Human Demand for Unsustainable Food and Superstitious Medicine Must End to Stop Biodiversity Loss – Why We Need to Start Thinking Radically Differently

What does this image mean to you?

What about this one?

Or this one?

What those images should do is explain plainly the impact humans are having the biodiversity of life on the planet. As a consequence of our own expanding populations, improved harvesting technology, growing economies, and a continuous expansion of infrastructure – such as that seen in Western Europe and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (ref), and the illegal wildlife trade (the fourth biggest illegal trade in the world) – we are fast heading for a calamity that is as bad as climate change – massive and unsustainable biodiversity loss.

Ahead of a UN convention on biodiversity loss that took place in Egypt last week (ref), the head of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, Christina Pasca Palmer, has announced that the world has just two years to secure a worldwide agreement to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, or else we will face our own extinction (ref). The members of this UN body agreed to agree to decide measures to halt biodiversity loss in 2010. 2020 was the deadline for the beginning of implementation. It appears the agreeing parties did not do much since.

So why am I showing you horrific images?

The first image is a rhino minus its horn, which was chopped off with a chainsaw by poachers to service the traditional medicine industry in Asia. She was drugged, mutilated, and left in unimaginable pain before she was found by park rangers.  Rhinos are killed for their horns, rarely are they killed for food. At university a zoology professor once told us that he expected the entire species to not survive the next fifty years. He told us that in 1995.

Let’s look at a few statistics in 2018.

The Sumatran rhino is down to less than 80 animals, the Javan rhino down to less than 50. These animals were once widespread through tropical and sub-tropical Asia. The Indian rhino (or the Greater One Horned rhino) is down to about 3555 animals. Not much for a species that was once found all over the Indian sub-continent.

In Africa they are faring a little better, but all African species and sub species are classified as endangered, to different degrees. There are a little over 5000 black rhinos left, and probably over 20,000 white rhinos. But the white rhino is further divided into two sub species; the northern white and southern white. The northern white rhino is almost extinct (ref), and while the southern white rhino is the most abundant rhino species in the world, white rhino poaching in Zimbabwe and South Africa has increased by 9000% since 2007 (ref). In 2017 1028 white rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa alone (ref).

Elephants numbers are in similar crisis. Requiring large territories through which to roam to forage for the vast amounts of food they must consume, their numbers have declined from as much a 5 million in 1900 to little over 500,000 today (this includes the African bush elephant and the African forest elephant combined – ref). Their population decline is a combination of hunting, poaching, habitat loss due to road building and farming, and disease.

The second photo is of rainforest cleared for palm oil plantations in Indonesia. Palm oil plantations are displacing valuable rainforests, reducing the habitats for the animals that live within them, as well as depriving the planet of effective carbon sinks when it most most needs them (link).  We have palm oil in 50% or more of the items in any random modern larder. The toasted bread I ate this morning contained palm oil. The shower gel I washed with today contained palm oil. I urge any reader to peruse their food shelf right now to check for products containing palm oil. You will be surprised.

The orangutan is the high-profile poster child victim here. To get any message across to the general public there needs to be a poster child/boy/girl/animal that simplifies the idea for the masses. And this orange ape fits the bill perfectly – cute, relatable, and very much affected by the expansion of palm oil plantations. It is now listed as critically endangered (link).

But! To get a sense of the immensity of the problems in tackling both climate change and biodiversity loss, one has to look at a recent example of the banning of a palm oil awareness advert by the British watchdog, Clearcast (ref). The advert, created by Greenpeace in conjunction with the British food store, Iceland, was banned on the grounds that it was too political and breached advertising and broadcasting laws.

Therein lies the problem. I do not believe that politics should be universally excluded from certain strands of public discourse.  We are at a point where we need politics (and of course science) to be the only thing we think about. I cringe with anger when I hear sports people, or music people, or whoever, claiming that their event should not be concerned with politics. This thinking is outdated and destructive. Of course, one’s political persuasion is highly subjective, and as such, destructive political trends may manipulate public opinion by high jacking high profile events if they could – which is why such laws and guidelines are in place (I assume). But they are non-discriminatory by nature and when it is issues that refer to the actual survival of humanity, I think special dispensation should be granted. I think it is time we start thinking about this. Watch the video here, nobody watches TV anymore anyway (link).

Another example is the recent and ongoing mass protests in France over increased taxes on fuels (ref). This is breaking news currently, and I have not yet looked at the entire range of facts. But one thing is for certain, any large increases in carbon taxes (whether levied as a measure to fight carbon emissions or not) will be political suicide for any government.

The third image is a screenshot of photos from my own computer of fish markets. It is at fish markets where our ocean pillaging is most on display

It struck me quite recently, while walking around sea side towns in Asia, the sheer amount of seafood dredged from the sea on any given day and displayed on endless tables in endless markets. Table after table with countless types of prawns, lobsters, shell fish, all types of fish, octopus, squid, even frogs. How on earth do these populations get a chance to regenerate their numbers back in the sea? (Frogs do not live in the sea, I know that).

And in these fish markets the range of choice is so immense, so impressive, that I have to wonder how much actually gets sold and eaten. How much gets dumped? There is little refrigeration in fish markets, especially in Asia in the intense tropical heat. How often must these extensive displays be replenished with fresh samples to give customers the illusion of endless choice?  After I began to think about how those cool glistening seas I could see simmering in the heat out behind the market stalls must be fast approaching sterility, I began to see the vast endless display of dead things not as food, but as slaughter – dramatic, I know. I could imagine the seas and coral reefs stripped of all life, with just coral skeletons where once there was what could be called underwater rainforests. The pungent smell of fresh seafood, previously an invigorating aroma, now began to register in my mind as death.

And as I developed this new understanding of our relationship with our ocean food source – that its now actually biocide rather than food harvesting – I bought some fish, mussels and prawns. Which, after I ate them, made me violently sick for 5 days! A salient strike for the fishes.

I think about this too in my own work (I am currently a chef) where I leave nightly messages on the answering machines of my fish suppliers. The next morning whatever fish I requested miraculously arrives wrapped in plastic with a batch number and a use by date. Sometimes winter storms can prevent fishing fleets from sailing, which results in a reduction in the availability of cod and other popular fish, and then the pressure is on. Customers demand it, so my bosses demand it.  I can get reprimanded if replacement supplies are not sourced. Customers complain on online hotel review sites that the price of fish is too high, and that restaurant seafood choices are too limited. Because when fish is scarce the price we pay for it goes up, and we have to pass it on to the customer. It’s the market, stupid.

Two years ago in 2016, a combination of unprecedented algal blooms and infections in Argentinian and Chilean fish farms killed off vast stocks of salmon (ref). Subsequently, the massive and voracious US and Chinese markets began to source salmon from European farms which led to a 50% price rise in the cost of salmon per kilo.

It was a warning that has not been heeded. The red tide and infections were the result of an extreme El Nino event, with warmer than usual sea temperatures, as well as unethical farming practices (ref). Nature oscillated, and our finely tuned chain of salmon production suffered a worldwide convulsion. Nobody stops to think that fish, for the most part, is a finite resource, and that we are very close to collapsing the entire marine ecosystem. Nobody stopped to think that salmon was off the menu, so to speak, for a while for the better. Everybody still wanted it. And the demand spiked, outpacing supply. Nobody stops to think that our terrestrial ecosystems are also close to collapse. We are eating too much, killing too much, poisoning and polluting too much. We are almost pathologically obsessed with growing and cultivating vast mono cultures of just one species; in crops, farm animals, fish farms.

But when an advert is shown on TV to highlight the perils of modern over consumption, it gets banned. And when governments try to raise taxes to combat rampant use of polluting fuels, we understandably panic as we lose more of our ever tightening income. And we trash the place.

So, what is the solution? Well, we know what to do (link). But do we know how we do it? I have not the faintest idea.

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