Protein & Biodiversity | How 5 Common Protein Sources Affect Biodiversity

Our choice of protein – whether we eat animal products or eschew them in favour of plant-based sources – can have a big impact on the environment. But it’s not just water use and carbon emissions we should be worried about: how our food impacts biodiversity should also be a key consideration.

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity is the wide variety of life in a particular environment, whether that be a pristine natural forest or a farmer’s field. As well as having intrinsic value, a subset of this biodiversity contributes to the food we grow, from bees that pollinate orchards, to microbes that keep the soil fertile. Farming practices like irrigation, pesticides and fertilisers, and the introduction of new crop varieties can all affect biodiversity.

A report published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN earlier this year said that the biodiversity that supports our food production is under threat.1 And we’re already seeing the impacts of the loss: over the last two decades, around 20% of the earth’s vegetated surface has become less productive.

Conservation efforts and biodiversity-friendly farming practices are on the rise – but a lot of our food still contributes to the problem.

Here’s how 5 protein sources impact biodiversity:

1. Beef, Pork, and Poultry Based Protein

If you’ve only heard of one problem relating to food production and biodiversity, it’s likely to be deforestation to make space for cattle in the Amazon rainforest – with demand for beef driving the practice.4

But it’s not just land cleared for the animals themselves that is the problem. Growing soybeans for animal feed results in the loss of habitats for many species, including endangered ones like the black-faced lion tamarin which lives in forests in Brazil.2

Brazil is one of the largest producers and exporters of pork and poultry worldwide.2 To make enough feed for all of those animals, it is also the second largest grower of soybeans, after the US.3

While efforts to preserve the Amazon by restricting soybean growth there are ongoing, other habitats are less protected. The Cerrado, a tropical savannah region which is home to a variety of wildlife and hosts an aquifer that supplies water to the Amazon river – was home to more than 60% of the soybeans grown in Brazil during 2012-13.3

When it comes to farms themselves, not all are created equal in terms of their impacts on biodiversity. Clearing land for cattle grazing has a negative effect on biodiversity, for example – but there are measures farmers can take to make their farms more wildlife friendly. Keeping existing trees and shrubs, or planting new ones as part of a pasture in what’s known as a ‘silvopastoral’ system, can provide a home for many varieties of birds and insects while helping retain soil structure, and giving the farm animals themselves a better quality of life.10

2. Dairy and Egg Based Protein

It’s not just animals raised for meat that contribute to habitat destruction from soy farming. Many dairy cattle are also raised on soy-based feed. France, for example, imports over 60% of its soy-meal from Brazil, meaning that French Camembert, and the milk on your morning cereal, could also have played a part in reducing biodiversity on the other side of the world.12

Some dairy farmers choose to avoid soy-based cattle feed, or go as far as to only feed their cattle on grass, avoiding grain-based feed entirely. In the UK, for example, the “Pasture for Life” certification marks milk from cows that have been only fed on pasture.11

Milk and eggs are however, a more efficient way to produce protein-heavy food than meat. For each 100 grams of protein that we feed to animals in the form of grain, we get on average only about 43 grams of protein in milk, 35 in eggs, 40 in chicken, 10 in pork, or 5 in beef.5 What an animal is fed with does have an impact on how much food they produce – for example, cows that graze on silvopasture (with trees and shrubs) produce more milk, and therefore more protein than cows fed on grass pasture or grain.10

3. Tofu Based Protein

Tofu is made by coagulating soy milk, made from soy beans, so the biodiversity problems associated with soy farming can apply to tofu, too. However, the environmental impact per kilogram of protein is less if you consume tofu made directly from soybeans, rather than meat from animals fed with soy.

Of course, not all soy farming involves deforestation. The Roundtable on Responsible Soy has developed criteria for responsible soy production, and allows producers to get certified to prove they meet standards.13

4. Shrimp Based Protein

In order to farm shrimp for food, some coastal lowlands in the US and Asia have been turned into shrimp ponds. This has resulted in the loss of habitats like salt marshes and mangroves.

Shrimp farms in China, for instance, which mainly produce shrimp exports for the US, EU, and Japan, often discharge wastewater to the surrounding environment.6 Nutrients in this water can result in algal blooms for nearby waterways. Algal blooms can be toxic to fish, other plants and animals in the and can build up in the food chain. The blooms also consume oxygen as they decompose, stopping seafloor dwellers like crabs and clams from getting enough, while also blocking essential sunlight needed for aquatic plantlife.7

5. Nut Based Protein

When it comes to growing nuts, water use is one of the biggest environmental concerns. California, US, produces around 80% of the world’s almonds, and in 2011 experienced an extreme drought lasting five years. Though almonds were not entirely to blame for overuse of water in the state (alfalfa, a crop mostly grown for animal feed, also contributed), many believe they played a big part.8 During the drought, 129 million trees died – more than would usually be expected over that period. 9 When trees are lost, so is the shade they provided to wildlife that lives in the forest.

Aquatic species and habitats are also threatened by water loss in California, and the five-year drought brought several fish species closer to extinction.14

Are there any swaps you’ve made in your diet to reduce your personal environmental footprint? Let us know below!

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