In assessing the various causes of species’ extinction, humans need to recognise the dominant influence of our meat-based diet.
Extinction often results from a coalescence of related and sometimes unrelated drivers, such as habitat loss or fragmentation, hunting, changes in climate, predation by invasive non-natives. But one causal driver must be singled out as the greatest source of harm – what people eat – because what we consume and how we produce our food leads to other causes combining to expunge nonhuman life. It was thus ever so and in our time is inexorably leading to the complete domination of one lonely species bereft of all other animals save subjected livestock and perhaps pets.
An unexpected journey
Early in Fellowship of the Ring JRR Tolkien narrated “It’s a dangerous business… going out your door. You step onto the road…. there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to”. My unexpected journey began when I wrote a book review for ECOS (1), which induced me to read a work of the same title written nearly 20 years earlier; which led to another, then another. I discovered, almost imperceptibly at first, that I was becoming weighed down by one concern which began to dominate my quotidian life, perhaps no more so than in my aversion to the daily deluge of TV advertisements encouraging us what to eat. My preoccupation is largely solitary, of concern to no one around me. Yet, what I am about to address, is near ubiquitous, pervasive and accelerating: the extinction of all known life.
Recognising extinction in our verdant landscapes
Most of us do not notice extinction’s progress, even though its hallmarks and outcomes are all around us. This is partly because, if people think of it at all, extinction is happening in far away lands and the connection with their own lifestyles eludes them. Closer to home extinction is generally about the little things, bees and other invertebrates, which a lot of people don’t really miss. But perhaps the biggest factor is that each successive generation does not recognise what the former has lost, a phenomenon called ‘shifting baseline syndrome.’ We have to read historical accounts of how the world once was to appreciate life’s diminution. Writing about rural Oxfordshire in the 1880s Flora Thompson’s home was known as Lark Rise “because of the great number of skylarks which made the surrounding fields their springboard.” (2). Travelling further back Andy Garnett and Polly Devlin wrote in A Year in the Life of an English Meadow (2007) that “the great tapestries of the Middle Ages… are not an artist’s dazzling inspiration of the celestial fields, but an accurate representation of what people saw around them…” (3). With the demise of the traditional English meadow the colour has been drained out of our lives. Most people do not feel this loss as they take vast hedgeless spans of emerald green for the natural condition of the countryside. So, how did this all come to pass?
The swiftest of all extinctions
The earth has already experienced 5 major extinction events; the one most of us have some awareness of was 66 million years ago when an asteroid collided with the earth leading to the end of the dinosaurs – this resulted in the extinction of 75 per cent of all life over a period of 66 million years. The ‘Great Dying’ event occurred much earlier, 252 million years ago, and eradicated 95 per cent of life over 2 million years (4). The current or sixth great extinction event arguably began with the ‘great human diaspora’ out of Africa some 90,000 (5) years ago (6). And now, as David Johns in his essay The War on Nature (2013) observed, “the sixth great extinction is not slowing but gaining momentum” (7). From the 1970s – within my and many readers lifetimes – we are looking at a decline in species of some 67 per cent (8). The rapidity of the contemporary extinction event is a key characteristic contrasting strongly with previous events which took place over millions of years.
The Alpha and Omega of extinction
The current extinction phenomenon has a number of causes, but in my view is driven primarily by the human consumption of meat. This is the Alpha and Omega of extinction, the beginning and its ultimate dénouement when there will remain scant life left to extinguish. If not defining us completely this should still be how we know ourselves. While people may believe our species has many admirable attributes our practice of exterminating all life except our own mainly because of what we eat and how we go about producing food is what made us who we are. As Bibi van der Zee observes “meat may have been partially responsible for the large brains that characterise Homo Sapiens and has put humans where we are now.” (9).
Meat eating has caused three main discrete but overlapping waves of extinction. The first was the extinction of animals through hunting them; secondly, the consumption of particular types of meat led to the introduction of alien and sometimes invasive species; finally, the mass market for meat has led to a global industrial farming system which has extirpated very ancient habitats. To understand this chronology we need to chart extinction’s terrible journey from beyond antiquity, then travel back to our current age before looking forward to the Age of Loneliness, so described as the world of the future will only be populated by our species and a few useful animals.
The Alpha; out of Africa
Let us start at the beginning. As Prof Dave Goulson in his A Buzz in the Meadow (2015) explained, 90,000 years ago “a group of humans living in Africa decided to go for a walk” (10). First they went to Arabia, then Asia, reaching Australia and Europe about 45,000 years ago. Via Alaska they entered the Americas about 14,000 years ago reaching South America some 500 years later. Now, why did they (or rather we) embark on this walk? We were following and hunting animals, and the trigger resulting in our travels out of Africa after previous unsuccessful forays, according to Curtis Marean in The Most Invasive Species of All (2015), was learning to co-operate and the introduction of flint-tipped projectile spears, which together made hunting far more effective.
What did our ancestors find? As Goulson has written:
“As they travelled they would also have come across other hominids – tribes of creatures varying from the large and powerful… to the hobbit-like. Our legends are full of dragons and monsters, elves, pixies and trolls. They are not myths; we really did once live in a world that was full of such wonders. So what happened to all these marvels?… The answer is almost certainly that we killed and ate them. Our 80,000 year journey was a culinary odyssey.” (11)
A number of writers have documented the impact of humans on other animals, and Richard Leakey’s The Sixth Extinction (1996) also argued that Paleolithic hunter-gathers began the extinction process, which he described as ‘falling upon the planet like a hostile race of aliens.’ He discussed the Clovis people as they entered America and moved south leaving a “trail of destruction, as hunters were easily able to kill large, lumbering prey unused to a new kind of predator” (12). Wildlife disappeared when prehistoric peoples arrived on new continents. As Paul Kingsnorth in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist (2017) wrote, people slaughtered animals on an industrial scale, ‘1,000 mammoths… 100,000 horses.’ It was the killing off of most of our prey that forced people to initiate farming (13).
The pattern of travelling and devouring local inhabitants continued into more recent times, and is exemplified by the hapless dodo’s fate when they encountered Portuguese sailors in the middle of the 17th Century. William Stolzenburg in Rat Island (2011) recounted one of the most tragic stories of animals being eaten to extinction. Stranded on what is now called Bering Island near Alaska in the 1740s, Commander Bering’s Russian sailors began to run out of otters and seals and turned to the sea cows; at first they were unsure of how to kill them, but eventually perfected their art of bludgeoning and harpooning them, pulling them onto the shore and slicing them up alive. The sea cows lived in tight-knit family groups and pairs and would attempt to save stricken family members, to the extent of crawling up the beach and remaining there for days after their mates had been killed. Within 27 years Steller’s Sea Cow was extinct.
Hunting animals to extinction is sadly not consigned to the past. In Africa, for example, 300 million animals are killed for bushmeat each year from the Congo Basin forests alone (14) (15). This has led to another syndrome – the ‘empty forest syndrome.’
The introduction of alien species
After reaching South America there was a hiatus in the human conquest of earth until about 1,000 years ago when Polynesian seafarers – the Maori – went on a sea voyage hopping between 800 islands in the South Pacific before eventually reaching ancient Aotearoa; modern day New Zealand. They took along the kiore – a type of rat – in part because of its religious significance and as something to eat along the way. The Maori wiped out 2,000 island species, including the Giant Moa, but their main extinction legacy lies in releasing rats onto these islands. Their impact, and attempts to eradicate rats, and the goats and pigs introduced by sailors for food in later centuries, is recounted by Stolzenburg.
The Omega: hurtling towards the Age of Loneliness
Extinction increased pace with the shift from the Holocene, starting approximately 11,700 years ago, to what Paul Curzen popularised as the Anthropocene; anthropo, for ‘man,’ and cene, for ‘new’ – beginning some would contend in the 1950s, or the period known as ‘the Great Acceleration.’ At this time large animals such as elephants, rhinos and carnivores like polar bears became particularly vulnerable in a process dubbed by Rodolfo Dirzo as ‘Anthropocene defaunation’ (16). Gaia Vince defined the Anthropocene in five ways: high levels of carbon dioxide, the destruction of coral reefs, the extinction of 75 per cent of wild animals, the control of 75 per cent of fresh water, and resculpting of the earth (17).
I do not like the term Anthropocene. Prof Marc Bekoff views it as the ‘rage of inhumanity’ (18) and, as Eileen Crist argued, it reflects the conceit of our species and somehow entrenches rather than questions (19). I prefer what the renowned Harvard academic, Prof Edward O Wilson, described as the Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness, “the age of people, our domesticated plants and animals, and our croplands all around the world as far as the eye can see” (20) because, as Crist wrote, “it evokes the immensity of what is being lost.” (21). In Half Earth (2017) Wilson claimed that extinction is already nearly 1,000 times the rate of prehuman levels, and is accelerating. We lose some 30,000 species every year; 3 per hour (22).
Wilson powerfully asserted that the extinguishing of millions of years of ‘evolutionary glory is a tragedy’ in the loss of much of the 2 million species known to science and the 6 million ones likely to be forced into extinction before they become known. He named this extinction phenomenon as a nothing less than a ‘holocaust.’ (23).
The impact of industrial agriculture
If hunting and invasive species were the principal drivers of extinction (and remain important reasons for species declines) the main causes of extinction today lie in the expansion of two crops, palm oil and soya. The amount of land covered by palm oil plantations is an area equivalent to the size of Brazil; this monoculture replaces pristine forests millions of years old, eradicating the homes of, inter alia, orang-utans and Sumatran elephants. Palm oil is the practically ubiquitous ingredient of cosmetics, soap, chocolate and ready meals. Iceland have recently announced that all of its own brand products will cease containing palm in favour of other vegetable oils. The managing director, Richard Walker, made this decision having visited Borneo and witnessing ‘horizon to horizon monoculture.’ (24). He deserves great credit for this, and I hope his leadership will be followed by other food retailers (25).
The evidence presented by Philip Lymbery in Dead Zone (2017) (26) is not so positive. He has uncovered a new market for palm, in the shape of the kernels for animal feed, which means that factory farms are likely to increase demand for palm products up to three times by 2050. He reported how the Sumatran elephants’ forests have already been reduced by 70 per cent in the last ten years, leaving only 1,700 elephants left. Their plight is likely to worsen further (27).
Lymbery also travelled to South America to research the growth of soya farms. He concluded that “the bitter truth is that cheap meat in Britain, Europe… whether its beef, pork or chicken – is likely to have been reared on soya from the deforested plains of South America…” (28). Approximately 20 per cent of the Amazon rainforest has been lost, much of it to soya plantations (29) and when the global demand for soya and beef increased in the 2000s deforestation increased to more than 20,000 km2 each year (30). This led to an outcry, which as Autumn Spanne recounts, deflected pressure on to the Cerrado. This is the largest most biologically diverse savannah region of South America, home to 5 per cent of all life on the planet. Today, more than half of the Cerrado has been cleared for crops and cattle ranching; nearly two thirds of Brazil’s soya beans are grown there (31).
In October last year I attended the Extinction Conference (32) organised by CIWF and WWF. One of the speakers was Prof Raj Patel. He summed up soya’s contribution well: “the footprint of global agriculture is vast. Industrial agriculture is absolutely responsible for driving deforestation, absolutely responsible for pushing industrial monoculture, and that means is responsible for species losses.” “What happens in Brazil and other places is you get green deserts – monocultures of soy and nothing else…that’s what extinction looks like” (33). Globally livestock – both grazing and cropland dedicated to animal feed – utilises nearly 80 per cent of all agricultural land (34).
Lymbery claimed that we already rear 70 billion farm animals every year and demand for meat is projected to double in the next 35 years. “Should we allow that to happen, the loss of wildlife will surely be incalculable. In addition to triggering the destruction of habitats, rising meat production is likely to accelerate one of the other big drivers of mass extinction: climate change” (35). Farm animals already contribute nearly 15 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions, more than all forms of transport combined (36). But industrial farming contributes to climate change in other ways, such as the removal of ancient forests; the WWF argue that deforestation and forest degradation causes up to 20 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Industrial farming also contributes significantly to transport emissions, but here there is perhaps another glimmer of hope. Shipping, like aviation, has previously been excluded from climate agreements, and if accounted for as a nation would rank as the world’s sixth biggest emitter. However, in a new deal struck in April this year, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) agreed to reduce emissions by 50 per cent by 2050 compared to 2008 levels. This is a step in the right direction, but notably Brazil opposed the deal, and it remains to be seen how binding this arrangement will prove (37).
The transformation of food production
In Flora Thompson’s time ordinary rural people strove for self-sufficiency; they would grow much of their own food and her Lark Rise neighbours reared pigs. The hamlet community would be involved in their slaughter, and afterwards feasting would ensue; this would take place perhaps twice a year (38). Fresh meat would generally be consumed once a week by more affluent villagers, with most families having a daily ‘taste’ of bacon while pork supplies lasted (39). In contrast the NHS calculated that in the UK we currently consume some 70 grams of meat each day (40), the equivalent of a little more than one Big Mac beef burger (41).
Food production has changed beyond recognition since Flora’s time. We now delegate the violence inherent in putting food on our plates, and several industrial processes occur before consumption. Animal feed is first grown using copious quantities of chemicals; is then shipped from South America to industrial farms in Europe, where it is fed to incarcerated (and industrially bred) animals; these are then transported to slaughter; the resulting meat products are then transported to supermarkets, whose shoppers then drive them home. Is it any wonder that modern industrial food production causes so much more harm than when people tried to grow their own.
What is to be done?
Inevitably this account has skipped over some important headstones; I have not mentioned the oceans, though here the story is if anything worse – 90 per cent of the world’s fish has been taken for food (42). So what can be done? EO Wilson argued that we should leave half of the earth to nature, hence the title of his book. Another speaker at the Extinction Conference was Christopher Darwin (the vegetarian Charles’s great-great grandson), who not dissimilarly spent 10 years creating nature reserves. He then calculated this was not enough as his meat-based diet required six planets; he changed to a ‘normal vegan diet’ and reduced this to one quarter of a planet (43). We must preserve space for other species but simultaneously have to address the main driver eradicating their homes.
Living and rewilded landscapes
At this juncture I must raise, for me at least, an uncomfortable counterargument. Some people contend that eating meat can help protect and even rekindle nature. Lymbery did not say so explicitly, but I think this is his argument. I understand Lymbery to believe that we should only eat meat reared compassionately in what he calls ‘living landscapes,’ where we will find rotational crops and cattle grazing outside (44) (45). He ended Dead Zone by paying homage to Sir Charles Burrell’s rewilding programme on his 3,500 acre Knepp estate in West Sussex. Here threatened birds like nightingales and turtledoves are making a come back; the only food now produced by the estate is meat.
Isolated examples of more benign farming or rewilded landscapes are perhaps as hopeful as the apocryphal story of King Canute commanding back the tide. Extinction’s momentum is overwhelming and action far more systemic and far reaching is required, such as a seachange in consumer attitudes towards meat. To be fair to Lymbery, he wants us to eat far less meat, but I am not sure this challenge is significantly less severe than persuading people to give up meat altogether.
If, over time, people begin to stop eating meat, what would happen to Lymbery’s living landscapes? They would change, certainly, but would they be lost? Not necessarily. I graze three rare breed sheep on our wildflower meadow, and though our situation is unusual Carole George’s recently published The Lambs (2018) (46) suggests people are capable of developing different relationships with what we now think of as ‘livestock.’ The oversight in Lymbery’s book is that he emphasises how farm animals should live not how they die, and for this reason my sheep will never experience an abattoir. But I must conclude that while hunting for meat clearly marked the beginning of the sixth extinction, and comparable ‘over harvesting’ of some species remains a key cause of extinction, the prime driver of extinction today is industrial meat production. It is important to explore alternatives to rearing animals for food within living and rewilded landscapes, but that is a journey for another day.
Mass production for a growing population
The question then turns to whether if everyone converted to vegan or ‘flexitarian’ diets would patterns of extinction be reversed. While helping, this remedy is not quite so straight forward. As Helen Breewood stated “veganism is… not an inherent guarantee of eco-friendliness.” The demand for coconut oil and avocados can result in deforestation as for palm oil ingredients, or have a high water usage and carbon impact (47).
In Eternal Treblinka (2002) Charles Patterson pointed out that meat production – mass animal slaughter in particular – was the forerunner of the modern industrial assembly line adopted notably by Henry Ford (48). Even in prehistoric times technology and organisation enabled hunting on a greater scale which drove extinction; today, the industrial farming of meat in particular, but also scaling up the production of many foodstuffs, cannot fail to put pressure on natural habitats. As Gerardo Ceballos, Anne and Paul Ehrlich wrote in their The Annihilation of Nature (2015), it is the growth of the human population together with how that population consumes which is at the heart of the extinction crisis.
Richard Leakey wrote: “the loss of species reduces us in some ineffable way… I take this responsibility very seriously” (49). So should we all, and being thoughtful about what we eat is definitely a good starting point.
1. Review of the Sixth Extinction (2014) by Elizabeth Kolbert ECOS 35(3/4) 2014
2. Thompson, Flora, (1945), Lark Rise to Candleford, Penguin Books, p.17
3. Garnett, A., and Devlin, P. (2007), A Year in the Life of an English Meadow, Frances Lincoln Limited, p.11
4. BBC Horizon (19 June, 2017) ‘10 Things You Need to Know About the Future,’ www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08w61hc/horizon-2017-10-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-future
5. Actually Marean says 70,000 years ago, but I am going to use the timescale adopted by Prof Dave Goulson – there is no doubt some debate about precise timescales.
6. Marean, C.W. (2015) ‘The Most Invasive Species of All,’ Scientific American, 313(2): p. 23
7. Johns, D. ‘The War on Nature – Turning the Tide? Lessons from Other Movements and Conservation History,’ in Bekoff, M., (2013) Ignoring Nature No More. The Case for Compassionate Conservation, University of Chicago Press, p. 238
8. BBC Horizon (19 June, 2017) ‘10 Things You Need to Know About the Future,’ www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08w61hc/horizon-2017-10-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-future
9. van der Zee, B., (2018), ‘What is the true cost of eating meat,’ The Guardian, 7 May 2018
10. Goulson, D., (2015), A Buzz in the Meadow, Vintage Books, p. 237
11. Goulson, Op.cit., p. 240
12. Leakey, R. and Lewin, R. (1996) The Sixth Extinction; Biodiversity and its Survival, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, p. 175
13. Kingsnorth, P. (2017), Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, Faber and Faber, pp. 137-139.
14. Peterson, Dale, ‘Talking About Bushmeat,’ in Bekoff, Op.cit.
15. Spooner, Samantha (2014), ‘Possibly 300m animals killed for bushmeat every year, as Ebola threat grows. Is the worst yet to come?’ Mail & Guardian Africa, 5 August 2014: http://mgafrica.com/article/2014-08-05-how-the-bushmeat-trade-threatens-us-all
16. Dirzo, R., Young, H., Galetti, M., Ceballos, G., Isaac, N. & Collen, B. (25th July, 2014), ‘Defaunation in the Anthropocene,’ Science, 345(6195):401-406.
17. Vince, G. (10 October, 2014) ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene: Gaia Vince,’ Publishers Weekly, www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/64360-welcome-to-the-anthropocene-gaia-vince.html
18. Bekoff, M., (13 January 2017), ‘Anthrozoology: Embracing Co-existence in the Anthropocene A book by Michael Tobias and Jane Morrison stresses need for universal coherence,’ Psychology Today, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201701/anthrozoology-embracing-co-existence-in-the-anthropocene
19. Crist, E., (2007) ‘Beyond the Climate Crisis: A Critique of Climate Change Discourse,’ Telos 141 (Winter 2007): p 52
20. Wilson, E.O., (2016), Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight for Life, Liveright Publishing Corporation, p. 20
21. Crist, Op.cit. p 52.
22. Center for Biological Diversity, (2017), ‘Human Population Growth and Extinction,’ www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/population_and_sustainability/extinction
23. See Crist, Op.cit. p 36
24. The Sunday Telegraph, 11 April 2018 p. 22
25. Sadly, it seems the vegetarian food producers Quorn Foods and Linda McCartney Foods, will not follow Iceland’s lead. In early June 2018 I contacted both companies and asked them whether they would support the new palm oil free certification (http://www.palmoilfreecertification.org). In response both companies simply referred me to their statements on their existing use of palm oil.
26. Lymbery, P. (2017), Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were, Bloomsbury Publishing
27. Lymbery, P. Op.cit., pp. 17-18
28. Lymbery, Op.cit., p 206.
29. Butler, Rhett (2017), ‘Calculating Deforestation Figures for the Amazon,’ Mongabay, 26 January 2017: https://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/deforestation_calculations.html
30. Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 179
31. Spanne, Autumn (2014), ‘Hunger for Meat Plows Up Brazil’s Cerrado Plains: This savannah in Brazil is being swallowed up by industrial farming,’ The Daily Climate, 10 November 2014: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/hunger-for-meat-plows-up-brazils-cerrado-plains/
32. Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) and WWF, (5-6 October, 2017) Extinction and Livestock Conference: http://www.extinctionconference.com/events/compassion-in-world-farming-extinction-and-livestock-conference/event-summary-4fb97cae0f154b88837d534eefb7a171.aspx
34. van der Zee, Bibi, Op.cit.
35 Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 248
37. Shukman, David, (2018), Global shipping in ‘historic’ climate deal: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43759923
38. Thompson, Op.cit., p. 27
39. Thompson, Op.cit., pp. 25-29
40. NHS choices, your health, your choices, (2015) ‘Meat in your diet,’ https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/meat.aspx
41. McDonalds, (2015) ‘What makes McDonalds,’ http://www.mcdonalds.co.uk/ukhome/whatmakesmcdonalds/questions/food/portion-sizes/how-much-does-your-beef-burger-weigh-in-grams.html
42. As reported by Sylvia Earle and quoted by Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 231
43. CIWF and WWF, Op.cit.: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL-7iZXkicZxfRMp9U7euR3GvhpZTR1V5y
44. Lymbery, Op.cit., pp. 277-97
45. George Monbiot might well challenge Lymbery’s case for living pastoral landscapes as free-range grazing animals produce very little protein, and pasture land which cannot be used for crops could be used for rewilding. Whether rewilded landscapes would more efficaciously reverse species declines than traditional pastures or wildflower meadows is to my mind a very context specific consideration, and another journey for another day. See Monbiot, G., (2018), ‘The best way to save the planet? Drop meat and dairy. Farming livestock for food threatens all life on earth, and ‘free-range’ steak is the worst of all,’ The Guardian, 8 June 2018.
46. George, Carole (2018), THE LAMBS, My Father, a Farm, and the Gift of a Flock of Sheep, Thomas Dunne Books
47. Breewood, Helen, (2018), ‘Are modern plant-based diets and foods actually sustainable.’ FCRN Blogs, https://fcrn.org.uk/fcrn-blogs/helen-breewood/are-modern-plant-based-diets-and-foods-actually-sustainable
48. Patterson, C. (2002), Eternal Treblinka, Lantern Books, pp. 53-79
49. Leakey and Lewin, Op.cit., p.250
Someone who, through misadventure, finds themselves in middle age living off-grid in a static mobile home under Luton’s ever busier flight path.
Contact the author