Reynard Loki

Forests are crucial to combating climate change — will Biden rise to the challenge?

Covering a third of the planet's land surface, forests are massive carbon sinks, absorbing and storing carbon dioxide and keeping it out of the atmosphere where it would contribute to global warming. Only the world's oceans store more carbon. Keeping forests intact has long been considered essential to maintaining a healthy planetary environment, but scientists are now beginning to understand just how critical they are in the fight against climate change.

A recent study conducted by a team of international researchers from several institutions, including NASA, the World Resources Institute, California Institute of Technology, Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia, integrated ground data and satellite imagery to map the annual greenhouse gas emissions of the world's forests. They found that between 2001 and 2019, the world's forests stored about twice as much carbon dioxide as they emitted. "[F]orests provide a 'carbon sink' that absorbs a net 7.6 billion metric tonnes of CO2 per year, 1.5 times more carbon than the United States emits annually," write two of the report's authors, Nancy Harris and David Gibbs of the World Resources Institute. "Overall, the data show that keeping existing forests standing remains our best hope for maintaining the vast amount of carbon forests store and continuing the carbon sequestration that, if halted, will worsen the effects of climate change."

"[T]ropical forests alone absorb up to 1.8 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere every year," according to WWF, an international nongovernmental organization based in Switzerland working to preserve the Earth's wilderness. "However, agriculture, forestry and other land uses are responsible for nearly a quarter of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions… Ending forest conversion, preserving the forest carbon sink, and restoring forests [have] the potential to avoid more than one-third of global emissions."

In March, dozens of environmental advocacy groups, including the John Muir Project, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Alaska Wilderness League, submitted a letter to John Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, and Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate adviser, urging the Biden administration to protect the nation's carbon-dense forests in the United States' Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which are climate action plans created by states that have signed the Paris climate agreement. The NDC is currently being drafted by President Biden's climate team and will be presented to the United Nations later this year. The coalition specifically highlighted the need to protect the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. Spanning nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest—and the largest carbon sink—in the U.S. It is also the largest remaining temperate rainforest on the planet.

"Article 5 of the Paris Agreement encourages Parties to conserve and enhance sinks and reservoirs, including forests," the letter states. "The United States' NDC cannot approach the needed commitment level without strong, science-based natural climate solutions that include protecting all of our remaining old and mature forests, like those in the Tongass. Including the Tongass and other old forestlands in our NDC will send a signal to the world that the U.S. is ready to lead on protecting critical natural climate solutions."

In addition to sequestering carbon and protecting the Earth's climate, forests provide a wide range of ecosystem services, from supplying food, fuel, timber and fiber, to purifying the air, filtering water supplies, maintaining wildlife habitats, controlling floods and preventing soil erosion. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear to the public something that scientists have been warning for decades: Deforestation is linked to the spread of zoonotic diseases. But those services are threatened when forests are cleared for wood products and land-use changes, like making space for climate-destructive industries like the meat industry.

For decades, U.S. federal forest policy has served the interests of the forest products industry by permitting and even subsidizing unsustainable logging. And that, in turn, is driving massive carbon emissions. Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit based in Asheville, North Carolina, that is working to protect the nation's Southern forests across 14 states, has launched a public petition urging the Biden administration to "hold the forestry industry accountable for its climate, biodiversity, and community impacts" and "establish strong, ecologically sound, and environmentally just protections" for forests.

The economic benefit of healthy forests is significant. According to Dogwood Alliance, the ecosystem services that wetland forests provide are worth more than $500 billion, which could reach nearly $550 billion if an additional 13 million acres of wetland forests were protected and logged sustainably. "The ecosystem service value of an intensively manage[d] wetland forest is just $1,200 per acre," says the group, which has been working to inform the public about the dangers of the wood pellet industry. "But wetland forests left alone are worth over $18,600 per acre. By shifting the focus of management from timber production to native ecosystem health, wetland forests increase in value over fifteen times."

"Forests have rapidly become a primary source of biomass fuel in the EU," writes Earth | Food | Life contributor Danna Smith, the founder and executive director of Dogwood Alliance, on Truthout. "Flawed carbon accounting assumes burning trees is carbon-neutral if a tree is planted to replace the one that has been chopped down, but biomass imported from the U.S. to the EU is never properly accounted for. This faulty logic has led to massive renewable energy subsidies for biomass under the EU Renewable Energy Directive program. It has further encouraged countries like the U.K., Netherlands and Denmark to subsidize the destruction of forests for fuel at a time when we need to let forests grow to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, protect biodiversity and shore up natural protections against extreme flooding and droughts."

"Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours," the German-Swiss poet and novelist Hermann Hesse wrote in his 1920 collection, Wandering: Notes and Sketches. "They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them." As nearly 200 of the world's nations attempt to achieve the Paris climate agreement's goals of keeping global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, it's time to listen to the wisdom of trees.

Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy's Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout,, CounterPunch, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The real environmental crisis for humanity goes far beyond climate change

Solving the global climate crisis is not going to be easy. So when the seemingly simple "net-zero" concept was proposed, it quickly became a popular rallying cry in the fight against climate change. "Net-zero" is based on the idea that human society can continue to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, provided that there is a way to "offset" the emissions. It makes sense that the main thrust of the climate fight is to drastically slash our carbon emissions: Global average temperatures are around 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer today than before the Industrial Revolution caused Earth's carbon cycle to speed up, building the carbon bomb that we are seeing explode today.

It has been widely accepted that net-zero is a major objective that is required to achieve the Paris climate agreement's goal of keeping global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In their special report on global warming released in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that in order to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, nations must achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. This target has been embraced by nations, politicians, academics, activists, farmers, and even oil and gas companies.

The Lowy Institute's annual survey of climate sentiment in Australia, published in May, found that eight out of ten Australians support "setting a net-zero emissions target for 2050." Similarly, a separate poll, also published in May, conducted by Leger 360 in conjunction with the Association for Canadian Studies, found that the majority of Canadians and Americans support their respective nations meeting that target.

To realize the net-zero 2050 dream, society must hit a perfect combination of technological advances, climate-driven policies and lowered emissions. Ingredients in the recipe for success include the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like wind and solar, the rapid increase in the use of electric vehicles, and the maturation of early-stage technologies like carbon capture and storage. "Addressing climate change will require investment in technologies that help to limit future emissions," said Tom Crowther, a professor of global ecosystem ecology at ETH Zürich and the chief scientific adviser to the United Nation's Trillion Tree Campaign. "[B]ut we will need thousands of solutions in combination." Overall, we need nothing less than a fundamental change in how humanity operates. The Financial Times argues that "[m]eeting this goal… would require a total transformation of the global economy over the next three decades." That is a tall order.

In May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its 2050 roadmap for the global energy sector. "We are very happy to note that many governments now are making commitments to bring their emissions to net-zero by 2050," said Fatih Birol, IEA's executive director, in a press briefing on May 18. "Very encouraging, those commitments." He also pointed out how the IEA has "already made special cases and analyses on this 1.5 degrees future to understand our modeling capabilities, data and how we can make an energy world which is compatible with [a] 1.5 [degrees future]."

"Efforts to reach net-zero must be complemented with adaptation and resilience measures, and the mobilization of climate financing for developing countries," says the United Nations. This multilayered approach, while necessary, makes it even more difficult to track progress on a global scale, with each nation, state and local government working on separate methods, with different definitions, and with varying degrees of legal obligations. While more than 120 nations have made the "net-zero by 2050" pledge, only six countries—France, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary and New Zealand—have made that target the law of the land. Canada, Chile, Spain, South Korea, Fiji and the European Union are considering doing the same. President Joe Biden made the 2050 pledge. China said it will hit the target before 2060.

By midcentury, perhaps we can finally live as harmoniously with the planetary ecosystem as we did before the Industrial Revolution. Well, that's the hope, at least. The problem is that the net-zero plan is a fantasy. By letting governments and the polluting industries make vague commitments without any legal requirement to meet them, society is placing a lot of trust in a mirage. By relying on future technologies, we are shifting the ultimate solutions to the next generation. By making our emissions the culprit, and not our overconsumption, we are missing the chance to truly align an ethical, balanced and sustainable human lifestyle with the requirements to maintain healthy, functioning ecosystems—of which we are a primary beneficiary. And thinking that renewable energy will save the day is simply delusional when 84 percent of the global economy is currently powered by fossil fuels, while renewables account for a meager 5 percent share of the world's overall energy consumption.

Beyond that obvious and massive hurdle, "[i]mportant questions are being overlooked," write climate researchers Joeri Rogelj, Oliver Geden, Annette Cowie and Andy Reisinger, in a commentary published in March in the journal Nature. "Should some sectors, such as electricity generation, reach [net zero] earlier to counterbalance harder-to-abate sectors including heavy industry? Is it fair to expect emerging economies to reach [net zero] on the same schedule as long-industrialized ones? Without careful attention to such issues, individual achievements risk being too weak to deliver the collective climate goal of the Paris agreement."

Another part of the net-zero fantasy is the illogical and irresponsible reliance on technologies that have not yet been tested or even developed. Writing in the Conversation, climate scientists James Dyke of the University of Exeter, Robert Watson of the University of East Anglia, and Wolfgang Knorr of Lund University admit that they were "deceived" by the "deceptively simple" premise of net-zero. They warn other scientists not to fall prey to this "dangerous trap" that "helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now."

Even slashing emissions now would not solve the problem. More than 90 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that have been created over the past 50 years are currently stored in the world's oceans, and are eventually and slowly being released into the atmosphere as global warming heat. If society were to cut all emissions today, this drawn-out process of heating the air above locks the world into what the Economist calls "inevitable warming" in the years ahead.

There's another deeper, philosophical problem. The concept that reducing emissions is the way out of the climate crisis is a convenient way to maintain society's current levels of rampant overconsumption. By tagging emissions as the culprit, and not our personal behaviors, those of us who can afford to will continue to possess massive homes, multiple cars, and a myriad of electronic devices—as long as they use renewable energy. We can continue to traveling around the globe and taking cruise ships and buying food and goods that originate thousands of miles away—as long as those emissions are offset elsewhere.

The reality is that we don't need more electric vehicles; we need fewer vehicles, period. Just think of all the materials that go into making an electric vehicle: steel, iron, aluminum, copper, cobalt, lithium, manganese, carbon fibers, polymers, graphite, glass, and a variety of rare-earth minerals like dysprosium, neodymium, niobium, terbium and praseodymium. The mining, processing and manufacturing industries required to extract and use these materials are highly destructive to ecosystems around the world—even deep-sea environments that are being ruined when waste rock and sediment from mining is dumped into the ocean—and emit tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In a report released in May, the IEA found that in order to meet global climate targets, the demand for minerals to supply the electric car industry may increase by at least 30 times by 2040. And that requires more mining and more manufacturing, which requires more fossil fuel combustion, and that means more emissions. A 2019 study published in the journal Energy by researchers in China found that manufacturing a single electric car emits about 2.5 more metric tons of carbon dioxide than manufacturing a car with an internal combustion (fossil fuel) engine. "The data shows a looming mismatch between the world's strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to [realizing] those ambitions," said IEA's Birol after the release of his agency's minerals report.

"The details behind 'net-zero' labels differ enormously," write Rogelj, Geden, Cowie and Reisinger. "Some targets focus solely on carbon dioxide. Others cover all greenhouse gases. Companies might consider only emissions under their direct control, or include those from their supply chains and from the use or disposal of their products. Sometimes the targets do not aim to reduce emissions, but compensate for them with offsets."

Another issue that net-zero and climate discussions rarely include is our broken, polluting and unethical animal-based food system. Together, the meat and dairy industries account for about 14.5 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization. And these industries are not poised to reduce their emissions to the degree that is required to meet the Paris agreement goal. The IPCC report concedes that in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, negative emissions technologies (NETs)—technologies that remove carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere—will need to be deployed. "Even with rapid mitigation efforts, it is likely that NETs will be required to offset emissions from sectors that cannot easily reduce their emissions to zero, research shows," according to Carbon Brief, a UK-based website covering climate science and energy policy. "These sectors include rice and meat production, which produce methane, and air travel."

"We don't want to tell people what to eat," said ecologist Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of the IPCC's working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. "But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect."

There is no telling what humanity's meat consumption will be like in 30 years, but the trendlines are not promising. While interest in veganism hit an all-time high last year (driven in part by the COVID-19 pandemic) and there has been strong support for ending federal bailouts for factory farms, global meat consumption is expected to increase 1.4 percent per year through 2023. "Dietary shifts could contribute one-fifth of the mitigation needed to hold warming below 2°C, with one-quarter of low-cost options," according to the IPCC report. "There, however, remains limited evidence of effective policy interventions to achieve such large-scale shifts in dietary choices, and prevailing trends are for increasing rather than decreasing demand for livestock products at the global scale."

"Although the burning of fossil fuels for energy and transport garners the most attention, activities relating to land management, including agriculture and forestry, produce almost one-quarter of heat-trapping gases resulting from human activities," writes Quirin Schiermeier for the journal Nature. "The race to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels… might be a lost cause unless land is used in a more sustainable and climate-friendly way."

The oil and gas industry has been happy to support the net-zero myth, using it as a smokescreen to project abstract pledges while still increasing their production of fossil fuels. Last year, for example, BP announced what the New York Times described as "the most ambitious climate change goal of any major oil company." Yet the London-based firm, which netted an income of more than $20 billion in 2020, "provided few details on how, exactly, it would achieve that difficult feat." It helps to put into context the sheer magnitude of emissions that are generated from BP's product. Including extraction, refinement and combustion, the annual emissions of the company's fossil fuels amount to 415 million tons—a footprint nearly equivalent to that of the state of California. And the company has not made any firm commitments to stop extracting fossil fuel.

"BP is one of the companies most responsible for the climate emergency," said campaigner Ellen Gibson, who works on fossil fuel divestment. "They say they want their business model to align with the Paris Agreement, but simply put: it is not possible to keep to a [2°C] warming limit—let alone [1.5°C]—while continuing to dig up and burn fossil fuels. Unless BP commits clearly to stop searching for more oil and gas, and to keep their existing reserves in the ground, we shouldn't take a word of their PR spin seriously."

In February, Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world's biggest oil and gas companies, announced details of how it will achieve its net-zero emissions pledge by 2050. But, reports Inside Climate News, "[t]he day after Shell announced its net-zero ambition, the company also announced it would build a $6.4 billion gas project in Australia that is expected to operate for nearly 30 years, part of a joint venture with PetroChina. That project alone would draw more investment from Shell than all of its renewable energy ventures to date."

"Getting to net-zero doesn't require us to stop looking for, extracting and burning fossil fuels—a major driver of the climate crisis. It might require some reduction, but it would definitely not keep fossil fuels in the ground where they belong," writes Earth | Food | Life contributor Patti Lynn, the executive director of Corporate Accountability, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Boston, on NationofChange. "In short, aiming for net-zero is a far cry from getting to the roots of the climate crisis. It certainly does nothing to shift an unjust economy that relies on unlimited extraction and burning of fossil fuels for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. Without getting to the root of the problem, we will never truly solve it."

There's still another sad reality that is tied to the net-zero fantasy. Tying its success to technologies that aren't yet proven at scale (like carbon capture technologies, which today capture a paltry 0.1 percent of global emissions) or even here yet (like Bill Gates' head-scratching scheme to dim the Sun—more an exercise in hubris than in logic) amounts to kicking the climate ball down the field, to be solved by the next generation. Many of those who will be in charge in 2050 have not yet been born. By trying to change our emissions, but not our behavior, we are doing those future leaders and their constituents a grave disservice. "Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don't want your hope," said climate youth activist Greta Thunberg in 2019. "I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day."

The IEA's goal of making an "energy world" compatible with a 1.5 degrees Celsius future is a bit off the mark. Ultimately, the transformation of the global economy and the healing of the environment starts with making our consumption—that is, our impact—compatible with the future we want. And that begins with making the right personal decisions as consumers, homemakers, parents, travelers, drivers and eaters. "Every single day that we live, we make some impact on the planet," said famed primatologist Jane Goodall. "We have a choice as to what kind of impact that is."

Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy's Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout,, CounterPunch, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Most Americans generally oppose animal testing — will the US finally ban it?

The life of a mouse or a rat is an unenviable one. Chances are that if you're in the urban wild, you must contend with deadly traps, poisons and broom-wielding humans. If you're a country-dweller, you might have it a bit easier, but then again you may be blown to smithereens by a shotgun or carried off in the sharp talons of a barn owl. Or be poisoned anyway. "The only good mouse is a dead mouse," Australia's deputy prime minister Michael McCormack said recently, as the nation ramped up its war on mice with a plan to poison millions of them in New South Wales.

Either way, you'd still have your freedom and be much better off than one of the more than 111 million mice and rats who are used, abused and/or killed in the name of biomedical research in the United States every year. These highly intelligent rodents are so popular among researchers that they represent 99 percent of all animals used in laboratories. Much of the horror is funded by taxpayers—more than $16 billion each year since 2017—even though a majority of Americans oppose the use of animals in scientific research, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center poll.

Sue Leary, the president of the Alternatives Research and Development Foundation, which is dedicated to finding humane replacements for animal-based research, said the staggering number of lab mice and rats—the recently compiled figure of 111 million—is concerning because rodents are not protected by the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which provides some protections for animals used in research. "If the numbers are anywhere near correct, the amount of pain and suffering that's occurring in these animals is completely unacceptable," she said.

There's another reason to stop testing on mice and rats, too. Due to significant differences in biology, mice and rats are terrible substitutes for humans when it comes to medical research. Biologists Javier Mestas and Christopher C.W. Hughes studied the differences between mice and human immune responses and found that mice are poor preclinical models of diseases that impact us. In 2004, while they were researchers at the Center for Immunology and Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at the University of California at Irvine, they published a study in the Journal of Immunology showing the limitations of using mice models. "The literature is littered with examples of therapies that work well in mice but fail to provide similar efficacy in humans," they wrote.

While rats and mice may be different from us biologically, emotionally they seem incredibly similar. "Male rats will snuggle up for a cuddle and find contentment when they are curled up in a person's lap," according to PETA, a nonprofit animal rights group. "Although female rats are just as affectionate, they tend to be tremendously energetic and inquisitive. Rats love seeing kind people and will often bounce around waiting to be noticed and picked up. Rats can bond with their human companions to the point that if they are suddenly given away to someone else or forgotten, they can pine away—and even die."

Though mice and rats are the most used animals in laboratory experiments, a whole host of other animals are in the crosshairs, including birds, frogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, pigs, sheep, dogs and cats. (In 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a phaseout of chimpanzees in biomedical research, though dozens of chimps formerly used in research are still locked up in labs.)

"Rodents' capacity to experience significant pain and distress in experiments is no longer contested. With over 100 million of these sentient animals born per year for American science, it is time to revisit the adequacy of their welfare protections," writes Dr. Larry Carbone, a veterinarian and animal welfare scholar, in a paper published in January in the journal Nature. "If the same proportion of… [rats and mice] undergo painful procedures as are publicly reported for AWA-covered animals, then some 44.5 million mice and rats underwent potentially painful experiments."

And it's not just mice and rats that make poor preclinical models. Conducting research on any nonhuman species to understand human disease is inherently flawed. "[A] growing body of scientific literature critically assessing the validity of animal experimentation generally (and animal modeling specifically) raises important concerns about its reliability and predictive value for human outcomes and for understanding human physiology," writes Dr. Aysha Akhtar, a fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, in a 2015 paper published in the journal Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. "The unreliability of animal experimentation across a wide range of areas undermines scientific arguments in favor of the practice."

In designing a more ethical and more scientific future that doesn't involve harming animals, one way to think about alternative methods is to replace or reduce the use of animals, or at least refine the way they are used to lessen their suffering. This approach is known as the "Three Rs": replacement, reduction and refinement. But to start this change in meaningful ways, there needs to be political will for the federal government to craft a legal framework.

That framework could be enforced with the passage of a bipartisan bill, currently making its way through Capitol Hill, that would change the way federally funded research is conducted. Developed by Citizens for Alternatives to Animal Research and Experimentation (CAARE), a nonprofit organization that promotes research without animals, the Humane Research and Testing Act (HRTA), H.R. 1744, is a first-of-its-kind bill that seeks to establish a separate center under NIH called the National Center for Alternatives to Animals in Research and Testing. This new center would fund, incentivize and train scientists to use new, innovative, non-animal research methods. Reintroduced in Congress by the late Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) and Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL), HRTA would also allow taxpayers to know more about what they are paying for by requiring NIH to disclose the total numbers of animals they are using every year. The bill also requires NIH to submit ongoing plans for reducing the number of animals used in testing, to fulfill its mandate.

The bill has "immense potential to tackle the problem of millions of animals used in wasteful and repetitive research," says CAARE, but it "needs more cosponsors." So the group has launched a public petition—already signed by more than 150,000 people—urging Congress to pass the bill. This legislation affords us the opportunity to move the nation to a more ethical place when it comes to animal rights. It also will stop the wasteful use of federal dollars on cruelty that most American taxpayers don't want, while also shifting research to a more human-centered approach, which is ultimately better for human health.

"Science has advanced considerably in the 21st century so that research can be performed using non-animal methods that are more relevant to human medicine," Barbara Stagno, president and executive director of CAARE, told Earth | Food | Life. "Despite that, many millions of animals continue to be used, and the U.S. is one of the largest users of animals in laboratories worldwide. The Humane Research and Testing Act holds great promise to change the current paradigm of routine overuse of [laboratory] animals in the face of available alternatives," she added.

In March, CAARE hosted a congressional hearing in support of the bill. The hearing, titled "21st Century Innovations in Alternatives to Animals in Biomedical Research," featured as its keynote speaker the famed primatologist Jane Goodall, who shared her first experience with the extreme suffering that imprisoned nonhuman animals are forced to endure in laboratories across the nation and the world.

"It was in 1985 that I first saw with my own eyes the cruel, inhumane, and sterile conditions in which thousands of sentient animals are kept for use in medical research," said Goodall, who was named a Messenger of Peace by the United Nation in 2002. "On moral and ethical grounds, I found this shocking and unacceptable," she said, adding, "Despite an abundance of exciting breakthroughs in science and technology for the replacement of animal models, and a number of laws and policies that encourage the reduction of the number of animals used in experiments, we have unfortunately not seen enough progress in this area. Creating a dedicated center under the NIH devoted to providing scientists with the funding and training to replace animals would, without doubt, lead to major change."

Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy's Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout,, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

We imperil ourselves by throwing nature into crisis — but there's time to reverse course

The natural world is in a state of crisis, and we are to blame. We are in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, the biggest loss of species in the history of humankind. So many species are facing total annihilation. Nearly one-third of freshwater species are facing extinction. So are 40 percent of amphibians. 84 percent of large mammals; a third of reef-building corals; and nearly one-third of oak trees. Rhinos and elephants are being gunned down at rates so alarming that they could be completely wiped out from the wild by 2034. There may be fewer than 10 vaquita—a kind of porpoise endemic to Mexico's Gulf of California—due to illegal fishing nets, pesticides and irrigation. There are 130,000 plant species that could become extinct in our lifetimes. All told, about 28 percent of evaluated plant and animal species across the planet are now at risk of becoming extinct.

The rapid decline in species has occurred in recent years: 60 percent of the planet's wildlife populations have been lost in just the last 50 years. Scientists warn that in the coming decades, if we don't take action, more than 1 million species may vanish from the Earth forever.

Our fellow Earthlings are being overhunted, overfished and overharvested for our food, clothing and medicines. And the ones that we don't kill are losing their homes as we destroy their natural habitats to make space for our farms and cities and to extract fuels, minerals, timber and other resources for human society. And the habitats that we don't completely eradicate we pollute with a vast array of toxic elements, from pesticides and plastics to carbon dioxide, fracking chemicals and invasive species. We are even polluting wildlife habitats with our light and noise. And scientists fear that the worst is yet to come. As the International Union for Conservation of Nature warns, the worldwide extinction crisis is "expected to worsen as the human population grows." According to the Population Reference Bureau, the world's human population is expected to reach 9.9 billion by 2050. That's more than 25 percent more people on the planet than the 7.9 billion people currently living on the Earth. Other species will certainly be squeezed out.

Biodiversity isn't just nice to have—it's essential to the health and maintenance of the planet's ecosystems, which, in turn, are critical to human health. In addition to providing sustenance, medicines and livelihoods to billions of people, biodiversity helps maintain the Earth's basic life-supporting elements like clean water, clean air and crop pollination, as well as critical ecosystem services like soil fertility, waste decomposition and recovery from natural disasters.

"Whether in a village in the Amazon or a metropolis such as Beijing, humans depend on the services ecosystems provide," writes Julie Shaw the director of communications of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, a biodiversity conservation joint initiative of the French Development Agency, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the government of Japan and the World Bank. "Ecosystems weakened by the loss of biodiversity are less likely to deliver those services, especially given the needs of an ever-growing human population."

There is also a massive economic benefit to biodiversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)—a three-decade-old international treaty adopted by 193 countries (not including, most notably, the United States)—points out that "at least 40 percent of the world's economy and 80 percent of the needs of the poor are derived from biological resources." Damian Carrington, the environment editor of the Guardian, writes that ecosystem services are "estimated to be worth trillions of dollars—double the world's GDP. Biodiversity loss in Europe alone costs the continent about 3 percent of its GDP [$546 million annually] … a year."

So what can be done to prevent the rapid extinction of species and protect the world's biodiversity? In April 2019, a group of 19 prominent scientists answered that question when they published the "Global Deal for Nature" (GDN), a "time-bound, science-driven plan to save the diversity and abundance of life on Earth," which, when paired with the Paris Climate Agreement, is meant to "avoid catastrophic climate change, conserve species, and secure essential ecosystem services." To achieve its goal of "ensuring a more livable biosphere," the GDN's main objective is crystallized in its "30×30" proposal: Conserve 30 percent of the Earth in its natural state by 2030. The idea has taken off, with 50 nations led by Costa Rica, France and the United Kingdom joining the movement to realize the 30×30 vision of defending big swaths of intact ecosystems from exploitation.

"Protecting 30 percent of the planet will undoubtedly improve the quality of life of our citizens, and help us achieve a fair, decarbonized and resilient society," said Andrea Meza, Costa Rica's environmental minister. "Healing and restoring nature is a key step towards human wellbeing, creating millions of quality green and blue jobs and fulfilling the 2030 agenda, particularly as part of our sustainable recovery efforts."

Nongovernmental organizations have answered the rallying cry as well. The Wyss Foundation, a private charitable foundation based in Washington, D.C., "dedicated to… empower[ing] communities… and strengthen[ing] connections to the land," has joined forces with National Geographic to launch the Wyss Campaign for Nature—"a $1 billion investment to help [nations], communities, [and] Indigenous peoples" mobilize to achieve the 30×30 goal. The campaign has launched a public petition urging immediate action to protect those ecosystems that have not yet been completely despoiled by the unrelenting expansion of humanity. "Protecting 30 percent of our entire planet by 2030 (30×30) is an ambitious but achievable goal," asserts the campaign. "To achieve it, all countries must embrace the goal and contribute to it; Indigenous rights must be respected; and conservation efforts must be fully funded."

And while the U.S. is not a signatory of the CBD treaty, President Biden can take unilateral action by declaring the wildlife extinction crisis a national emergency. "The declaration, under the National Emergencies Act, isn't just symbolic," says the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation nonprofit based in Tucson, Arizona, which has launched a public petition urging the president to take this important and powerful step. "It will unlock key presidential powers to stem the loss of animals and plants in the United States and beyond," the group says.

Biden's declaration would marshal the federal resources necessary to start safeguarding the hundreds of species—including the monarch butterfly, eastern gopher tortoise and northern spotted owl—that have been languishing on the waiting list to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act. Those actions could include directing federal agencies to rein in wildlife exploitation, defend critical wildlife habitat on federal land and use the nation's economic influence to help protect wildlife habitat around the world from deforestation and environmental damage caused by the private sector.

Thankfully, there is international traction to make the 30×30 vision a reality. When the 15th Conference of the Parties to the CBD convenes in October in Kunming, China, chances are good that delegates will secure a firm multilateral commitment: The current "zero draft" of the global framework meant to steer conservation efforts through 2030 includes the 30×30 vision as an explicit aim.

"We lose a species to extinction every hour, but extinction is not inevitable," said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, in December. "We can end extinction with funding and political will. We need to stop making excuses and take the bold policy actions necessary to save life on Earth."

A leaking oil refinery puts Biden to the test

A controversial oil refinery on St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is in the government's crosshairs after a third incident in just three months has sickened people. On May 5, after gaseous fumes were released from one of the oil refining units of Limetree Bay Refining, residents of the unincorporated Caribbean territory reported a range of symptoms, including burning eyes, nausea and headaches, with at least three people seeking medical attention at the local hospital. At its peak in 1974, the facility, which opened in 1966, was the largest refinery in the Americas, producing some 650,000 barrels of crude oil a day. It restarted operations in February after being shuttered for the past decade.

A Limetree spokesperson said that there was a release of "light hydrocarbon odors" resulting from the maintenance on one of the refinery's cokers, high heat level processing units that upgrade heavy, low-value crude oil into lighter, high-value petroleum products. The noxious odor stretched for miles around the refinery, remaining in the air for days and prompting the closure of two primary schools, a technical educational center and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV), which local officials said was shuttered because its employees "are affected by the strong, unpleasant gas like odor, in the atmosphere."

Limetree and the U.S. government conducted their own air quality testing, with different results. The National Guard found elevated levels of sulfur dioxide, while the company said it detected "zero concentrations" of the chemical just hours later. "We will continue to monitor the situation, but there is the potential for additional odors while maintenance continues," said Limetree, which is backed by private equity firms EIG and Arclight Capital, the latter of which has ties to former President Donald Trump. "We apologize for any impact this may have caused the community."

The May 5 incident follows two similar incidents in April at the refinery that the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR) concluded were caused by the emission of excess sulfur dioxide from the burning of hydrogen sulfide, one of the impurities in petroleum coke, a coal-like substance that accounts for nearly a fifth of the nation's finished petroleum product exports, mainly going to China and other Asian nations, where it is used to power manufacturing industries like steel and aluminum. Days after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told the company that it was violating the Clean Air Act after the April incidents, Limetree agreed to resume sulfur dioxide monitoring, while contesting the violation. "If EPA makes a determination that the facility's operations present an imminent risk to people's health, consistent with its legal authorities, it will take appropriate action to safeguard public safety," the agency said in a statement. The Biden EPA withdrew a key federal pollution permit for Limetree on March 25, but stopped short of shutting down the facility altogether.

Care2 has launched a public petition—already signed by more than 96,000 people—urging President Biden to shut down the Limetree Bay Refining facility. The petition also notes the risk that the refinery poses to the island's biodiverse wildlife, saying that "turtles, sharks, whales, and coral reefs … [are] threatened by the Limetree Bay Refining plant—both by what it's done in the past, and by what it's spewing right now."

The group also frames the human rights and environmental justice aspect of the ongoing public health situation on the island in historical terms: "On top of the obvious problem that no person should be poisoned with oil, St. Croix is an island with a highly disenfranchised population. The vast majority of residents are Black, the [descendants] of enslaved Africans brought to work on sugar and cotton plantations. For generations, the U.S. government has cared little about the well-being of people there." (One recent example happened in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which landed on the island in September of 2017. Even two months after the storms hit, many residents of St. Croix who were evacuated to Georgia were unable to return home, and felt abandoned by the government. "I feel like we are the forgotten people and no one has ever inquired how do we feel," said one of the St. Croix evacuees at the time.)

After the May 5 incident, Limetree said, "Our preliminary investigations have revealed that units are operating normally." Perhaps it is normal for such facilities to emit toxic fumes. But what's not normal is the fact that such fumes should present a constant threat to people and the environment, and that, according to the environmental group Earthjustice, about 90 million Americans live within 30 miles of at least one refinery. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Black people are 75 more likely to live near toxic, air-polluting industrial facilities, according to Fumes Across the Fence-Line, a report produced by the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force, an air pollution reduction advocacy group. That report also found that more than 1 million African Americans face a disproportionate cancer risk "above EPA's level of concern" due to the fact that they live in areas that expose them to toxic chemicals emanating from natural gas facilities.

You don't need to live next door to a refinery to feel its impact on your health; in fact, you can be several miles away. A study conducted last year by researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) found an increased risk of multiple cancer types associated with living within 30 miles of an oil refinery. "Based on U.S. Census Bureau data, there are more than 6.3 million people over 20 years old who reside within a [30-mile] radius of 28 active refineries in Texas," said the study's lead author, Dr. Stephen B. Williams, chief of urology and a tenured professor of urology and radiology at UTMB. "Our team accounted for patient factors (age, sex, race, smoking, household income and education) and other environmental factors, such as oil well density and air pollution and looked at new cancer diagnoses based on cancers with the highest incidence in the U.S. and/or previously suspected to be at increased risk according to oil refinery proximity."

In granting Limetree's permit in 2018—a move that E&E News reported was made to "cash in on an international low-sulfur fuel standard that takes effect in January [2020]"—Trump's EPA said that the refinery's emissions simply be kept under "plantwide applicability limit." But then in a September 2019 report on Limetree—which has been at the center of several pollution debacles and Clean Air Act violations for decades—the agency said that "[t]he combination of a predominantly low income and minority population in [south-central] St. Croix with the environmental and other burdens experienced by the residents is indicative of a vulnerable community," and added the new requirement of installing five neighborhood air quality monitors. "[G]iven several assumptions and approximations… and the potential impacts on an already overburdened low income and minority population, the ambient monitors are necessary to assure continued operational compliance with the public health standards once the facility begins to operate," the agency stated. Limetree has appealed this ruling with the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board, arguing that "the EPA requirements are linked to environmental justice concerns that are unrelated to operating within the pollution limits of the permit."

"It is unclear when the EPA's appeals board will rule on the permit dispute. The Biden-run EPA could withdraw the permit, and it is also reviewing whether the refinery is a new source of pollution that requires stricter air pollution controls," reports Reuters, adding that the White House declined to comment.

President Biden has made environmental justice a central part of his policy, including the overhaul of the EPA External Civil Rights Compliance Office, which is responsible for enforcing civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex or disability. "For too long, the EPA External Civil Rights Compliance Office has ignored its requirements under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act," states Biden's environmental justice plan. "That will end in the Biden Administration. Biden will overhaul that office and ensure that it brings justice to frontline communities that experience the worst impacts of climate change and fenceline communities that are located adjacent to pollution sources."

Now it is time for Biden to make good on his campaign promise. John Walke, senior attorney and director of clean air programs with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Reuters in March that the situation in St. Croix "offers the first opportunity for the Biden-Harris administration to stand up for an environmental justice community, and take a strong public health and climate… stance concerning fossil fuels."

Earth | Food | Life contributor Sharon Lavigne has previously written about a similar issue in another region before. Lavigne is the founder and president of RISE St. James, a grassroots faith-based organization dedicated to opposing the siting of new petrochemical facilities in a heavily industrialized area along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as "Cancer Alley." Writing in Truthout in October 2020 about St. James Parish, Louisiana, the predominantly Black and low-income community where she lives, Lavigne pointed out that "Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden mentioned St. James Parish in his clean energy plan speech because we're notorious for having the country's highest concentration of chemical plants and refineries, [one of] the highest cancer rates, the worst particulate pollution and one of the highest mortality rates per capita from COVID-19 in the nation," She added, "For those of us living here, it's not just Cancer Alley; it's death row."

The stated mission of the EPA is "to protect human health and the environment." When so many Americans face a disproportionate cancer risk simply by living near toxic industrial sites such as oil and gas refineries, the EPA is derelict in its duty. The Limetree Bay Refining facility has presented President Biden with an early test of his commitment to environmental justice. Considering the facility's terrible legacy of ecological and civil rights violations, three new public health incidents in just the past three months, and the disproportionate and ongoing health risks faced by the community's predominantly Black and low-income population, it is finally time for the federal government to revoke Limetree's license to operate on St. Croix. This is a perfect chance for President Biden to show the country and the world just how serious he is about environmental justice.

A pesticide linked to brain damage in children could finally be banned

A federal appeals court has ruled that unless the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can prove that the pesticide chlorpyrifos is safe, it must be banned. The chemical, which has been widely used on agricultural crops for more than 50 years, has been linked to neurological development issues in children, with mounting evidence implicating its role in autism, ADHD, motor and loss of IQ. In the 2-to-1 ruling on April 29, judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit gave the federal government 60 days to either rescind all uses of chlorpyrifos related to food or to show evidence that in certain cases it is safe for public health.

In the majority opinion in the case League of United Latin American Citizens v. Regan, which was filed in 2007, Judge Jed Rakoff, a Clinton appointee, wrote, "[T]he EPA has spent more than a decade assembling a record of chlorpyrifos's ill effects and has repeatedly determined, based on that record, that it cannot conclude, to the statutorily required standard of reasonable certainty, that the present tolerances are causing no harm," adding that "EPA's egregious delay exposed a generation of American children to unsafe levels of chlorpyrifos." Rakoff was joined by Judge Jacqueline Nguyen, an Obama appointee.

"Yet, rather than ban the pesticide or reduce the tolerances to levels that the EPA can find are reasonably certain to cause no harm, the EPA has sought to evade, through one delaying tactic after another, its plain statutory duties," Rakoff wrote in the opinion, in which he stopped short of requiring the agency to ban the chemical, but left little room to keep it on the market. "The EPA must act based upon the evidence and must immediately revoke or modify chlorpyrifos tolerances." Pregnant women and their fetuses, young children and farmworkers are particularly at risk from chlorpyrifos, which was first registered for use in 1965.

"There are numerous studies showing that exposure to chlorpyrifos in the womb harms children's brain development," said Dr. Warren Seigel, chair of New York State American Academy of Pediatrics. "The science is clear, and this pesticide should have been banned years ago."

The ruling "virtually guarantees" that the EPA will revoke food-related applications of chlorpyrifos, according to dissenting Judge Jay Bybee, a George W. Bush appointee, who argued that his colleagues overreached and "misread" the agency's obligations to review specific uses of the chemical that it had previously determined were safe. He criticized the majority, saying that it "substituted its own judgment for EPA's decision."

The EPA is reviewing the ruling, saying in a statement that the agency is "committed to helping support and protect farmworkers and their families while ensuring pesticides are used safely among the nation's agriculture. … EPA will continue to use sound science in the decision-making process under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act" (FIFRA).

The ruling comes nearly two years after the Trump administration rejected a proposed Obama-era ban of the controversial pesticide, keeping it on the market despite aggressive calls against its continued use by public health and environmental groups. The Trump EPA decision, made in July of 2019, was a major gift to Dow Chemical, the maker of the pesticide, in what appeared as an act of quid pro quo. On December 6, 2016, less than a month after Trump's election, the agrochemical giant donated $1 million to his inaugural committee. Then, on January 17, 2017, just three days before Trump was sworn into the Oval Office, Dow filed a petition with the EPA to reject the Obama-era proposal to ban the pesticide. On March 29, 2017, then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced his decision to cancel the proposed ban.

"This is what we now know is the modus operandi of Trump and his EPA: corruption couched as policy," said Ken Cook, president of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, following Pruitt's decision. "Trump and his political appointees at the agency show nearly every day that they are not there to protect Americans' health but to cater to the whims of polluters. If you're looking for evidence of corrupt collusion with sinister interests, here it is in plain view."

What a difference a new administration makes. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing the EPA to review the Trump administration's decision to deny the 2007 petition to ban food-related chlorpyrifos. It is unlikely that the Biden EPA will fight the appellate court ruling.

Environmental and farmworker groups applauded the court's decision. "Today, we celebrate this huge victory alongside the men and women who harvest our food, who have waited too long for a ban on this pesticide," said Teresa Romero, president of United Farm Workers, in a statement. "We are relieved that farmworkers and their families will no longer have to worry about the myriad of ways this pesticide could impact their lives."

The ruling could bring more attention to the public health and environmental risks of other harmful pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, which are deadly to bees and other pollinators that are key to crop pollination. Friends of the Earth, a nonprofit, has launched a public petition urging Americans to tell their congressional representatives to co-sponsor the Protect America's Children from Toxic Pesticides Act, introduced in 2020 by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.).

The bill seeks to strengthen the EPA's authority under FIFRA to regulate the distribution, sale and use of pesticides, and ban some of the most toxic pesticides used across the nation, including all neonicotinoids, organophosphates (a class of phosphorus-based insecticides that includes chlorpyrifos) and paraquat, an herbicide that has been linked to renal, hepatic and respiratory damage, and which is already banned in 32 countries.

Are pesticides even necessary? Some experts believe that, while there are obvious trade-offs to spraying toxic chemicals on crops, using pesticides properly can actually protect some parts of the environment. Pesticides "allow us to maximize production on the smallest footprint of land. This is called 'land sparing,'" said Tim Durham, a professor of agronomy and agricultural sciences at Ferrum College in Ferrum, Virginia. "If we decided to [forgo] pesticides, we'd need to appropriate a much larger chunk of land to do the same job and land that happens to be the most biodiverse and at-risk." Durham, who is also part of his family's vegetable farm on Long Island, New York, adds, "Pesticides provide some measure of predictability in the otherwise unpredictable world of farming, helping to stabilize commodity prices and keeping prices low in the grocery aisle."

However, some advocates of organic farming, which is committed to zero pesticides, or limited pesticide use under National Organic Program standards, say that conventional industrial farming that is heavily reliant on chemical use isn't necessary to feed the world's population.

"The myth that organic food can't feed the world isn't just wrong, it's downright counterproductive," according to the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit based in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, that supports organic agriculture research. "Organic can compete with conventional yields and outperform conventional in adverse weather. Small farmers using organic methods have huge potential to expand global food production. And only organic methods actively regenerate resources and protect the environment from pollution and toxic waste. For a healthy future, we can't afford anything less."

Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy's Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout,, AlterNet, Counterpunch, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

African elephants face serious risk of extinction, warns new study

Just like our own ancestors, the precursors of today's elephants originated in Africa. But while Homo sapiens evolved from their predecessors between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago, modern elephants first arrived on the evolutionary map much earlier: 56 million years ago. Our arrival ultimately presented these majestic animals with their gravest threat, as we have killed them in great numbers for their ivory and destroyed their prehistoric habitats to make room for a host of human activities, from agriculture and logging to urbanization and other forms of land development. Now a new assessment of the pachyderms has revealed a stark reality and a turning point, something that conservationists have been worrying about for the past few decades: If poaching doesn't subside soon and humans don't stop encroaching on their ecosystems, wild elephants in Africa could become extinct in our lifetime.

Nearly a century ago, between 5 and 10 million wild elephants freely roamed across a massive expanse of the African continent, from wide swaths of savanna grassland and arid desert to thick, impenetrable forests. But decades of slaughter and habitat loss have gutted elephant populations. By the 1990s, when their numbers had dramatically plummeted to only about 600,000 and their range was reduced to a few nations across the continent, African elephants were placed on the international list of critically endangered species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international nature conservation organization with observer and consultative status at the United Nations, maintains the Red List of Threatened Species, the primary resource that keeps track of the statuses of endangered and threatened species across the planet. The IUCN African Elephant Status Report is considered to be the most reliable estimate of the African elephant population. The most recent report, from 2016, puts their numbers at around just 415,000 individuals. On March 25, the group announced that elephants in Africa face a serious risk of extinction. Before last month's update, African elephants were considered to be a single species, listed as "vulnerable." With their new report, IUCN has officially identified African elephants as two distinct species (following the emergence of new genetic evidence) and escalated the threat level they face. Savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) are now listed as "endangered," while forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are listed as "critically endangered."

"Africa's elephants play key roles in ecosystems, economies and in our collective imagination all over the world," said Dr. Bruno Oberle, the director-general of IUCN, adding that the new Red List assessments of both African elephant species "underline the persistent pressures faced by these iconic animals." He added, "We must urgently put an end to poaching and ensure that sufficient suitable habitat for both forest and savanna elephants is conserved. Several African countries have led the way in recent years, proving that we can reverse elephant declines, and we must work together to ensure their example can be followed."

Part of their iconic stature that drives our collective imagination comes from their sheer size: Elephants are the biggest land mammal. And they also have massive brains, three times the size of ours, with individual neurons up to five times larger than human brain cells. "To look an elephant in the face is to gaze upon genius," argues Ferris Jabr, a contributing writer for Scientific American. "Here is a creature who experiences emotional intimacy with friends and family, who seems to understand death and treats its dead in a way that borders on ceremonial. Here is an animal who can recognize itself in the mirror, fashion twigs into tools, formulate and implement plans, and remember someone's face for decades. An animal that has exquisite ways of sensing the world we can never experience firsthand and a complex language we will probably never decipher. An animal whose cleverness parallels our own, yet is in many ways unique."

Sadly, their cleverness cannot compete with our rifles or our desire for their tusks. Broadly, IUCN found a substantial decline in elephant numbers across the African continent, with forest elephant numbers falling by more than 86 percent over a period of 31 years, while the population of African savanna elephants decreased by at least 60 percent over the last half-century. The declines were mainly due to a significant increase in poaching to acquire their massive teeth that stick out so magnificently from their mouths: Ivory is valued at more than $2,000 a kilo in Asian markets. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), elephant tusks are used to treat a myriad of health conditions, including epilepsy, ulcers and bone tumors, though there is no scientific evidence for any medicinal value in ivory.

It's not just the TCM market that is driving the slaughter—American trophy hunters, hiding behind the misguided logic that killing Africa's wild animals supports conservation efforts, imported an average of 460 African elephant trophies every single year between 2005 and 2014. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have an opportunity to end some of the bloodshed. In 2019, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) introduced H.R.4804, the ProTECT Act, which would outlaw the importation of endangered and threatened species trophies.

In March of 2020, Nicole Rojas, a Chicago-based activist who founded the animal rights group Wild for Change, launched a public petition on urging Americans to tell their congressional representatives to sponsor or support the ProTECT Act. Rojas, who worked with the Humane Society of the United States and Tusk Task Force to ban the elephant ivory and rhino horn market in Illinois, believes that education is key in making the shift in consciousness on a meaningful scale. After three years of working with Illinois state legislators, the ban was made into law and she set her sights on the power of young people. "I expanded my involvement with legislation and advocacy to all animals, including wildlife, farm animals, and domestic pets," she writes. "I created an outreach program to schools to educate children and young adults about wildlife poaching and its effects on ecosystems, people, and other wildlife."

Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation group based in Tucson, Arizona, believes that the IUCN report can be a powerful educational tool for those with the power to legislate and regulate on a federal level, saying that this new assessment "is a signal to the United States and the international community that major resources must be put into curbing ivory poaching and trafficking, closing remaining domestic ivory markets, and saving these marvelous, irreplaceable engineers of the forest and savanna from extinction."

The assessment follows the first-ever pan-African survey of savanna elephants, which was conducted in 2013. A monumental undertaking involving 81 airplanes and 286 crew members, the Great Elephant Census took aerial surveys spanning more than 285,000 miles across 18 African countries to arrive at a tragic conclusion: Savanna elephant populations declined by 30 percent (the loss of about 144,000 elephants) between 2007 and 2014, and the current rate of decline is 8 percent per year, with poaching as the main cause. The survey saw high numbers of elephant carcasses in many protected areas, meaning that elephants are not fully safe inside parks meant to keep them safe. All told, the census revealed that, in 15 of the 18 countries surveyed, populations of African savanna elephants have plummeted.

"The IUCN's announcement is a terrifying one, but it is also an opportunity for range nations and for those that deal in trafficked and trophy hunted products to act swiftly and pull out all the stops to protect these gentle giants," write Kitty Block, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, and Sara Amundson, the president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund. "A world without them is simply unthinkable."

The assessment comes on the heels of more alarming developments for African elephants: ReconAfrica, a fossil fuel company based in Vancouver, Canada, is exploring for oil and gas in the Kavango Basin, an eco-sensitive area in southwest Africa that sits along the border of Namibia and Botswana. This region encompasses the Okavango Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to significant populations of elephants, hippos, rhinos and birds. In addition to threatening the biodiversity of the area, the oil and gas exploration project is poised to unleash what Greenpeace has dubbed a "carbon gigabomb" that would consume one-sixth of the world's remaining carbon budget, which in turn would risk derailing the Paris climate agreement's goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Ina-Maria Shikongo, a Namibian-based activist with Fridays for Future, a global climate strike group founded in the wake of Greta Thunberg's rise to stardom, said that "under cover of COVID-19, oil and gas [companies] are rushing to cash-in on what they suspect is the last great fossil fuel find, as oil prices plummet amidst a glut."

In response to ReconAfrica's project, Rainforest Rescue, a nonprofit environmental group based in Hamburg, Germany, launched a public petition in December urging President Hage Geingob of Namibia and President Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana to halt ReCon's destructive plan. The petition argues that the project will not only foul the region's limited water resources, create air pollution and cause deforestation and desertification due to land clearing—threatening a host of unique species at a UNESCO World Heritage Site—but will also create the roads that will make it easier for poachers to hunt and kill endangered elephants and rhinos. "The exploitation would be a catastrophe—not only for the global climate, but also for wildlife, water resources and the livelihoods of local people," said Shikongo. "The oil needs to stay in the ground."

Still, all is not lost. While the recent IUCN assessment shows the alarming overall trend of declining populations of both African elephant species, the group also pointed out that conservation efforts—including anti-poaching programs, legal protections in the form of legislation, and better land-use planning to avoid human-elephant conflict—have together made a significant impact in stemming the loss. These efforts have had a measurable impact in some conservation areas in the Republic of the Congo and Gabon, where some forest elephant numbers have stabilized, as well as in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, where savanna elephants have actually been stable for decades, and in some cases, even growing.

Dr. Dave Balfour, a member of the African Elephant Specialist Group, part of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, offers some advice to legislators and regulators working on this crisis. While the assessment puts populations of African savanna elephants in the endangered category, he says that "it is important to keep in mind that at a site level, some subpopulations are thriving [so] … considerable caution and local knowledge are required when translating these results into policy."

"If we can't save the African elephant, what is the hope of conserving the rest of Africa's wildlife?" said Mike Chase, the principal investigator of the Great Elephant Census and the founder of Elephants Without Borders, a nonprofit elephant conservation organization based in Botswana. "I am hopeful that, with the right tools, research, conservation efforts and political will, we can help conserve elephants for decades to come."

To generate political will, perhaps elephant activists can borrow an idea from the early feminists, who embraced the concept that "the personal is political," and look at elephants as we look at ourselves and each other. "When we look into the eyes of the elephant," says Jabr, "we should recognize nothing less than an intellectual equal." We should also recognize that now, on the edge of their extinction, it is at long last time to stop the poaching, stop the encroaching and do everything we can to prevent the annihilation of our extraordinarily intelligent, emotional and magnificent fellow Earthling, the elephant.

Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy's Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout,, Counterpunch, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The dark side of PPE

One of the most distinguishable features of the COVID-19 era is the public, everyday use of personal protective equipment (PPE), mainly in the form of disposable face masks and latex gloves. And while these thin layers protect us and others from transmitting and contracting SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes the lower respiratory tract disease, scientists are now beginning to understand just how harmful these objects can be for ecosystems and wildlife.

The demand for PPE has put some countries on a war footing, to give governments sweeping wartime authorities to control the economy and compel private businesses to join national fights against the pandemic. "Our national plan launches a full-scale war-time effort to address the supply shortages by ramping up production and protective equipment, syringes, needles, you name it," said President Joe Biden in January. Even the inventor of the lifesaving N95 mask favored by front-line medical workers, Dr. Peter Tsai, said that countries should stockpile PPE as if they were on a war footing. "Weapons are not profitable," he said in August. "But they need to have the weapons and then they don't use them for 10 or 20 years. You need to see this kind of PPE as military weapons." A majority of U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have instituted "mask mandates" requiring people to wear face coverings in public to limit the spread of COVID-19.

But while these "weapons" that fight coronavirus have proved to be lifesaving for humans, an increasing number of non-human animals are finding them to be a brand-new, and often deadly, threat that has suddenly littered their natural habitat. One main problem is that face masks and latex gloves are disposable, and people often do not dispose of them properly. How many times have you seen a used mask or glove lying on the street or stuck in a bush or floating in a waterway? Welcome to the world's new pollution problem. (As if the scourge of plastic waste weren't enough of an issue for the global ecosystem.)

According to the World Health Organization, the fabric masks that should be used to fight the pandemic are made of three layers of fabric: an inner layer of absorbent material like cotton, a middle layer of non-woven non-absorbent material, like polypropylene, which is a kind of plastic, and an outer layer of non-absorbent material, like polyester. That means that these masks, if improperly discarded, have the power to threaten ecosystems for many decades, even centuries, to come. Polypropylene takes 20 to 30 years to decompose in a landfill. Polyester can take up to 200 years. Researchers from the University College London Plastic Waste Innovation Hub recently released a report that estimated that about 70,000 tons of plastic waste would be produced if all Britons wore a single-use mask each day for a year.

In August 2020, during a cleanup project at a canal in the Dutch city of Leiden, scientists discovered a fish trapped in a latex glove, a finding that prompted them to investigate whether this problem was more widespread. Their fears were soon realized: In just a few months, researchers found hundreds of face masks littering the city's historic canals. Their findings were released in a March report published in the journal Animal Biology about the impact that PPE litter is having on wildlife. The grim conclusion: All those face masks and latex gloves are killing birds, fish and other wildlife across the globe. The researchers, from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the Institute of Biology at Leiden University, and the Institute for Water and Wetland Research, all based in the Netherlands, said that animals are becoming entangled in the gear, while others, mistaking it for food, are dying from fatally ingesting it. Some animals are building homes with it.

"As always with these single-use items, you're not really looking after them and they end up in the environment really soon. They start becoming a real problem," Auke-Florian Hiemstra, a biologist at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden and a co-author of the report, told CNN. "I think it's ironic that the materials that protect us are so harmful to the animals around us," he added.

The scientists included specific examples in their study, such as a dead perch (Perca fluviatilis) entrapped in a latex glove "with only its tail sticking out" in the Netherlands; a common coot (Fulica atra) building a nest with a face mask, also in the Netherlands; an American robin (Turdus migratorius) entangled in a face mask in British Columbia; a juvenile peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) whose talons got stuck in a face mask in Yorkshire; cygnets from a mute swan (Cygnus olor) with face masks wrapped around their beaks in Lake Bracciano, near Rome, Italy; and a red fox (Vulpes vulpes), entangled in a face mask, and a European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), entangled in a glove, both in the United Kingdom. Even stray dogs have been found with PPE in their stomachs. The list goes on and sadly, will go on and on: Hiemstra warned that the entire animal kingdom may ultimately be impacted by humans' COVID-19 litter.

"It makes sense that birds are being reported—they're conspicuous, and you have a lot of people looking at them," said Greg Pauly, a herpetologist and co-director of the Urban Nature Research Center at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who suspects that PPE litter is being ingested by many wild animals—a serious problem, the impact of which we're not going to fully understand any time soon. "Ingestion isn't something you can easily see, and almost no one is looking at it," he said, recommending that wildlife biologists conduct more necropsies of wildlife across all species to collect data for future studies.

More than 30 years ago, the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group based in Washington, D.C., launched the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), a global trash-picking event meant to eliminate ocean trash, mainly in the form of plastic waste. Every year, volunteers from states and territories throughout the United States and more than 100 countries around the world come together to participate in a local cleanup event. The COVID-19 pandemic has broadened the event's remit: In July of 2020, Ocean Conservancy added a new category of trash to Clean Swell, the mobile app that volunteers use to log their cleanup work: "PPE."

In March, the group released a report on the rising threat of PPE pollution and found that, based on a survey of ICC volunteers and coordinators conducted in early 2021, 94 percent of respondents observed PPE pollution at a cleanup in 2020, during which more than 100,000 pieces of PPE—mainly masks and gloves—were picked up on beaches across 70 countries. More than half of the survey respondents said they saw PPE littering their home communities every day.

What can we do? "We really encourage people to use reusable face masks," said Liselotte Rambonnet, a biologist at the Institute of Biology at Leiden University and co-author of the Animal Biology report, told CNN. "All the interactions we found were with single-use face masks because they are inexpensive and can be lost more easily," she added. Unfortunately, disposable PPE cannot be recycled, so they must go into the regular trash. When doing so, make sure that all contaminated PPE is disposed of in a covered waste bin lined with a garbage bag and that they are always out of reach from children and pets. In no case should you simply toss your used PPE on the street or in a waterway.

In addition, it is critical to cut the two ear straps on each side of your mask before disposing of it to reduce the possibility of wildlife getting entangled in it. And let's take this opportunity to look at the big picture: How all our medical and plastic waste is impacting the natural world and what we can do to reduce this global pollution crisis.

"As we protect our communities and each other in the face of this invisible threat, we can also do more to protect our communities and our ocean from the impacts of the pandemic," writes Janis Searles Jones, the CEO of Ocean Conservancy. "Once the need for PPE subsides as the pandemic recedes, we have a real opportunity to reduce our overall plastics footprint and to ensure that the plastics that we use are recyclable, made of recycled content, and stay out of the ocean and our environment."

But even if we change our behavior now when it comes to PPE disposal, it may be too late. According to a report by OceansAsia, a marine conservation group based in Hong Kong, an estimated 1.56 billion face masks entered the ocean in 2020 alone. "Even if we take steps tomorrow, then for hundreds of years there will be face masks floating around in the ocean, still impacting our wildlife," said Hiemstra. "I'm afraid it will not stop very soon, and actually the problem will only get worse over time, sadly."

Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy's Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout,, Counterpunch, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How people of color are targeted in 'sacrifice zones'

The Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted how systemic racism disproportionately places danger and harm on low-income and minority populations. One harsh reality of this systemic racism is the existence of "sacrifice zones," which are communities located near pollution hot spots that have been permanently impaired by intensive and concentrated industrial activity, such as factories, chemical plants, power plants, oil and gas refineries, landfills and factory farms.

Designated by corporations and policymakers, these areas are a product of environmental racism, the systemic social, economic and political structures—including weak laws, lack of enforcement, corporate negligence and less access to health care—that place disproportionate environmental health burdens on specific communities based on race and ethnicity. Because they live in sacrifice zones, people of color in the United States are more likely to breathe polluted air, drink polluted water and be exposed to a variety of toxic chemicals and particulate matter.

The Center for Health, Environment & Justice, a nonprofit environmental activism group based in Falls Church, Virginia, asserts that "[d]ue to redlining, low property values, and other social factors, these communities have historically consisted of [low-income] and/or minority populations." The group adds, "Current federal air policies regulate facility emissions one stack at a time and one chemical at a time. Impacted communities, however, are exposed to the cumulative impact of multiple pollutants released over an extended period of time from a cluster of facilities."

In January, President Biden signed an executive order that creates a White House Council on Environmental Justice, which will specifically address the environmental impacts of systemic racism. "We must deliver environmental justice in communities all across America," the order says. "To secure an equitable economic future, the United States must ensure that environmental and economic justice are key considerations in how we govern." A separate executive order directed federal agencies to prioritize racial equity in their work, which incorporates racial and environmental justice across the federal government. However, without congressional action on the legislative front, the next president could reverse these orders.

President Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan has provisions that address longstanding racial inequities, including $20 billion to "reconnect" communities of color to economic opportunity. In addition, the proposal includes funds to replace lead water pipes that have harmed communities of color in cities like Flint, Michigan, and to clean up environmental hazards that have harmed Hispanic and tribal communities.

On April 4, the Hip Hop Caucus, a nonprofit advocacy group that tackles issues relating to health care, education and environmental and social justice, launched a public petition urging Congress to pass legislation that protects communities of color from the health risks posed by environmental degradation. The petition is co-sponsored by several other advocacy groups, including Progress America, Friends of the Earth Action, Coalition on Human Needs, Evergreen Action and the Progressive Reform Network. "Corporate polluters demand human sacrifices," wrote Mike Phelan, a spokesman for Progress America, in a recent email about the petition. "They each have a choice between profits and pollution―and every time, they choose profits."

In a 2004 report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrote that "the solution to unequal protection lies in the realm of environmental justice for all Americans. No community, rich or poor, black or white, should be allowed to become a 'sacrifice zone.'" In her 2014 book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein writes that "running an economy on energy sources that release poisons as an unavoidable part of their extraction and refining has always required sacrifice zones—whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable."

Four years later, scientists at the EPA's National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study in the American Journal of Public Health called "Disparities in Distribution of Particulate Matter Emission Sources by Race and Poverty Status." The report confirmed that environmental racism presents a clear and present danger to people of color across the United States, as they are much more likely to live near polluters. The study found that poor communities (those living below the poverty line) have a 35 percent higher burden from particulate matter emissions than the overall U.S. population. The health burden carried by non-whites was 28 percent higher than the overall population, while African Americans had a 54 percent higher burden. The researchers cited economic inequality and historic racism as major factors in the siting of facilities emitting particulate pollution.

Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter that are inhaled can become embedded deep in the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Such particle pollution exposure can cause a number of health impacts, including nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma and decreased lung function. For people with heart or lung disease, inhaling these particles can even lead to premature death.

"This report illustrates how people of color and people with limited means have been grossly taken advantage of by polluters who don't care about the misery they cause," said Leslie Fields, director of the Environmental Justice Program at the Sierra Club, an environmental nonprofit, in a statement. "The disadvantages that come with those health issues, like missing school, create a cycle of poverty and lack of access to opportunity that spans generations and shapes every part of the experience of being a person of color or low-income person in the United States."

Examining the study in an article for Colorlines, Ayana Byrd writes, "The findings show that 'those in poverty had 1.35 times higher burden than did the overall population, and non-Whites had 1.28 times higher burden. Blacks, specifically, had 1.54 times higher burden than did the overall population.' This translates to a 54 percent increase for Black people." She adds that environmental racism "has been called the new Jim Crow and continues to target Black, Latinx, Native, Asian and other communities of color, subjecting them to generations of poor health outcomes."

In fact, natural disasters like earthquakes, as well as those tied to climate change, like wildfires, floods and hurricanes, actually increase racial inequality. A 2018 study conducted by sociologists Junia Howell of the University of Pittsburgh and James R. Elliott of Rice University in Houston found that white Americans who experience disaster accumulate significantly more wealth than any other group after experiencing a natural disaster. "If you're white, over time, you're actually going to accumulate more than if you never had that disaster in the first place. But for black people, for Latinos, for Asians—it's not true," said Howell.

President Biden's executive actions to tackle the environmental racism that results in the creation of sacrifice zones are a much-needed change at the top of the government. Now Congress needs to back him up with legislation that puts an end, once and for all, to sacrifice zones.

Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy's Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout,, Counterpunch, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

A call for more plant-based eating has started a meat war

Colorado Governor Jared Polis's declaration of March 20 as "MeatOut Day" to promote plant-based diets—which are beneficial to human health, the environment, and the prevention of cruelty to animals—sparked controversy between animal rights activists and the meat industry that went beyond state lines.

Polis is not the first major politician to promote this message to eat less meat; he joins governors and mayors in 40 additional states and cities who have signed similar proclamations in recent years. Originally conceived in 1985 as the "Great American Meatout" by the Farm Animal Rights Movement, an animal welfare nonprofit based in Bethesda, Maryland, to protest a U.S. Senate resolution proclaiming National Meat week, MeatOut Day has been proclaimed by state and national governments around the globe.

"Removing animal products from our diets reduces the risk of various ailments, including heart disease, [high blood] pressure, stroke, various cancers, and diabetes; and… a plant-based diet helps protect the environment by reducing our carbon footprint, preserving forests, grasslands and wildlife habitats, and reduces pollution of waterways," said Polis in his proclamation.

The announcement was applauded by environmentalists and animal rights advocates. But there has also been significant pushback, unsurprisingly, from the meat industry and the politicians who support it. The Colorado Cattlemen's Association (CCA) slapped back with their own call to have a "Meat In" on March 20. "On this day, CCA encourages Colorado to meet in a restaurant and order your favorite meat dish, meet your family and friends for a meal featuring meat!"

"For our governor to say that we should have a meat-free day is the last straw," said Republican State Senator Barbara Kirkmeyer. "It's just one more attack against my county." Polis's declaration also raised interstate hackles. "That is a direct attack on our way of life here in Nebraska," Governor Pete Ricketts said at a news conference at Frank Stoysich Meats, the Omaha-based butcher shop where he announced the creation of "Meat on the Menu Day." Colorado Public Radio dubbed the growing clash a "carnivorous culture war."

But if Nebraska's way of life involved a healthy and safe natural environment and stable climate, then Ricketts might take a deeper look at what eating meat is doing to the planet. "It's tempting to believe in quick technological fixes that will let us keep indulging in burgers without the climate guilt," Matthew Hayek, an environmental scientist at New York University, and Jan Dutkiewicz, a policy fellow at Harvard Law School, wrote on Wired. "But the fact is that currently, the only real solution available is to produce and eat less beef."

As Polis said, plant-based diets do help protect the environment, but that's merely a more pleasing spin on the main, terrifying fact: Meat-based diets are having devastating consequences on the environment and climate. The emissions alone from the meat industry are reason enough to curb our meat intake. The livestock sector is responsible for 16.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and is currently on target to account for nearly half of the total amount of greenhouse gases that global human activity can emit into the atmosphere from now until 2030—if we are to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius maximum temperature increase outlined by the Paris climate agreement.

It's not just all the burps and farts that ruminants like cows, sheep and goats emit (which account for about 5.5 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gases), but the massive deforestation occurring, primarily in the Amazon, to make room for raising cattle and the grains, like soy, meant to feed them. The grazing land used for the production of meat and dairy combined with agricultural land used to produce the animals' feed takes up 30 percent of the Earth's land area—and 80 percent of all agricultural land in the United States.

In April 2020, scientists from the University of Michigan and Tulane University released new research that modeled different climate outcomes between 2016 and 2030 based on varying adjustments in Americans' diet. In one scenario, they found that if Americans were to replace 50 percent of animal products with plant-based foods, they would prevent more than 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution by 2030. In another scenario, in which Americans reduce their consumption of beef by 90 percent, that number would increase to preventing more than 2.4 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution from being emitted. That would be like taking nearly half of the world's cars off the roads for an entire year.

The scientists write that "this diet projection exercise emphasizes the important role that changes in diet can play in climate action," adding that such changes "will require the concerted efforts of policymakers, the food industry and consumers."

"Moving the American appetite from our burger-heavy diet to plant-based eating is a powerful and necessary part of curbing the climate crisis," said Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit based in Tucson, Arizona, which supported the study and released a policy guide, "Appetite for Change: A Policy Guide to Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions of U.S. Diets by 2030," to help decision-makers at the federal, state and local levels to promote the dietary shifts that must happen to prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis from happening, like deadly heat waves, sea-level rise, the spread of disease and extreme weather events, species extinction and ecosystem collapse.

"We can't ignore that public health, sustainability, climate resilience and food security are all part of the same recipe. Our government has a responsibility to make healthy, climate-friendly foods more accessible to all Americans, and that starts with the dietary guidelines," said Feldstein. "The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the meat supply chain's vulnerabilities, but our food system faces even greater long-term threats from climate change. We desperately need policymakers to support sustainable diets and a resilient food system."

In declaring Colorado's "MeatOut Day," Gov. Polis became one of those policymakers. And he doesn't just have environmental and climate science to back up his decision. Health experts and animal rights advocates also have reason to cheer. In 2015, after reviewing more than 800 scientific studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization's cancer research arm, classified processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen for human colorectal cancer, while red meat was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.

More recently, in a study published in the journal Diabetes Care in February 2020, researchers from Harvard University, University of Chicago, Oregon Health & Science University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine found "[c]onsiderable evidence from long-term prospective cohort studies… that diets high in red and processed meats are associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes (T2D), cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer (particularly colorectal cancer), and all-cause mortality." The researchers conclude, "For the prevention and management of diabetes and other chronic diseases, it is important to… emphasize dietary patterns high in minimally processed fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, while limiting red and processed meats."

There is also a powerful ethical argument supporting the shift from meat to plants, as factory farming is the largest source of animal cruelty in the entire span of human history. According to United Nations data, more than 70 billion land animals worldwide are killed for food every year. (Our fish consumption is another magnitude altogether, with commercial fish farms killing up to 120 billion fish annually, with another trillion fish caught and killed in the wild.)

"At no other time in history have so many animals died or suffered so much throughout their lives," writes the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Animal Equality. "For many animals, the only time they see and feel the light and warmth of the sun will be during the trip to the slaughterhouse."

"Meat has always been politicized and meat-eating tied to a lot of perceptions of American identity and masculinity, especially here in the American West," Heide Bruckner, a professor at Colorado University, told Colorado Public Radio following Polis's announcement. Bruckner, whose research involves alternative food systems like urban gardens, organic food and animal-welfare certified meat, supports MeatOut Day as an easy way for people to think about their food choices. "There is a large area in between that all-or-nothing approach that we really should explore," she said. "Realistically, one day isn't radically going to shift perception, change behaviors or reduce meat consumption. But I do believe it can provide an opening for some to consider the role that meat plays in their diet."

Perhaps there hasn't been a radical shift in perception regarding meat, but there has been a steady growing shift. Since MeatOut was first launched 35 years ago, Polis pointed out in his proclamation, "more than 35 million Americans have explored a plant-based diet and reduced their consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs; and major food manufactures and national franchises are marketing more vegan options in response to this growing demand."

Young people are driving that shift. According to research conducted in 2019 and published last year by YouGov, a London-based market research firm, millennials (22 percent) are far more likely than Gen Xers (13 percent) and Baby Boomers (11 percent) to say they've adopted a vegetarian diet. In 2019, YouGov polling found that more than one in five young Americans "say they would be willing to eliminate meat from their diet in order to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change." Younger Americans have shifted to veganism at nearly double the rate of older Americans, according to data compiled by Statista, a market research firm based in Hamburg, Germany. In 2018, half of American millennials were curious about a vegetarian lifestyle.

"Agriculture is the heart and soul of Nebraska," said Steve Wellman, the director of the state's agriculture department, who said meat products generate about $12 billion annually for the state. That may be true now, but he would be well-advised to look at the trendlines that show a big growth in plant-based diets—especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted food supplies, exposed the horrors of animal agriculture, and revealed the connection between the meat industry and pandemics. "[S]tartups focusing on plant-based protein—including Plantible Foods, Rebellyous Foods, Livekindly, and InnovoPro—have continued securing millions in funding amid the pandemic," reports CB Insights, a market intelligence firm based in New York. "Demand for vegan meat soared, with sales up by a staggering 264% in the 9 weeks ended May 2, 2020."

But it's not just startups that are getting into the plant-based market: Eight of the top ten meat processing companies, including JBS, Tyson and Cargill, are now making or investing in plant-based meat substitutes to meet the growing demand. Last year, Arkansas-based Tyson, a meat giant that is the world's largest food processing company, rolled out a vegan line. The company said it was part of their effort to adapt to "changing consumer demands." After OSI North America, which produces meat patties for major fast-food chains like McDonald's, partnered with vegan meat producer Impossible Foods in July 2020, Kevin Scott, the company's senior executive vice president, told Reuters that plant-based meat's "time and place is right now."

"Just as we will evolve past racism, sexism, ageism and religious persecution, we will evolve past barbarism toward animals, too," Earth | Food | Life contributor Nina Jackel, founder of the animal rights nonprofit Lady Freethinker, wrote in Salon. She may be right, but if we do, we will do so without the help of Gov. Pete Ricketts, whose meat-loving "way of life" is really a "way of death"—for people, animals and the planet.

Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy's Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout,, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.


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