Earth Week 2016: Conserving Biodiversity While at the Grocery Store

We’re celebrating Earth Week 2016 with suggestions for how to apply the phrase “Earth Day Every Day” to conserving biodiversity. There are a number of great suggestions for things you can do every day to conserve energy and water; but we asked ourselves, what actions can we take to conserve biodiversity? This week we’ll explore: food production on biodiversity, how plastic consumption impacts biodiversity, creating a biodiversity friendly lawn, and engaging children in nature experiences to foster connections to the environment.

The production and consumption of food has significant impacts on a number of environmental issues including carbon storage and release, soil degradation, water use, water eutrophication, and biodiversity conservation. Since everyone has to eat, the food choices we make, individually and collectively, have global environmental impacts. This post focuses on the impacts two specific foods, palm oil and fish, have on biodiversity; however, these are not the only foods which impact local biodiversity.

Palm Oil
I learned about the environmental destruction caused by palm oil (Elaeis guineensis) when two Girl Scouts stopped selling cookies because they were made with the product. The issue is that rainforests are cleared using slash-and-burn techniques before planting palm plantations. By replacing rainforests and mangroves (and their ecosystem services such as carbon storage and water filtration) with plantations, species lose access to food and shelter, and must retreat into ever decreasing and disconnected patches of remaining forest. As species density increases in these patches, competition for resources also increases, and it may be harder to find mates without reproducing with relatives (ie- inbreeding). Indonesia and Malaysia produce 95% of the world’s palm oil; these countries have high levels of species endemism, many of which are threatened or endangered with extinction (e.g.- orangutans, Asian elephants). An additional pressure on these species are that poachers are drawn to palm plantations because of easier access to the animals for the wild meat and pet trades.

Palm oil has mainly been discussed as a problem in SE Asia; however, this cash crop is expanding around the globe. I recently learned that new plantations in Honduras remove habitat from critical endangered amphibian species. Some policy analysts predict that palm plantations in Central and South America will have lower environmental impacts, if they turn already degraded grazing pastures into palm plantations.

FAO data on global production of palm fruit. Source:

The issue with palm oil is that it is in so many products that we all purchase. Oil can be extracted from the entire palm fruit (both the fleshy mesocarp and the inner kernel). This makes the per acre production of the oil higher than vegetable oils made from other plants; thus palm oil is efficient and cheap. It is used to stabilize a number of food and household products that need a fatty texture like ice cream, or to form micelles like shampoo.

It didn’t take me long to fill my basket with palm oil products, so I did it twice. It’s a bit of a biased sample of things my family and I like to buy (except the ramen and poptarts).

Sustainable Fish
Fish and shellfish are either farmed (aka- aquaculture) or caught from wild populations.  There are MANY different methods for both aquaculture and wild harvest (check out these cartoons by Seafood Watch to understand the diversity) and each has pros and cons.  Some of these methods are species specific; thus avoiding seafood species which were harvested unsustainably promotes general biodiversity.  The harvest of some seafood species is unsustainable because either the species is threatened or endangered with extinction, or harvest quotas are believed to be too high in which case the species could gain threatened status.  A little research can turn up a list of seafood species that fit this category.  Overharvest means that these animals cannot contribute to their ecosystems, including their presence in aquatic food chains.  Overharvested species may have a difficult time increasing population size especially if they are a long-lived species which delays reproduction, meaning that many years (maybe decades) will go by before the fish can reproduce to the population size before their numbers were depleted.  That’s a long time for impatient and hungry humans to wait.

Besides depleting species specific stocks, the other biodiversity issues associated with seafood include: bycatch, habitat destruction, and introduction of disease.  Bycatch is the term for species other than the intended species caught during fishing.  Sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, seabirds including albatrosses, other fish, and the outrageously beautiful vaquita (seriously y’all stop reading this and go learn about this cutie that is on-the-brink of extinction due to gillnets) are all killed as bycatch.  A main goal of sustainable seafood, specifically how sustainable labels are designated, deals with minimizing bycatch which can amount to 7.3 million tons of life per year.  The destruction of ocean floor habitat is another biodiversity issue.  To catch certain shellfish or bottom dwelling fish, trawling and dredging equipment are scraped on top of or into the seafloor.  Once this habitat is destroyed, including the plant life, the ecosystem may not be productive until it rebuilds.  Thus these fishing methods affect many other species besides the target.  Finally, aquaculture comes with the risk of spreading disease into natural populations.  The aquaculture techniques that include net pens, cages, and ranching where high densities of fish are contained but in the same water bodies as wild fish, disease and parasites can spread from farmed to wild fish (well rapped about in this “Dance” Your PhD entry).  As farmed species may not be the same species as nearby wild species, the introduction of novel diseases may be particularly detrimental to native biodiversity.

Making a Change
Anyone who has tried to avoid a specific product in their diet for either health or ethical reasons knows there’s a lot of hidden stuff out there. Products you wouldn’t dream would contain X, invariably do. A couple of strategies are helpful when trying to decrease (or altogether stop) purchasing certain products.

1- Start small
After I learned about the effects of palm oil on orangutan habitat, I decided I needed to stop buying it. But that’s a big task. So the first step was to identify one thing I could easily go without. For me that was Twizzlers. Twizzlers had been my go-to stressed-out snack for years, mostly because they are chewy. Of course the chewy came from a whole lot of palm oil, that plus a marginally okay flavor, and clearly no nutritional value, it was an easy thing to stop purchasing. Now I put my energy into not purchasing things I really like (ie- Justin’s chocolate hazelnut butter); this is a much harder task, but I’m working on it.

2- Read labels
Listen, I hear you; no one wants to stand in the aisle and read every label. It’s a chore for sure. But it is exactly the cheap nature of these products that makes them ubiquitous. So sometimes supporting biodiversity with your food dollars takes a keen eye on those ingredient lists. Remember, there are over 200 names for palm oil products/derivatives. A little reading goes a long ways.

3- Download an App
Good news if you don’t want to read labels, there are a number of product and/or country specific apps to help make some of these decisions. Here are a few:

Palm Oil
Palm Oil Investigators (Australia) ~110,000 products listed

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (USA) ~6,000 products listed

Sustainable Fish
Seafood guides in many languages

Monterey Bay Aquarium (USA)

Australian Marine Conservation Society


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