I’ve written before about the issues surrounding our near-limitless demand for palm oil. So you might expect I’d be applauding Iceland for promising to cut palm oil from their own-brand products from 2019 onwards – the kind of self-imposed deadline most campaigners can only dream of. And you might think I’d be up in arms about the ban that has stopped their beautiful and heartbreaking advert from reaching millions. And you’d be partly, but not completely, right.
I’d like to talk about a problem. It might seem like quite a small problem, but it’s a pervasive one. That problem, is salad.
Yes, that’s right, I said salad. Not high on the list of major world perils, but perhaps it should be. I mean, for starters, it’s everwhere. Lurking in every supermarket-bought sandwich, mocking you from the side of every pub lunch, withering beneath every take-away spring roll. And that sad bit of salad that came with your meal, that you never even for a moment considered eating, has caused a surprising amount of damage to the environment.
Thinking about ways to increase your protein intake? You might want to think about bugs.
Yes, that’s right, we said it: Edible insects are an environmentally friendly addition to your dinner plate. How are they environmentally friendly? For starters, they need less water and less feed than traditional sources of protein. They also don’t release the same amount of greenhouse gases and don’t have the same troubling welfare issues as other animals that are harvested for their meat.
Overfishing is a serious global issue, and many people have turned to farmed fish, or ‘aquaculture’ as a solution to dwindling wild populations. But intensive farming of any kind often comes with problems, and a new study shows that these fish farms are the perfect breeding ground for virulent diseases.
Organic food is often sold as being the greener alternative. By not pumping toxic chemicals into the environment, we expect that organic farms should do less harm to our wildlife, health and the climate. But new research suggests that current organic farming practises are actually worse for the environment.
One of the biggest concerns, as the climate and environment around us changes, is the continuing decline of pollinators. In the UK, insect pollinators are estimated to be worth £430 million each year for their role in pollinating our crops. Research published last December provides strong evidence that temperature rises associated with climate change are negatively impacting on the relationships between plants and their pollinators.
Humans burn plant matter for many reasons; clearing forests for agricultural land, slash-and-burn agriculture, ritual savannah burning, wildfires. Recent research by Professor Mark Jacobson at Standford University suggests that burning living matter may contribute far more to climate change than previously thought. This is because, unlike other types of emissions, burning plant matter releases carbon particles into the atmosphere which accelerate warming. These particles are also very damaging to human health, and are responsible for the deaths of 250,000 people every year.
Each year, humans pump nearly 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We are now certain that these emissions, along with other greenhouse gases, are altering our climate and warming the planet. One major source of carbon dioxide emissions is burning plant matter, either deliberately or because of wildfires. But the contribution of fires to climate change has not previously been quantified.
Globally, seafood represents 15% of animal protein consumed by humans, and the fishing industry employs around 35 million people world wide. Fish are big business, but not for long. That business is set to vanish in the next few decades, unless we make some major changes. Massive cuts to global fishing quotas and to our consumption of fish are necessary if we are to avoid totally eradicating all remaining edible fish in the space of a generation. The loss of our fish would be catastrophic – millions of people unemployed, millions of people without adequate nutrition, a collapse of the ocean ecosystem and the loss of many crucial ecosystem services. It may even make global warming worse, too!
But for us consumers, what can we do? Is there any way to sustainably include fish in our diets?
What if I told you I’d found an edible source of protein that is cheap and easy to rear in captivity, releases fewer greenhouse gases in the process and yields a versatile, healthy food containing many of the vitamins and minerals we might usually obtain from meat?
If I then told you that potential food source was insects, you’d probably be disgusted. If you grew up in the Western world, that is. For nearly 2 billion people, insects are already on the dinner plate, and have been for centuries. Yet for some reason, in Western cultures insects are often considered less than palatable. If we could somehow shift this perception, however, we could change the world.
In West Africa, the African oil palm has been cultivated for centuries. The plant was considered to be very useful, since it’s red oil-rich fruits can be used in a variety of products including soap, candle wax and engine lubricant. In the late 1840s, it played a key role in the British Industrial Revolution, and when it was discovered that the (west) African oil palm grew rather well in the hot, damp climates of the Far East, plantations began to spring up in Malaysia and Thailand. Palm oil is an extremely versatile vegetable oil; it is highly fractionable, meaning that it can be separated into many different products. On top of this, the oil palm is an extremely productive plant, producing 3.6 tonnes of palm oil per hectare; up to ten times more than other oil-producing crops such as rapeseed, sunflower or soyabean. Palm oil seemed to be an excellent choice of oil. Demand grew, and plantations spread into Malaysia and Indonesia in the 1930s. The oil palm is now grown on almost every continent on Earth, although the vast majority is still found in Southeast Asia.