Everyone knows that farmed animals are killed for meat, and many more people are coming to understand that they also suffer and die for the milk and egg industries, too. But many people still do not know that farming animals has a profound and devastating effect on wild animals. So devastating, in fact, that animal agriculture is driving whole species to extinction.
Sixty per cent of the world’s animal populations have been wiped out since 1970 and animal farming is cited as one key reason. The problem is that it takes a lot more land to produce animal products than vegan products, and in order to make way for grazing livestock and to grow the crops needed to feed them, whole swathes of forests and other ancient habitats have been razed to the ground. The wild animals who once lived there are displaced or killed, and such wanton destruction has driven whole species to extinction. Those who blame soya for the destruction of the Amazon may not know that most soya is grown for farmed animal feed.
Researchers have identified two other leading causes of wild animal decline, and they are both connected to our eating habits. First, wild animals are being eaten into extinction and, crucially, fishing is decimating the oceans. Data shows that populations of fish and other marine vertebrates, including marine mammals, reptiles and birds have halved since 1970, and currently one third of all fish ‘stocks’ are fished beyond biological sustainability. Given that we don’t need to eat fish, all fishing is overfishing.
The worst affected region is South and Central America, which has seen an 89 per cent drop in vertebrate populations, largely driven by the felling of vast areas of wildlife-rich forest to grow soy for pig and chicken feed. But it is the same story the world over.
By 2050, Africa is expected to lose 50 per cent of its birds and mammals, and Asian fisheries are likely to completely collapse. The loss of plants and sea life will reduce the Earth’s ability to absorb carbon, and that will exacerbate the effects of climate change, which will drive further extinctions.
In the UK, one-fifth of all wild mammals are at ‘high risk’ of extinction, with some species like the wildcat and the black rat already on the brink. In its 2018, The Mammal Society named intensive agriculture as a key driver of population declines.
The damage we are causing is immense, with some scientists declaring that we are entering the world’s sixth mass extinction, and the very first to be caused by a species – us. We must act now. The executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has warned that international governments have just two years to secure a deal to halt this destruction.
It is imperative that governments act but let’s not wait for them to do so. Each of us can make a difference with every meal that we eat.
Since it takes around 75% less farmland to feed a vegan population than a meat-eating one, by choosing plant-based foods, we can not only feed more people with less land, but we can allow nature to recover. Forests will be able re-grow (which will take carbon from the atmosphere and reduce climate change) and wild populations will be able to flourish once again. And by leaving fish in their home, we can allow the oceans and their inhabitants to recover, too.
Charlotte Willis is a freelance journalist and health writer who has worked with the Vegan Society, Veganuary and other online vegan publications. Her fields of expertise and interests include vegan nutrition, holistic healthcare, mindfulness and fitness. She is currently researching and studying the links between food and psychological health while pursuing a doctorate degree in counselling.
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2. Dermot O’Goran, ‘Overfishing is as big a threat to our humanity as it is to our oceans’, The Guardian, 15 Feb 2016
3. ‘The state of world fisheries and aquaculture’, The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2018 [http://www.fao.org/3/i9540en/I9540EN.pdf]
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5. Jonathan watts, ‘Stop biodiversity loss or we could face our own extinction, UN warns’, The Guardian, 6 Nov 2018 [https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/03/stop-biodiversity-loss-or-we-could-face-our-own-extinction-warns-un]
6.Damian Carrington, [https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/13/fifth-of-britains-wild-mammals-at-high-risk-of-extinction]
7. Josh Gabbatiss, [https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/mammals-uk-extinction-hedgehogs-water-voles-squirrels-nature-farming-pesticides-a8395581.html]
8. Damian Carrington, ‘Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970, report finds,’ The Guardian, 30 Oct 2018 [https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/30/humanity-wiped-out-animals-since-1970-major-report-finds]
9. Johnathon Watts, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/03/stop-biodiversity-loss-or-we-could-face-our-own-extinction-warns-un
10. Dr Joseph Poore, Oxford University