternatives are being fixed.
- Scientists have researched, but not used solutions. And companies/nonprofits have used, but not researched solutions.
- >75% of solutions of any type focus on developed countries.
Thank You to the Experts Who Supported This 🙏
I’m very grateful for the help in understanding this problem!
- Dr. Chris Bryant of the University of Bath! I appreciate your help in recording a podcast on the state of behavioural ‘nudges’ and where they need to go next 🙏 Also for connecting me to Faunalytics and The Reducetarian Foundation!
- Brian Kateman at the Reducetarian Foundation. I appreciate your reality-check on what’s important to nonprofits working in the field.
- Dr. Kenneth Feeley at the University of Miami. I very much admire your ability to figure out the links between biodiversity loss and meat consumption 7 years before me, without all the new data available! 😵
- Dr. Jo Anderson and Dr. Andrea Polanco from Faunalytics. I appreciate your time in listening to my ideas and your feedback on how to communicate them more clearly!
- Amy Huang from the Good Food Institute. Thank you for your feedback on supply-side vs. demand-side priorities. And for sharing more about what it took to get dozens of alternative protein companies to cooperate. 🙏
- Dr. Machiel Reinders at the Wageningen University. I appreciate your on-the-ground insights from working with restaurants. I really admire your ability to increase academic-commercial cooperation in the field! 😮