Sir David Attenborough is blunt in his view of the state of the planet. “We’ve not just ruined the planet, we’ve destroyed it” he said. “Our species has cleared 3 trillion trees, cultivated half its fertile land and now fishes across most of the ocean,” he explained in Our Planet. “In the last 50 years, the populations of wild animals have reduced by 60%. We’ve replaced them with ourselves and our domesticated animals and plants. Today, we, plus the animals we raise, account for 96% of the mass of mammals and 70% of the birds on Earth. There’s very little wild left.”
Let’s take a look at why these shocking statistics are occurring. The world’s 7.8 billion people, plus all the livestock we raise, now account for 96% of all the mammals on Earth. Only 4% are wild animals. Humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of the plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds.
There are several major factors at work here. The first factor is that the earth’s human population is now at 7.8 billion. All those people need food on a daily basis to survive.
The second factor is that the amount of meat each human consumes has risen steadily over the past 60 years, although last year there was a slight decrease for the first time, possibly due to Covid-19 reducing income levels. While the production of beef has been slightly declining since 1975, the consumption of pork and especially chicken has risen dramatically. As long as people choose to eat meat, farmers will continue to raise the animals needed to produce it.
The third factor is that around 85% of the world’s production of soybeans go to feed animals, and farm animals use almost 40% of the world’s grain for feed as well. In the US, this last figure rises to 70% of grain, since rice and corn aren’t the staple foods that they are in other countries.
The result of these 3 problems is that we are clearing land to raise livestock or to grow crops to feed them on a massive scale. That’s leading to deforestation, soil degradation, loss of habitat, water pollution and ocean dead zones.
The destruction of wild habitat for farming, along with deforestation and development, has resulted in what many scientists consider the sixth mass extinction of life to occur in the Earth’s 4 billion year history. About half the Earth’s animals are thought to have been lost in the past 50 years. This biodiversity loss is not just a tragedy, it’s the single biggest problem we face, according to David Attenborough.
By choosing to avoid consuming animal products, we can reduce the level of this devastation, and help the world’s animal and plant populations to recover their diversity.