• Guest Author

Yet Another Reason to Eat Clean, Plant-based, and Local Food

Habitat destruction is linked to global pandemic outbreaks, including COVID-19.

Yet another reason to eat clean, plant-based and local food is upon us: the link between our environment and our population. The destruction of natural ecosystems intensifies a global problem: infectious disease. The USAID Infectious Disease Emergence and Economics of Altered Landscapes program reported over 60% of infectious diseases over the past 60 years originated in animals. This includes HIV, Ebola, SARS, and yes, COVID-19. While wild animals are often carriers of infectious pathogens, their presence within the natural ecosystem is harmless. Not until exposure to an intermediary host does the pathogen undergo genetic mutations enabling newfound reproduction in humans. Current hypotheses suggest that the novel coronavirus behind the COVID-19 pandemic originated in pangolins or bats via the illegal wildlife trade. Altering and destroying natural habitats introduces pathogens and their carriers to the human domain while they would otherwise remain isolated. In this way, infectious disease emergence is clearly linked to the destruction of nature.

Left: Martin Sanchez on Unsplash, Mapping the spread of novel coronavirus cases in March 2020. Right: CDC on Unsplash, Ebola virus.

What drives the destruction of natural habitats? Humans infiltrate earth’s ecosystems with relentless vigor and ruthless resolve. The race to develop land is driven in large by expanded farming operations. These in turn are driven by increased demand and production of meat and other animal agricultural products.

The more consumers choose to consume plants instead of animals, local rather than international, the more this demand shrinks and will eventually become obsolete. Our choices matter.

Habitat destruction has another striking repercussion for infectious disease. Multiple studies from around the world report changes in the behavior of disease carriers resulting from altered landscapes. In the wake of Indonesia’s deforestation, malaria cases have sharply increased. A study published in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases found that the malaria-carrying mosquito bites 278 times more in deforested areas compared with natural forests. Another study, conducted in Peru, found a 200-fold increase in malaria cases in land that has been transformed for agricultural use and urban development. More evidence from a study in Brazil correlated a 50% increase in malaria cases with deforestation of just 4%. Forcing natural ecosystems out of balance spurs extreme behavior in its inhabitants. When we lose our forests, we threaten 80% of earth’s terrestrial biodiversity and the stunning array of trees, plants, animals and microbes whose value continues to grow as we better understand the vital role these organisms play in life. Forests are critical assets in combating climate change and yet have been regarded by humans either as a resource for timber exploitation, or as an obstacle in the path to other resources, like crude oil or cropland. Every year, a forested area the size of Bangladesh is destroyed- approximately 58,000 square miles. NASA research estimates that at the current rate of deforestation, all earth’s rainforests will be completely wiped out in 100 years. Forest degradation accounts for 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to the entire transportation sector: every automobile, plane and train in the world-combined.

Pablo Garcia Saldana on Unsplash, Palm plantation.

The tropics supply earth with immeasurable value and are therefore particularly consequential targets of deforestation. Only 3% of Madagascar’s forests remain. Consider the presumed gains achieved at the expense of losing 97% of this incredibly diverse and beneficial habitat. Is it worth it for even the best plantation, cattle ranch, hotel or parking lot? In Indonesia, where 15% of the world’s plant, mammalian and bird species can be found, the situation is similarly dire. Live Science reports that palm oil plantations drive 85% of the country’s deforestation. Palm oil, the most widely produced plant fat, is found in half of all supermarket products, and earth’s most valuable biomes are paying for it. In the US and around the world, livestock production drives economic policy. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) found that livestock production occupies over 40% of the land surface area in the US.

Marcin Jozwiak on Unsplash, Altered landscapes and climate change.

An entire third of all arable land on the planet is used to cultivate feed crops for livestock. The caloric efficiency of cows comes in below 3%, which begs the question: is it right to destroy precious ecosystems and jeopardize the biosphere itself in order to transform corn and soy into beef, a significant percentage of which goes right into the landfill? Maybe it’s time to rethink our priorities around the usage of our land on this planet. Plant-based diets require a fraction of the agricultural inputs required to produce meat and leave the earth and your body with a far cleaner footprint.

Richard Bell on Unsplash, Farming.

Looking beyond the land, evidence of climate change abounds in aquatic biomes as well. As atmospheric carbon rises, oceans absorb greater levels each year. Scientists have tracked a 30% rise in H+ ions since pre-industrial times, the greatest change in ocean chemistry in 50 million years. This change disturbs an entire ecosystem. A warming planet heavily affects the oceans, home to incredible life.

What will lead to the large and disruptive changes needed to protect the earth and its inhabitants? Maybe the answer lies somewhere in our ability to connect the dots between our actions and the repercussions. Climate change is evidence that humans have gone too far. By prioritizing the growth and advancement of our own species above all else, we besiege our land, water and biosphere with unsupportable demand.

(Left: Ricardo Acre on Unsplash, Green Trees.)

Earth, even in its resilience and vivacious nature, and our most precious asset, is being stretched to the limit.

What can we do as individuals to make a difference? The abounding consensus is that the way we choose to fill our plates is one of the single most impactful ways to reduce our carbon footprint. This means that filling up on vegetables, legumes, fruits and grains, buying locally produced food or even growing your own are the ways to make a difference. An increasing and overwhelming body of evidence also shows in no uncertain terms that eating plants fuels the body to long and healthy lives and is the single most effective way to prevent and reverse chronic disease. It’s the best way to guarantee a long and healthy life, and more people are recognizing it all the time- from physicians and nutritionists to world-class Olympic athletes in everything from cycling to power lifting. The bottom line is that eating a plant-based and minimally processed diet is better for you, better for the planet, kinder to animals, and has a real impact on the survival of our species and world as a whole.

When we value our ecosystems, everyone wins.

Gina is a Fung Institute graduate in bioengineering and a trained chef from the Culinary Institute of America. She is an avid ultra-endurance athlete, competing in 2 Ironman World Championships, 50km, 50mi and 100km trail ultramarathons, and the 2018 Swim Around Key West. She grew up in Washington State and her love of nature and the outdoors inspire her to pursue a career in sustainability, activism, and conservation. Connect with Gina.

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