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3 Common Sweet Treats | How They Impact Biodiversity

Desserts and sweet treats can often be an afterthought when we think about our diets as a whole. But these foods have an environmental impact, just like your beef burger does. Find out how sweet treats can affect biodiversity and your carbon footprint.

Biscuits and ice cream

One of the key ingredients in many everyday items – including desserts – is an oil. Palm oil comes from the fruit of the African oil palm. Many foods and household objects contain palm oil – from biscuits and ice cream to shampoo, laundry detergent, and lipstick. Palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature, helping stop chocolate from melting and giving ice cream a smooth, creamy texture. It has a neutral taste, which is helpful in biscuits and baked goods.2

In recent decades, palm oil production has expanded throughout the world. This is partly because it is an efficient crop to grow – a unit of land used to grow oil palms produces four to 10 times more oil than land used to produce other vegetable oils, such as sunflower or rapeseed.3

Palm oil is grown widely in Indonesia. There, forests have been replaced by palm oil plantations, transforming them from diverse ecosystems to monocultures. Monocultures – where a single crop is grown in a particular area – are a problem for biodiversity because they make it hard for many other plants and animals to thrive.

Find out about how monocultures affect food security 

The spread of palm oil plantations is one of the main reasons orangutans are critically endangered. And it’s not just animals at risk: around 40% of Indonesia’s plants exist nowhere else on Earth, and deforestation risks losing them forever.4

If you’re concerned about palm oil, check for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) label, which means your food contains more sustainable palm oil.3

Chocolate

It’s not just demand for products containing palm oil that leads to biodiversity-harming deforestation. Demand for cocoa beans – used to make chocolate – has also driven large-scale deforestation. West Africa’s Côte d'Ivoire is a testament to this, producing around 40% of the world’s cocoa. This has significantly contributed to the country’s 80% drop in rainforest cover since 1960.5

Many of these cocoa farms are in national parks and other protected areas. One study examining 23 protected areas in the country with illegal cocoa plantations found that 13 had lost their entire primate populations.6

Widespread deforestation is also bad news for the cocoa plant itself. Shade from remaining trees is needed to prevent high temperatures during the warmer seasons from drying out the soil.7 If growers don’t follow sustainable farming practices, growing cocoa can reduce the fertility of the soil, making it hard to keep producing the crop on that land – driving more deforestation as they expand to more fertile growing areas.

Thankfully, there is such a thing as “forest-friendly” cocoa beans. For example, farmers in the Gola rainforest in Sierra Leone grow cocoa among native forest trees. Growing amongst the native trees helps to preserve the natural environment that provides a home to many endangered species, including pygmy hippopotamuses and chimpanzees, as well as hundreds of species of birds and butterflies.8

Fruit

Fruit might seem like a virtuous choice when it comes to dessert, but does that halo remain when we consider its environmental impact?

Changing large swathes of land into banana plantations affects biodiversity in Latin America in the same way that deforestation for palm oil and cocoa does elsewhere. But bananas themselves have a biodiversity problem. There are more than 1000 different banana species, but 47% of the bananas grown globally are one particular variety, Cavendish, and they make up the vast majority of bananas supplied to the US and Europe.9


This lack of genetic diversity makes bananas more vulnerable to pests and disease, so large amounts of synthetic pesticides are used to ward off these dangers. These pesticides can affect the surrounding environment by leaching into waterways, where they can poison fish, plants, and insects. In Ecuador, the country that exports the most bananas worldwide, the average commercial producer of bananas spends more on agrochemicals than on labour costs.9

Pesticides are often used with other fruits, too, including staples like apples, oranges, and grapes, killing off beneficial insects in the local environment, as well as other plants.10 Organic farming cuts way down on using artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, so if you’re looking for biodiversity-friendly fruit, going organic may be one way to achieve that.11 But "organic" doesn't automatically mean "sustainable". Wherever possible, buying produce directly from farmers who prioritise sustainable practices is a good place to start. Do you know where to find your local farmers market?


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