The Food Revolution: Once Upon a Planet, Part III

Editor's Note: Continuing with our Food Revolution Series, today John Robbins shares important facts on how our dietary choices impact profoundly on global bio-diversity.

by John Robbins, an author widely recognized as one of the world's leading experts on the intimate link between diet and environmental and personal health. Amongst others, John is the author of the revolutionary book 'Diet for a New America', a book nominated for a pulitzer prize, as well as the updated 'Food Revolution' and 'Healthy at 100'.

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Saving Species, One Bite at a Time

Living immersed in human-made environments, surrounded by and interacting constantly with artifacts produced by people, many of us are unaware of our absolute dependence on the greater environment. Not only is every single thing we ever touch, see, feel, smell, or taste composed ultimately of materials from the natural world, but the diversity of species within the greater Earth community together create the conditions that enable human life to exist.

During the past 500 million years, there have been five major disruptions that the scientific community calls “mass extinctions.” The most famous of these occurred about 65 million years ago, probably caused by a large meteorite colliding with the Earth. It marked the end of the dinosaurs.

Mass extinctions occur naturally, but they do so only every 100 million years or so, and life on the planet takes a long time afterward to recover. And when it recovers, it does so because new life forms have evolved, not because the old ones have returned. Extinction truly is forever.

Biologists surveyed by the American Museum of Natural History in New York say that we are now in the midst of the sixth of Earth’s great mass extinctions, only this one is the fastest in Earth’s history, even faster than when the dinosaurs died. (54) And this one is caused not by a giant meteorite from outer space, but by a two-legged creature that fancies itself the pinnacle of Creation.

Extinctions occur even in normal times, but we have precipitated a flood of extinctions that go way beyond anything resembling normalcy. Biologists estimate the “normal” level of extinctions at about 10 to 25 species per year. We are, however, now losing at least several thousand species per year, and possibly tens of thousands.

We need to save not only whales, cheetahs, pandas, and other impressive and/or cuddly creatures. We also need the plants (including plankton, microscopic organisms that are the basis for ocean food chains) and the fungi, bacteria, and insects. You won’t see these creatures on refrigerator magnets, at the zoo, or featured in TV specials. But they are instrumental to life on Earth—probably far more necessary, in fact, than we are.

Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, who first coined the term “biodiversity,” says that even the lowly ant may be far more important to the survival of life on Earth than human beings. “If all humanity disappeared,” he points out, “the rest of life, except for domestic animals and plants, which represent only a minute fraction of the plants and animals of the world, would benefit enormously.” (55) The forests would return, and atmospheric gases would stabilize. The fish in the oceans would recover, and most endangered species would slowly come back. There would be no humans left, and that would certainly be a great loss, but as far as the survival of other species goes, given how we’ve been behaving, the planet might actually be better off without us.

In contrast, says Wilson, if all ants were to disappear, the results would be disastrous. Ants turn and aerate a very large part of the Earth’s soils. They’re major predators of other insects, and they remove and break up more than 90 percent of many small, dead creatures as part of the soil-nutrient cycle. They even pollinate many plants. “If they were to disappear, there would be major extinctions of other species and probably partial collapse of some ecosystems.” (56)

There are countless species of bacteria, fungi, and other micro-organisms that, like ants, are critical to the survival of entire ecosystems. How many species can disappear before the web of life unravels? No one knows.

But we know enough to be certain that the loss of a species to extinction is a tragedy not only for that species. The more species of plants, animals, and other life forms there are in any given bio-region, the more resistant that area will be to destruction, and the better it can perform its environmental roles of cleansing water, enriching the soil, maintaining stable climates, and generating the oxygen we breathe.

What We Know

  • World’s mammalian species currently threatened with extinction: 25 percent (57)
  • Leading cause of species in the tropical rainforests being threatened or eliminated: Livestock grazing (58)
  • Leading cause of species in the United States being threatened or eliminated (according to the U.S. Congress General Accounting Office): Livestock grazing (59)
Today, cattle and other ruminant animals (such as sheep and goats) graze an astounding half of the planet’s total land area. And they, along with pigs and poultry, eat feed raised on much of the world’s cropland. These agricultural realities have had enormous consequences to wildlife habitat and biodiversity.

As vast reaches of the American West have been given over to cattle grazing, wildlife has paid a terrible price. Pronghorn sheep have decreased from 15 million a century ago to less than 271,000 today. Bighorn sheep, once numbering over 2 million, are now less than 20,000. (60) The elk population has likewise plummeted. Tens of thousands of wild horses and burros have been rounded up because they competed with cattle, many ending up in slaughterhouses. Meanwhile, cattle ranchers have sought to block the reintroduction of wolves into the wild, despite the fact that it’s required by the Endangered Species Act.

In 1999, University of Wyoming law professor Debra Donahue, who also holds a master’s degree in wildlife biology, wrote a book in which she said the most important thing that could be done to protect species from extinction and preserve biodiversity is to remove livestock from nearly all public lands. In response, Wyoming Senate president and cattleman Jim Twiford proposed a bill that would dismantle the university law school. (61)

Is That So?

“Cattlemen graze livestock on more than half the land area of the United States. . . . These lands provide habitat for many of the species listed as threatened or endangered. The cattle business is often affected adversely by the Endangered Species Act because regulations to protect species habitat restrict land uses and limit ranchers’ management options.” — National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, explaining its opposition to the Endangered Species Act (62)

“Loss of species and climate change [exemplify how] current methods of rearing animals around the world take a large toll on nature. Overgrown and resource-intensive, animal agriculture is out of alignment with the Earth’s ecosystems.”— Worldwatch Institute (63)

Some cattlemen I have spoken to echo the words of Ruben Ayala, the former California state senator. The senator, explaining why he opposed legislation to protect endangered species, said, “The dinosaurs went extinct and I don’t miss them.” These people take the position that species extinction is part of life. It has been going on since prehistoric times, and is how nature evolves. We need not worry about species extinction, they say, because the species that are dying out today are simply the ones that aren’t adaptable enough to survive.

There might be some semblance of reality in this, except for the minor fact that today’s unprecedented extinction rate is estimated by some biologists to be 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than existed in prehistoric times.

But I understand why the cattlemen would want to minimize the problem of species extinction. A major 1997 study of endangered species in the American Southwest by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that nearly half of the endangered species that were studied are threatened by cattle ranching. (64)

The driving force behind the escalating rate of extinction in the United States, the tropical rainforests, and elsewhere, is the destruction of wildlife habitat. When the Union of Concerned Scientists analyzed the environmental impact of human activities, they concluded that the damage to wildlife habitat from producing 1 pound of beef is 20 times greater than that from producing 1 pound of pasta. (65)

A cultural shift toward a plant-based diet would save many of the species that are currently endangered and threatened. It would be a statement that we no longer hold ourselves above the rest of Creation, with the right to do to other life forms anything we might want, including extinguish their very existence. It would be a statement that we are ready to accept with humility and honor our role in preserving and protecting other species, rather than playing the conqueror and ending up ourselves destroyed.

Extinction is irreversible: we cannot re-create what no longer exists. Yet, Nature has extraordinary powers of restoration and replenishment. When we decrease our assault on a given environment, Nature can restore itself. As more people move toward a plant-based lifestyle, the demands we place upon the planet grow lighter, and we are able to satisfy our needs and to grow in health and prosperity without sacrificing other members of our greater Earth family.

Editor's Note: Continue to Once Upon a Planet, Part IV 


54. Ayres, God’s Last Offer, p. 27. 55. Quoted in Suzuki and Dressel, From Naked Ape to Superspecies, p. 13. 56. Ibid. 57. Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2000 (New York/London: W. W. Norton, 2000). 58. “Livestock and Environment.” 59. Wuerthner, George, “The Price Is Wrong,” Sierra, September/October 1990, pp. 40–1. Also, Bogo, Jennifer, “Where’s the Beef?”, E, November/December 1999, p. 49. 60. Wuerthner, “The Price Is Wrong.” See also, Ferguson, Denzel, and Ferguson, Nancy, Sacred Cows at the Public Trough (Bend, OR: Maverick Publications, 1983), p. 116. 61. Wilkinson, Todd, “In a Battle over Cattle, Both Sides Await Grazing Ruling,” Christian Science Monitor, May 1, 2000. 62. “Property Rights,” Position Paper, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, January 2000. 63. Durning and Brough, “Taking Stock,” p. 27. 64. “Cattle Lose in Battle for Species Protection,” Environmental News Network, October 9, 1997. (The study was prompted by a lawsuit filed by the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity.) 65. “Group’s Surprising Beef with Meat Industry”; see also Brower and Leon, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices.

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  • Posted on Nov. 13, 2007. Listed in:

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