Beneath the ancient ponderosa pines of New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, where the Center’s work began, our struggle to protect rare Mexican spotted owls took the form of trying to save old-growth trees from being cut down for timber. Even at our inception, we understood that to protect species we must protect ecosystems. To save wild plants and animals we have to save wild places — because life on Earth is interconnected.
Today policies and practices aimed at reducing agricultural emissions have left us with a tunnel vision where “the environment” is reduced to “the climate.” There’s no doubt that climate-friendly menus matter (see our report Catering to the Climate for a sampling of what low-carbon menus might really look like). But emissions metrics only cover part of the environmental impact of food.
Let’s think about claims that eating fish is better for the planet than eating meat. Counting the carbon cost of seafood alone leads some to believe it’s the environmentally friendly choice, even as fisheries are collapsing and tens of thousands of marine mammals and countless other animals are killed as bycatch each year.
The fuller picture reveals the catastrophic power of the seafood industry (even those labeled “sustainable” due to bluewashing) on aquatic ecosystems, including carbon-storing mangroves. A new lists the loss of mangroves (largely due to overfishing) as a major failure to mitigate climate change.
Yet headlines like “Replace Meat With Seafood for a Healthier Planet” are common. Researchers are sharing data on the “environmental footprint” of food when what they really mean is the “carbon emissions.” Omitting the impact on biodiversity disregards scientific perspective. By eliminating a focus on ecosystems, we’re reduced to an abstract discussion of numbers. When the inherent value of wild species is systematically discarded and devalued, we lose what makes life on Earth possible — and everything the richness of biodiversity adds to our existence.
Business-as-usual capitalism wants us to assign dollar values to everything from carbon to soil to pollinators. But nature doesn’t work that way. When talking about sustainable food systems, we need better metrics and imagination for what we value beyond economic profit.
For example, much attention was given to a recent study that measured the ability of grazing cattle to sequester soil carbon under certain conditions. The study glossed over the increased land use this form of grazing requires. But most notably, though not discussed by the authors or reporters who used the study to make claims about “the environment,” is that increased grazing is at odds with protecting biodiversity.
We can all agree that there’s no silver bullet solution to the climate or biodiversity crisis. We need a diversity of solutions on the table. But we should strive for solutions that address the fuller complexity of environmental issues. We need to at least try to ensure we’re not solving one crisis by worsening another. And when it comes to how we grow food now and into the future, how we live with and affect wildlife matters.
Trying to save the planet by focusing only on carbon is like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube by focusing only on the green tiles. Without understanding how the pieces relate to form the whole pattern, we’re left holding a cube with no meaningful solutions.
Spotted owls and mangroves, clean rivers and livable climates exist in healthy ecosystems — and so must we.
Stay in touch at EarthFriendlyDiet@BiologicalDiversity.org.
For the wild,
Jennifer Molidor, Senior Food Campaigner
Population and Sustainability Program
Center for Biological Diversity