Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Effects of Food on Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Science shows our meal plans are destroying our magnificent planet.

I recently read a most important book edited by Drs. Amir Kassam and Laila Kassam called Rethinking Food and Agriculture: New Ways Forward.1,2 The table of contents and chapter abstracts can be seen here. I fully realize that this landmark book is extremely pricey and I hope most if not all of its 20 chapters will soon become available. One essay that is available that might be of special interest to many readers because of its focus on topics including nonhuman animal (animal) sentience, speciesism, human exceptionalism, and social justice is California State University's Robert Jones' piece "Animal ethics as a critique of animal agriculture, environmentalism, foodieism, locavorism, and clean meat." In this essay, he writes:

"Educating ourselves about the role that human supremacy and speciesism play in biodiversity loss and the destruction of planetary life while raising awareness and forcing the issue into the public consciousness with an end to shifting public opinion through strategic nonviolent direct action is also required (Crist, 2019; Engler & Engler, 2016 ). Yet, as I hope to have made clear, we do not suffer from a lack of knowledge, or a kind of epistemological blindness. Rather, we suffer from moral bad faith. Transforming and rethinking animal agriculture does not require better science, innovative research methodologies, or conceptual arguments. That enterprise requires a kind of moral transcendence, a clear-eyed forsaking of our moral bad faith and the hubris of our unfounded human supremacy."

Source: Jan Koetsier/Pexels
Source: Jan Koetsier/Pexels

Who we eat—products of global food and industrial agricultural systems—is one of the main causes, if not the main cause, for the unprecedented and rampant ecological devastation of Earth's diverse ecosystems. NYU professor Dale Jamieson correctly notes: "The addiction to beef that is characteristic of people in the industrialised countries is not only a moral atrocity for animals but also causes health problems for consumers, reduces grain supplies for the poor, precipitates social divisions in developing countries, contributes to climate change, leads to the conversion of forests to pasture lands, is a causal factor in overgrazing, and is implicated in the destruction of native plants and animals. If there is one issue on which animal liberationists and environmentalists should speak with a single voice it is on this issue." —Morality's Progress, p. 46.

Fortunately, the Kassam's introduction is available online and clearly shows why our meal plans are destroying Earth's biodiversity. Here are some snippets from their introduction to whet your appetite for more (references can be found in the essay itself).

—Never before have we faced such significant threats to our own and other species’ existence. These threats are of our own making. Since 1970, human activities have wiped out 60% of wildlife populations (Barrett et al., 2018).

—Our destruction of nature takes many interrelated forms. We have lost half of the topsoil on the planet in the last 150 years (WWF, n.d.-a) and are losing 24 billion tonnes every year (UNCCD, 2017).

—Forests are also disappearing at an alarming rate. It is estimated that we have cut down 46% of trees since the start of human civilization (Crowther et al., 2015).

—We kill an ever-increasing number of land animals for food and other products such as wool, fur, and leather. In 1961, we slaughtered around 7 billion land animals for food, and we are currently killing approximately 70 billion land animals per year (not including male chicks killed in the egg industry) (Sanders, 2018). We also kill around 80 billion farmed fish every year (Mood & Brooke, 2010).

—Life in the sea is also being destroyed by human activities through ocean acidification and fishing. We kill between 1 and 3 trillion wild aquatic animals every year for food (Mood & Brooke, 2010). It is estimated that if we keep fishing at the current pace the oceans will be empty of fish by 2048 (Worm et al., 2006).

—Given humans’ disproportionate impact on the Earth and all her inhabitants, this period in history (or new geological epoch) is increasingly being described as the “Anthropocene.” Others call it the “Capitalocene” to highlight the driving force of capital accumulation based on the creation of “cheap nature."3

The Kassams' essay contains much more information including a detailed outline of the content of each chapter. They also note that because of space limitations, they and their contributors have focussed on land-based food and agriculture production. They conclude, "It is not, however, agricultural land use change alone that has been driving the destruction of nature, particularly since WWII. These changes, along with the industrial agriculture production systems that have developed with them, are servicing consumer demand for food products and diets that are leading not only to environmental destruction but to negative health impacts such as increased obesity, noncommunicable diseases such as cancer, heart diseases, diabetes, and general ill-health."

We must pay attention to what science is telling us

Rethinking Food and Agriculture book could well become a game-changer as it reaches a broad global audience. It is that important because the transdisciplinary essays clearly lay out how we have decimated a wide variety of ecosystems for long periods of time. Professor Jones rightly notes that we've known for a long time not only about animal sentience and the rich emotional lives of a vast array of nonhumans, but so too about how our choices in food are devastating not only the lives of countless nonhumans but also their and our own homes. It's difficult to imagine the boundless and global extent of the damage and my learning curve was vertical.

It's essential to pay close attention to solid science and the wide array of facts that clearly show that we must change our ways. The numbers are truly staggering. We can't continue denying the huge role we play in the rampant global destruction for which we are responsible in an era I call "The Rage of Inhumanity" rather than "The Age of Humanity" (aka the Anthropocene).

Our meal plans, lifestyles, and relationships we have with other animals surely are not sustainable and future generations will pay a huge price for our indiscretions. Indeed, we and other animals are suffering from how we live and who we choose to eat right now, and time isn't on our side.



1) The book's description reads: Given the central role of the food and agriculture system in driving so many of the connected ecological, social and economic threats and challenges we currently face, Rethinking Food and Agriculture reviews, reassesses and reimagines the current food and agriculture system and the narrow paradigm in which it operates.

Rethinking Food and Agriculture explores and uncovers some of the key historical, ethical, economic, social, cultural, political, and structural drivers and root causes of unsustainability, degradation of the agricultural environment, destruction of nature, short-comings in science and knowledge systems, inequality, hunger and food insecurity, and disharmony. It reviews efforts towards ‘sustainable development’, and reassesses whether these efforts have been implemented with adequate responsibility, acceptable societal and environmental costs and optimal engagement to secure sustainability, equity and justice. The book highlights the many ways that farmers and their communities, civil society groups, social movements, development experts, scientists and others have been raising awareness of these issues, implementing solutions and forging ‘new ways forward’, for example towards paradigms of agriculture, natural resource management and human nutrition which are more sustainable and just.

Rethinking Food and Agriculture proposes ways to move beyond the current limited view of agro-ecological sustainability towards overall sustainability of the food and agriculture system based on the principle of ‘inclusive responsibility’. Inclusive responsibility encourages ecosystem sustainability based on agro-ecological and planetary limits to sustainable resource use for production and livelihoods. Inclusive responsibility also places importance on quality of life, pluralism, equity and justice for all and emphasises the health, well-being, sovereignty, dignity and rights of producers, consumers and other stakeholders, as well as of nonhuman animals and the natural world.

2) Dr. Amir Kassam, OBE, FRSB, is visiting professor in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading in the UK. Dr. Laila Kassam is a developmental economist and co-founder of Animal Think Tank.

3) For more on the huge influence of capitalism on how we interact with, use, and abuse other animals see "Listening to the Voices of Animals Who Resist Exploitation" for an interview with Sarat Colling's about her recent book Animal Resistance in the Global Capitalist Era.

Bekoff, Marc. Sustanimalism: A Unique View on Human-Nonhuman Relationships.

_____. The Psychology of Denying Science, Common Sense, and Reality.

_____. Green Criminology: Widespread Caring Means Justice for All. (Green criminology, One Health, and compassionate conservation have common goals.)

_____. Psychological and Environmental Aspects of Who We Eat. (A new book explores how our meal plans are ruining earth and remedies for change.)

_____. On World Day for Farmed Animals, Let's Honor Who They Are. (The amount of pain and suffering these animals endure is incalculable.)

-----. Food Justice and Personal Rewilding as Social Movements.

_____. Who we eat is moral question: Vegans have nothing to defend.

More from Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today