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Planet on a Plate


http://www.viva.org.uk/guides/planetonaplate.htm

Planet on a Plate

So what’s this got to do with diet? Everything! / Factory Farming / Water – The Fountain of Life / Water Eutrophication / Bio-accumulation / Nitrogen pollution / Manure / Acid Rain / Water usage / Top soil / Energy / Inefficiency of Meat / Global Warming / Felled Forests / Desertification / Species Loss / Wildlife / Fishing / Trawling / Drift Netting / Purse Seine Netting / Wildlife / Fish – a healthy option? / Fish Farming / Wildlife / Pollution / Conclusion / References

Introduction

Planet on a Plate is an excellent introduction to the problems wrought by the traditional Western meat-based diet, and the increasing role that factory farms play in exacerbating an already dangerous situation. The production of large numbers of farmed animals under incredibly cruel circumstances has led to air and water pollution, a huge waste of water and grain, and a host of public health problems, such as the emergence of antibiotic-resistant organisms.

Planet on a Plate makes a compelling case that we are individually responsible for what we eat and the resultant environmental, ethical and health consequences.

There are more than six billion people who share our planet. Ultimately it is us who have the power in the marketplace to determine which foods will be produced and sold, and to what extent the industrial model of agriculture will be replaced. It is clear that the adoption of the Western diet as a worldwide standard will ensure a planet with more disease, and increasingly severe environmental problems. Conversely, we know that plant-based protein is readily available, and it is less costly, both in terms of direct costs, and in terms of the ‘external’ costs that we are already paying (eg for subsidies, environmental cleanup and to treat disease).

Planet on a Plate offers insight into how our food consumption patterns impact on the biosphere and the earth’s ability to sustain a growing human population. This publication deserves wide circulation and support – it is a valuable educational tool. Too many of us simply have not seen the connection between what we put on our plates and the state of our physical world, and our own health. We have not, for example, related the quality of our water to the foods that we purchase. We have not related the myriad of Western ailments to our diets. But the tide is beginning to turn.

The evidence against industrial animal production (‘factory farms’) specifically, and meat-intensive diets in general is both overwhelming and compelling. Fortunately, this fact is being widely recognised and changes are occurring. For example, the veggieburger, once relegated to the status of a ‘niche market’ is now commonplace in every corner shop and supermarket. The consumption of soya-based products is rising exponentially and main stream companies have entered the vegetarian market in a significant way. Yes, positive change has begun.

While it is true that we have a long way to go, Planet on a Plate will have enormous impact in hastening the dietary revolution that needs to occur. We can build the kind of planet, the kind of future that we want. But we need to act, and we need to get started now.

So what’s this got to do with diet? Everything!

Global warming is increasing, the hole in the ozone layer is getting bigger, rainforests are disappearing, deserts are expanding, fossil fuels are running out and seas are dying.

So what’s this got to do with diet? Everything!

The meat, fish and dairy industries directly contribute to all the major environmental catastrophes facing our planet. The number of farmed animals in the world has quadrupled in the last 50 years, and this puts an incredible strain on the environment. Food production no longer nurtures the land; instead both animals and soil are pushed to their limits and beyond in an effort to satisfy the voracious appetite of the Western world. It is an appetite for both food and profit.

The current buzz word is ‘sustainable’ and yet modern agriculture is anything but sustainable. Rainforests are still being chopped down at an alarming rate either for grazing or to grow crops to feed to animals. Crops (mostly grown for animal feed) require pesticides and fertilisers that then leach into waterways, causing massive pollution. The increased numbers of animals means more manure, which contributes to acid rain, pollutes rivers and lakes and renders drinking water unsafe. Soil is pushed beyond its fertility limits, is not replenished or fallowed and becomes prone to erosion. Top soil, the very stuff of life, is now a rapidly disappearing commodity. Oceans are being destroyed by overfishing, which is devastating entire marine ecosystems, while coastal fish farms are causing extensive pollution and wildlife decline.

That, in a nutshell, is what confronts us, and it is a pretty depressing picture. Despite an abundance of scientific evidence that the world’s life support systems are being seriously eroded, the situation is getting worse, not better, as the scale of decline accelerates.

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Factory Farming

Farming practices have intensified over the last 60 years and resulted in a powerful and destructive industry based on ‘intensive’ or ‘factory’ farming. Its aim is to increase yields while decreasing the cost of production. The welfare of animals is rarely considered, so they are kept in tightly packed and frequently inhumane conditions to ensure maximum profit.

More animals mean more crops are needed to feed them so there is pressure on agricultural farmers to increase crop yields. Over 70 per cent of the land in the UK is used for agriculture, and 66 per cent of this is used as permanent pasture (1) while a high proportion of the remainder is used to grow crops to feed livestock. In the US a typical cow will consume about two tons of grain while it is at a feedlot, just to gain 400 pounds in weight (2).

The world production of grain has more than tripled in the past 40 years, (during the same period the production of livestock has also tripled (3)), yet famine is still widespread across the globe. In the developing world, the share of grain fed to livestock has tripled since mid-century and now stands at 21 per cent. This percentage is likely to grow further as developing nations strive to emulate the model of industrial nations, where nearly 70 per cent of grain is fed to livestock.

If the 670 million tons of the world’s grain used for feed were reduced by just 10 per cent, this would free up enough grain to sustain 225 million people or keep up with world population growth for the next three years. If each American reduced his or her meat consumption by only 5 per cent, roughly equivalent to eating one less dish of meat each week, 7.5 million tons of grain would be saved; this is enough to feed 25 million people – roughly the number estimated to go hungry in the United States each day (4).

Forests are cleared, ponds are dried, hedgerows ripped up, precious water supplies are wasted in order to provide food and grazing for cattle. This is proven to be an inefficient use of land. Ten hectares of land will provide enough meat to feed only two people compared to providing enough maize for 10 people, grain for 24 people or soya for 61 people (5).

Animal feed crops are often products of monoculture – a practice that involves growing the same single crops in the same field year after year with no fallowing or rotation. Soil cannot sustain such intense demands, so chemical fertilisers are used to promote crop growth as a matter of course. Growing feed for industrial animal agriculture systems changes land use and harms biodiversity through habitat loss and ecosystem damage (6).

Improper grazing has caused extensive environmental damage and rangeland degradation in the Western US; top soil erosion is a serious problem in the US and in other countries. The application of pesticides and chemical fertilisers has led to a depletion of organic matter; loss of soil biological communities, vital for recycling and distributing nutrients.

Fields have been made larger to accommodate bigger machinery. England has lost over half of its hedgerows – over 330,000 km – since 1947 (7). This combined with continuous pesticide spraying has decimated the primary food sources of many birds and small mammals. The RSPB report a 50 per cent decline in the number of farmland species of bird in Britain and knock on effects of pesticide applications can be felt throughout the food chain (8). The constant saturation of our countryside with poisons has had some unexpected consequences, with some organisms developing resistance to chemicals, so even more powerful concoctions have been developed.

This chemical warfare has led to a system completely dependant on pesticides. About 400 different chemicals are available to non-organic farmers and 4.5 billion litres of pesticides are sprayed on to UK land every year (9). They not only remain in foodstuffs, but accumulate in the soil and leach into waterways. Some are carcinogenic, while others promote allergies, birth defects and various health problems (10). Water companies spend £120m each year removing pesticides from our water (11).

Water – The Fountain of Life

Water Eutrophication
The high nitrogen content of fertilisers causes algae to thrive and has led to algal blooms so toxic that they have killed healthy dogs who have swum through them. The sheer density of algae can block out sunlight, denying it to other plants and fish. When the algae dies, its remains are broken down by bacteria that remove oxygen from the water in the process and can suffocate most life.

This process is called eutrophication and even the seas are not safe from it. In 1981, ‘83 and ‘86, large quantities of flatfish were found dead in the North Sea where this process had led to an 80 per cent oxygen decrease in bottom waters (12). A ‘dead’ zone in the Gulf of Mexico of up to 7,700 square miles that can no longer support most aquatic life is linked to nutrients from farm runoff – including animal waste. This type of pollution is also believed to be linked to Pfiesteria outbreaks and massive fish kills in the coastal waters of North Carolina and Maryland (13). Although Pfiesteria, a dinoflagellate, normally exists in water in non-toxic forms, scientists believe excrement in the water triggers it to produce toxins. These stun fish, make them lethargic, and break down the skin tissue – opening lesions and bleeding sores (14). There are now 150 of these ‘dead zones’ worldwide, and the United Nations Environment Programme believes they will soon damage fish stocks even more than overfishing (15).

Farming was the largest source of eutrophication in the UK between 1989 – 1997 with up to 3000 different freshwater bodies affected by algal blooms (16).

Bio-accumulation
The chemical cocktail sprayed on agricultural land is accumulating and contaminating reservoirs, rivers, lakes and ponds, and its residues can be found throughout the food chain. Just as with heavy metals, these residues are increasingly concentrated the higher up the food chain you go by a process of bio-accumulation. Chemicals present in waterways are absorbed by microorganisms. Aquatic life feeds on huge quantities of these organisms, which are then eaten by fish and the residues they contain are stored in their fatty tissues.

Fish is used as fertiliser or eaten by humans, and the residues continue to concentrate up the food chain – and the higher you go, the larger the dose of toxins you receive. A similar process takes place with livestock, who consume vast quantities of residue-containing food. It is particularly marked in meat and dairy products, which can contain 14 times more contaminants than plant foods. The way to reduce your level of ingestion of these chemicals is to choose your diet from low down the food chain – from plants – preferably organic plants.

Nitrogen pollution
The amount of nitrogen used as fertiliser globally is 120 million tonnes a year, much of which cannot be absorbed by the crops (17). The excess nitrogen leaches from the soil into underground reservoirs – the source of much of our water supply. Nitrogen in drinking water is associated with ‘blue baby syndrome’ – a potentially fatal destruction of the red blood cells in new-born children (18).

Nitrogen can also transform into nitrites, which can combine with proteins in food to form nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic – cancer promoting. Millions of pounds are spent by water companies in the UK to treat the water in order to bring the nitrate levels down to a legally acceptable level; this cost is of course passed on to us the customer.

Manure
There is obviously a simple equation – the more animals, the more manure. Both have increased so dramatically it is estimated that the US cattle herd alone produces 253,924 pounds of manure a second (19). While in the UK it has been estimated that the country’s 3 million dairy cows could produce up to 62 billion litres of excreta a year (20).

Waste from intensive farming also poses an environmental threat. A lot of manure is stored with water as slurry. This toxic liquid is 100 times more polluting than human sewage and it frequently leaks into rivers and streams where it can exterminate all life.
In 1997, the waste from livestock was 130 times as much as from humans in the US (21). Worldwide, livestock produce 13 billion tones of waste a year (22). Ammonia emissions from manure can settle on plants and soil, resulting in toxicity and biodiversity loss; spreading manure on land can lead to nitrates in groundwater, posing health hazards; manure can accumulate heavy metals, contaminate crops and increase health risks (23). More than 40 diseases can be transferred to humans through manure (24).

Acid Rain
Stored slurry contains large amounts of ammonia, which becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. Their action creates acid, which evaporates, and then combines with nitrous oxide from fertilisers and industrial pollution to form acid rain. Acid rain is extremely destructive and sours soil, destroys forests and renders once prolific waters lifeless. After the burning of fossil fuels, animal manure is the second biggest cause of acid rain.

Water, wheat and beef
All farming needs water. But the amount of water needed to produce a pound of beef is far greater than that required for a pound of wheat.
Amount of water required to produce 2.2 pounds of wheat:

2,113 pints (1kg of wheat: 1,000 litres)


Amount of water required to produce 2.2 pounds of beef:

211,000 pints (1kg of beef: 100,000 litres)

Water usage
Earth is two-thirds water, and only 0.06 per cent of this is fresh water and even less of this is available as drinking water.

Animal agriculture uses huge amounts of water, energy and chemicals, often with little regard for the long-term adverse effects. Between 1960 and 2000 worldwide usage of water doubled (25). Agriculture uses 70 per cent of all water, while in many developing countries the figure is as high as 85 to 95 per cent (26). Many irrigation systems are pumping water from underground reservoirs much faster than they can ever be recharged.

The production of meat is an inefficient use of such a vital limited resource. It takes 1000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of wheat, yet it takes 100,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of beef (27). The University of California studied water use in their state, where most agricultural land is irrigated, and said it uses between 20 to 30 gallons of water to produce vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes and carrots to create an edible pound of food. It takes 441 gallons of water to make a pound of beef (28).

Fresh water, once a seemingly abundant resource, is now becoming scarce in many regions and that poses a real threat to the stability of the world. Numerous countries are in dispute over water supplies, and the seeds of future wars are clearly beginning to germinate.

Top soil
Top soil is the fertile upper layer of soil without which almost nothing will grow. It is essential for life and yet it is being eroded at an alarming rate through over-use and denaturing due to the excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides.

The US has lost half of its top soil since 1960, and continues losing top soil 17 times faster than nature can create it (29). Its structure has been so distorted that wind and water can simply carry it away (30). With luck, top soil is replenished at a rate of 2.5 centimetres every 100 years.

Some 85 per cent of top soil loss is attributed to livestock rearing (31). Around the world, top soil is being eroded at rates 16 to 300 times faster than it can regenerate (32). Globally it estimated that 24 billion metric tons of fertile soil is lost each year, an amount equal to the entire agricultural land area of the US (33).

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Energy

Intensive farming requires large amounts of energy: fuel to run huge combine harvesters, tractors and other machinery; energy to produce and transport pesticides and fertilisers; and fuel to refrigerate and transport perishable produce across the country and around the world. Fossil fuels are required throughout this process and their use contributes to ozone depletion and global warming.

Inefficiency of Meat

Animals use the energy they gain from food to move around, breathe, grow, keep warm and perform all their bodily functions – just as we do. Only six per cent of their energy intake ends up being stored in flesh or milk. For every 16 pounds of high-protein food fed to cattle, only one pound of meat results. In terms of food energy, it takes 24 calories in the form of grain or soya to produce a single calorie of beef (34). In fact, the more a cow is milked, the more grain concentrate she needs (35).

Looked at from a global perspective, livestock production represents an obscene waste of food and a betrayal of the world’s poor. High quality food such as wheat and soya, which could feed humans, is being fed to animals and largely wasted. The amount of feed consumed by the US beef herd alone would feed the entire populations of India and China – two billion people. As factory farming is spread to these and other developing countries, the implication for world food resources is deeply depressing. As always, it will be the poorest who pay the price in disease and famine.

A vegetarian – or even better a vegan – diet is capable of feeding the entire population of the world – and then some (36)!

Global Warming

Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are naturally occurring gases in the atmosphere. They act like the glass of a greenhouse by trapping the sun’s heat and reflecting it back to earth. This phenomenon is what makes the world habitable, keeping the atmosphere about 33ºC/92ºF higher than it would otherwise be. But animal agriculture adds significantly to global warming. Scientific American (9/97) reported that growing feed for livestock requires intense use of synthetic fertiliser, releasing nitrous oxide – a far stronger greenhouse gas than CO2. Producing feed and heating buildings that house animals uses fossil fuels, emitting CO2; decomposition of liquid manure releases larger amounts of methane into the atmosphere as well as forming nitrous oxide (37).

Better out than in? Maybe not. More cattle also means more belching and this is now the second largest contributor to global warming after fossil fuel burning. Worldwide, livestock accounts for 16 per cent of all global warming emissions of methane (38). Methane is 20 times more effective at warming the globe than CO2, which it joins above the earth (39).

The concentration of carbon dioxide, methane or nitrous oxide has, until now, been determined by a complex interaction between oceans, forests, soil, ice-caps and clouds. These natural changes have taken place over millions of years. However, the last few decades have seen an extraordinary explosion in these three greenhouse gases. The result has been global warming. All 10 of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last 15 years.

Warmer weather might sound great to those who live in cold climates, but such dramatic changes could actually mean disaster. Britain’s Hadley Centre for Climate Change has predicted dramatic events, including, for example, flooding. As the polar ice caps melt and the world’s oceans warm and expand, flooding will be a global problem. The number of people on coastlines subject to flooding each year will rise from 5 million at present to 100 million by 2050 and 200 million by 2080. Vast tracts of land, about one third of all agricultural land and some island countries, will disappear under water permanently as sea levels rise. Mass migrations of millions of landless people present a potential environmental and humanitarian disaster as well as threatening serious conflict.

Another 30 million people will be hungry in 50 years because large parts of Africa will become too dry to grow crops. An extra 170 million people will live in countries with extreme water shortages.

Malaria, one of the world’s most dreaded diseases, will threaten much larger areas of the planet (40).

The tundra regions of the world contain within their frozen soil an incalculable amount of methane. As the soil defrosts with increasing temperatures, billions of tons of gas may be released to add to the global warming. The more the earth warms, the more gas will be released. This is called positive feedback and could mean that the greenhouse effect becomes unstoppable with unknown consequences.

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Felled Forests

Rainforests are vitally important to life on Earth. They are invaluable in storing large reserves of CO2. Slash and burn eradicates all growth and unlocks centuries worth of stored CO2 in only minutes when the wood is burned. The released gas floats upwards and contributes to global warming. Tropical deforestation is responsible for approximately 20 per cent of total human-caused carbon dioxide emissions each year (44).

Every year between 70,000 and 170,000 square kilometers of tropical forests fall to chain saws, machetes, bulldozers and flames – that is the equivalent of 21-50 football fields per minute (45). Rainforests are chopped down initially for the large trees, which are used for timber. The rich tapestry of saplings, seedlings, shrubs, bushes, plants and smaller trees are cut to the ground and burned – as are many of the creatures who depend upon them. The barren land which results from slash and burn is largely used as grazing or growing feed for livestock cattle (46). In 1996, the US imported 4.2 per cent of our 2.07 billion pounds of imported beef from Brazil; that’s over 80 million pounds of beef (47).

One of the most affected areas is Costa Rica, which was once almost entirely clad in trees. In the last 20 years, nearly 80 per cent of its forests have been cut. Just one hamburger made from Costa Rican beef is estimated to cost the life of a large tree, 50 saplings and seedlings of some 20-30 different species, hundreds of species of insects and a huge diversity of mosses, fungi and micro-organisms (48).

When given an economic value it has been estimated that sustainably harvested for fruits and latex one hectare of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest is worth £3,762. The same area of land is worth only £551 as clearcut timber and a paltry £81 as pasture (49).

There is much talk about planting more trees to replace those cut but it is only a partial answer. Rainforests developed over thousands of years and constitute the richest, oldest, most productive and most complex ecosystems on Earth. If deforestation continues at current rates, scientists estimate nearly all tropical rainforest ecosystems will be destroyed by the year 2030 (41). Old growth forest is characterised by stands of large old trees which contain large amounts of carbon, provide habitat for many species, protect soils and conserve nutrients, and have substantial recreational, spiritual and aesthetic value (42). They also are a source of high-value timber; 80 per cent of old growth forests have been destroyed globally and less than 5 per cent remain in the US (43).

As well as the impact on animals, insects, plants and birds, around the world approximately 60 million people live in forests and depend on them for subsistence. For these indigenous peoples the forests are their homes, a source of survival and spirituality, and their culture. The security of their communities rests with the security of the forests, and so their deep knowledge of them works to protect and sustain them; however with the current rate of deforestation and little protection for such peoples the future looks uncertain. They already face the erosion of their traditional rights of access and use, displacement of their homes, threats to their livelihood, disregard and ignorance of their property, traditions, values, and persecution from authorities. These pressures are expected to intensify as the demands on forests increased (50).

It is not just rainforest that has been lost. Habitats all around the world have been adversely affected by agriculture. In the UK, more than 95 per cent of original woodlands have been destroyed – most of that land is now used to graze or grow feed for farmed animals. Britain once a beautiful and varied landscape has become a monoculture of grains.

Desertification
According to the United Nations, deserts are growing at the rate of 193,192 square kilometres every year – an area the size of England and Scotland (51). This decline of once fertile soil into desert land is called desertification, and affects over one-quarter of the world’s land area (52). One of the major contributors to the process is cattle ranching and the grazing of other livestock such as sheep, camels and goats on the margins of existing deserts.

Forty per cent of global agricultural land has been degraded in the last century from problems including compaction, nutrient depletion and pollution (53). Ex-rainforest land is particularly prone to deterioration as the soil is comparatively thin. It has adapted over thousands years to support the forest with its network of roots, and these in turn hold the soil together. The effect of cattle grazing, with their heavy bodies and hard hooves, is to compact the soil, break down its structure and reduce its fertility. The loss of trees also leads to a reduction in water vapour, which prompts climate change and reduces rainfall levels. The eventual end result of these different factors is desert. Unfortunately, when the soil becomes dry, lifeless and unsuitable for cattle, the ranchers move on and start the process again somewhere else.

The most effective way of slowing down desertification is to reduce overgrazing, deforestation and destructive forms of planting and irrigation (54). It is widely acknowledged by many organisations that intensive farming practices are unsustainable and environmentally damaging. The WWF recommend in their Living Planet 2000 report that people reduce their intake of dairy and meat products in order to reduce grazing pressure on land (55).

Species Loss
The scale of deforestation means that thousands of species, possibly millions, are losing their habitat at an accelerating rate. The richly abundant and often unique flora and fauna of the forests are disappearing. Every hour, a further three plant or animal species become extinct (56). It is estimated that at least one half of the world’s species live in the rainforests.

Many rainforest plants have valuable medicinal properties and contain the only known cure for certain diseases. They are used to treat cancer, strokes, heart disease and many other illnesses. By wiping out the rainforests we are possibly destroying an abundant supply of new drugs capable of curing major diseases. Many of the species being destroyed are unknown to humankind.

Wildlife
Furthermore, most wildlife is seen as competition to farmers. Many species are not only killed by pesticides and the purposeful destruction of habitats such as woodlands, marshlands and ponds, but are also shot, hunted or trapped. In the UK, foxes, rabbits, badgers and increasingly once again wild boar are considered a threat to the farmer’s income. In the USA each year the federal government hunters and trappers kill about 100,000 coyotes, bobcats, feral pigs and mountain lions. They are shot from aeroplanes, caught in steel-jaw leghold traps or neck nooses, or poisoned with cyanide (57). This number does not include the many animals mistakenly caught in traps or the animals killed by the landowners themselves.

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Fishing

Total fishery production in 2001 was reported to be 130.2 million tonnes, of which 37.9 million tonnes was from aquaculture (58). As the consumption of seafood increases so does the global concern for the health of the oceans and its inhabitants – as well as the other effects of the industry. Countless birds and other animals suffer and die from injuries caused by swallowing or becoming entangled in discarded fishing hooks, monofilament line, and lead weights (59).

Commercial fishing of the oceans has decimated both fish stocks and the aquatic environment. Herring, cod, hake, redfish and mackerel are the fish species that are most commonly exploited commercially across the world – some of which are close to becoming extinct as a result of overfishing. There are several methods used for commercial fishing:

Trawling
Trawlers, some the size of football fields (60), work non-stop across the oceans’ fishing grounds, backwards and forwards in a never-ending process. They scoop up huge quantities of fish and destroy the sea bed, where 500,000 – 100 million creatures are estimated to live (61). Nets like huge tapering bags are used, the mouths of which can be 224 ft wide – large enough to hold 12 Boeing 747 aeroplanes! (62) Their entrances are kept open by huge, metal-bound trawl (otter) boards that can weigh tons. They are dragged across the ocean floor and crush and grind to destruction anything in their path.

A variant is the beam trawl, where a long metal beam is fixed to the underside of the net’s opening. Floatation devices keep the mouth of the net open and dangling from the beam are ‘tickler’ chains, which drag along the bottom forcing almost every creature from its hiding place into the mouth of the net.

Between 60 and 80 million tons of fish are caught from the seas of the world each year by trawling. The total for all methods is about 100 million tons. Fish that are too small, non-target species or species with no commercial value are discarded. This can include almost every creature from the sea or sea bed – sea urchins, brittle stars, crabs, dolphins, seals and sea-birds.

As shrimp nets are dragged through the water, they catch every living creature in their path – trapping both shrimp and unwanted fish and sea turtles. Sea turtles caught in shrimp nets are held under water until they drown. Thousands of endangered sea turtles are killed in this way every year (63).

The ecological balance of oceans is disturbed when the catch rate exceeds the natural reproduction rate. This is overfishing. The Food and Agriculture Organisation report that 11 of the world’s 15 most important fishing areas are in decline and 60 per cent of the major fish species are now either fully or overexploited. Between 30 and 40 per cent of the biomass of exploited fish species are removed from the North Sea each year (64).

Drift Netting
Drift nets hang like curtains from the surface of the sea. Constructed from thin but strong monofilament nylon, they are virtually invisible to all sea life. They can be up to an incredible 30 miles long. The target fish are often tuna, but as dolphins tend to congregate where tuna swim, they too die in large numbers. Rays, sharks, sea birds and small whales all become entangled in these ghostly nets.

It is not uncommon for nets to become detached in rough weather and float away to kill large numbers of animals and birds. When weighed down with dead bodies they sink to the bottom, but once the carcasses have rotted, they float back to the surface and continue their destruction. Thousands of dolphins, porpoises, small whales, sea lions, and walruses are killed by drift nets each year (65). After years of campaigning, drift nets were banned by the EU from January 1 2002 in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Sadly, the Baltic Sea was exempted after lobbying by Denmark, Sweden and Finland who continue to use this destructive fishing technique with their 350 vessels.

Purse Seine Netting
A purse seine net is suspended from the surface, the bottom of it many fathoms below the surface. The boat pays out the net in a complete circle so the effect is like that of a tube of netting hanging down, surrounding the target shoal of fish. A kind of drawstring at the bottom of the net is pulled tight so the net represents a purse with an open top but a closed bottom. The top is then also closed and the net hauled inboard. Tuna are the main target, but again, dolphins also get trapped and drown.

Wildlife & Fishing
Many birds, including razor-bills, cormorants, and puffins, feed mainly on sand eels, sprats and small herrings, all of which are heavily exploited by fishermen. In 1994, overfishing in the North Sea was believed to have caused about 100,000 birds to starve, and the problem seems to be worsening (66).

Commercial fishermen often blame the low numbers of fish on local wildlife and demand culling to solve the problem. As a result, seals have been killed in their thousands – 51,000 in Russia and in 2004 over 300,000 in Canada, and there are similar demands being made in Britain. In February 1999, a proposal was presented to the US Congress by the National Marine Fisheries Service to allow fishermen and ‘resource’ managers to shoot Pacific harbour seals and California sea lions along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington to protect the dwindling stocks of salmon and steelhead, and to reduce competition for fish between these pinnipeds and humans (67).

Fish – a healthy option?
The flesh of fish often stores dangerous contaminants, such as PCB’s, suspected of causing cancer, nervous systems disorders, and foetal damage; dioxins, also linked to cancer; radioactive materials like strontium 90; and such toxic metals as cadmium, mercury, lead, and arsenic, which can cause health problems ranging from kidney damage and mental retardation to cancer (68). (See the VVF Fishing for Facts report at http://www.vegetarian.org.uk)

Fish Farming

Overfishing and the subsequent collapse of many commercial fisheries has led to an increase in fish farming. The growth of the number of fish farms has adversely affected wild fish populations. Numerous fish farms are based in coastal regions of the world. In the Scottish lochs, where many of the UK’s fish farms are found, there is a slow exchange rate of water, lochs containing fish farms tend to have unnaturally higher nutrient levels and eutrophic conditions which inevitably lead to more frequent algal blooms (69).

There has been a dramatic rise in the amount of factory farmed salmon produced in Scotland. There are 340 salmon farms in Scotland; in 1980 the amount of salmon produced was 800 tonnes, in 2002 it was 145,609 tonnes (70). Salmon are carnivorous and a large proportion of the oceanic catch is caught to feed them; it takes five tons of fish caught from the sea to produce one ton of factory farmed salmon (71). Inland factory-farmed fish are kept in shallow concrete troughs. The intensive crowding – as many as five fish per square foot – spreads infection and parasites, so factory fish farmers use antibiotics and growth hormones to get more fish fatter faster (72).

Parasites commonly found on factory farmed fish are also infecting wild populations – wild fish would never come into contact with more than a few lice during their lifetime. Increasing numbers of fish farms has led to greater numbers of lice in waters, which effectively eat fish alive.

Salmon also often escape from their farms – in the past five years over one million escaped from Scotland – and interbreed with wild salmon and hybridise with brown trout. This ‘genetic pollution’ decreases the fitness level of the wild fish and threatens them with extinction (73).

Besides antibiotics, growth-promoting drugs and disinfectants, other chemicals used in fish farming include artificial colourings. In the wild salmon get their pink hue from natural food sources such as algae and small crustaceans. Farm species rely on the pigment Canthaxanthin to turn the fish’s flesh from its natural grey to pink (74). The Swiss company who produce this dye even supply a colour grading chart, the ‘SalmoFan’ – similar to those used when choosing paint – so farmers can select a flesh colour for their fish. Canthaxanthin is banned as an additive in food, but fed to fish which are bred to be eaten. It has been linked to eye defects in children (75) and is banned in the US because it is believed to be carcinogenic (76).

Wildlife & Fish Farms
As well as altering the natural balance of coastal waters, fish farms attract fish-eating wildlife. So the fish farmers often try to protect their stocks by killing the wildlife, including seals, otters, guillemots, herons, dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks.

On March 4, 1998, a federal law took effect that allows fish farmers in 13 states to kill unlimited numbers of cormorants to protect their profits. The US Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that 92,000 of these birds will be killed by fish farmers each year – about 5 to 10 per cent of the North American population (77). Seabird numbers plummet as a result of overfishing, while the catch is fed to carnivorous fish and herbivorous livestock as high protein food.

Pollution
Northern Hemisphere fish farms are commonly found in the same coastal areas as those polluted by industry, human sewage and agriculture. It is inevitable that fish will take in some of the toxins and concentrate them.

Fish farms also cause their own pollution. One ton of farmed trout produces pollution equal to the untreated sewage of 200-300 people. It has been estimated that the amount of pollution in Scotland due to the ammonia input from fish farming is comparable to sewage produced by 9.4 million people (78). Faeces and food pellets are concentrated around the netted underwater cage, but the bulk accumulates beneath the cages. This toxic build-up causes de-oxygenation and can adversely affect local wildlife communities. Eutrophication can occur as the water is enriched with nitrates, phosphates and nitrogenous waste products.

Unfortunately, fish farming is now a global phenomenon for expensive creatures such as prawns and yellow tails. The coastal areas chosen for the farms are usually mangrove swamps, seen as useless areas ripe for exploitation. In fact they provide the most productive and important habitat in the oceans. Ninety per cent of marine fish rely upon the amazing diversity provided by the mangroves, particularly for spawning. Over 2,000 species of fish, crustaceans and plants thrive there.

Mangroves act as buffers, they prevent flooding, stop erosion and are the nursery of ocean life – and they are being ripped up faster than anyone can count. Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Ecuador, Panama – clearance is rampant everywhere. The subtropical regions of the world have lost 70 per cent of all mangrove swamps since 1960, largely to fish farming. The construction of fish farms has led to the decline in wild populations of fish and shell fish in particular. Mangroves are destroyed as more farms are built, however farms rely upon wild larvae to stock them, but numbers are dwindling because they are destroying the very habitat from which they originate. After a few years the farms have to be moved, cutting down yet more mangroves. Desolation is left behind.

The environment pays a terrible price for that prawn cocktail!

Conclusion

As the world’s resources sink and the environmental problems soar leading scientists, ecologists and experts are repeatedly calling for decisive action before it is too late. There is one thing within your power that will have a huge and immediate impact in protecting our planet, and that is to change your diet. Stop eating meat and fish today – and, give up dairy products. Any step you take is important, and you can immediately begin to remove yourself from the cycle of exploitation and destruction. Even better, raise your voice in protest, join with others such as Viva! and actively fight against the ruthless corporations who will allow greed to destroy the globe.

David Brubaker, Ph.D. is Director of the Henry Spira/GRACE Project on Industrial Animal Production, Center for a Liveable Future, Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, USA. He also serves as a consultant to the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment in New York City.

Brubaker is a graduate of Temple University, Southern Illinois University and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a member of the Committee for a Global Water Contract. Brubaker has served an a consultant to numerous non-governmental organisations. Previously he was the Executive Vice President of PennAg Industries Association, a regional agribusiness trade association. He is a former president of the Agricultural Associations Executive Council, and was a member of the board of Directors of the American Feed Industry Association.

Long active in the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, he has served as Chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee to the Chesapeake Executive Council and in many other Bay-related positions. He lives in Lititz, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

References

Viva! Vegetarians International Voice for Animals
8 York Court, Wilder Street, Bristol BS2 8QH, UK
T: 0117 944 1000 F: 0117 924 4646 E: info@viva.org.uk

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