Livestock and the Sixth Mass Extinction


Is the sixth mass extinction already under way? Scientists from Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton and UNAM University say it is. This video explores this alarming conclusion, the destructive role that livestock plays in this looming crisis, and what scientists say we must do now to avoid an ecosystem collapse.

Is our species already the “walking dead”? According to a report authored by scientists from Stanford University, Berkeley, Princeton and UNAM University, we are likely facing the sixth mass extinction in our planet’s history.

This beautiful planet where we live has been around about 4.5 billion years, and, in those years, it has faced five mass extinctions thus far. The last one was about 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs disappeared. All of the previous mass extinctions have been caused by natural phenomena, like meteors and volcanic eruptions.

But, it now looks like we are facing what could be the sixth mass extinction, and, unlike the previous five, this one is entirely man-made — caused by human activities like deforestation and overfishing. Species are disappearing and going extinct forever at a rate of 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than normal.

And the experts think this will affect humans as well. They pointed out that, “using extremely conservative assumptions” which “likely underestimate”…”underestimate the [actual] severity of the extinction crisis…, [t]hese estimates reveal an exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity over the last few centuries, indicating that a sixth mass extinction is already under way.” They repeated, “we can confidently conclude that modern extinction rates are exceptionally high, that they are increasing, and that they suggest a mass extinction [is] under way — the sixth of its kind in Earth’s 4.5 billion years of history.”

I can see how human activities like leveling forests and overfishing are causing species to go extinct. But in my selfish survival mode — in my selfish survival mind — I could think, while this is a terrible thing, it’s not going to directly affect humans, is it? If there are no more rhinos or no more kangaroos, that’s a terrible thing. But, it’s not like that would affect me personally, my way of life, right? But, it’s not like that.

As the scientists behind this study point out, “The problem is that our environment is like a brick wall. It will hold if you pull [out] individual bricks, but eventually it [just takes] one to make [everything] fall apart.” Biodiversity provides a lot of critical functions that we don’t even think about — from cleaning up the water and air, to bees and other animals and birds pollinating plants.

But I do hope we can avoid this tragedy, and so do the authors; but, they warn, “Averting a dramatic decay of biodiversity and the subsequent loss of ecosystem services is still possible through intensified conservation efforts, but that window of opportunity is rapidly closing.”

As Dr. Anthony Barnosky, a scientist from U.C. Berkeley who worked on this study, pointed out, “whatever we decide to do in next 10 to 15 years will decide the future of biodiversity on Earth.”

Such a narrow 10 to 15 year window to get this right. Should we wait until year 9 or year 14 to get our act together? Obviously not. This is an urgent matter. Action on a massive scale is needed now. The one bit of good news is that there’s actually something very practical and easy that we can all do right now in our personal lives. Specifically, the scientists behind this report ask that you do the following:

  • Number 1: Reduce your carbon footprint.
  • Number 2: Don’t buy products from endangered species (that’s pretty obvious).
  • Number 3: The author says, “Eat less meat — 40% of the Earth is…under cultivation, and if the lands used to feed livestock were used to [grow] crops for people, there would be 50 to 70% more calories available for humans to eat, which is enough to feed [one] additional billion people. It would eliminate the need to clear natural ecosystems like rainforests for farmland[s].”

That’s right! Livestock. Meat, dairy and other animal products.

According to the United Nations’ 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow, “the livestock sector may well be the leading player in the reduction of biodiversity, since it is the major driver of deforestation, as well as one of the leading drivers of land degradation, pollution, climate change, overfishing, sedimentation of coastal areas and facilitation [of invasions] by alien species.” They also say the following: “livestock production accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of [all of] the land surface [on] the planet.”

Is it really worth sacrificing our planet for our palate pleasure? Speaking of sacrificing, don’t forget the health aspects. Is it also worth sacrificing our health for our old habits of eating these foods? I’m a physician and I both eat and recommend a plant-based vegan diet. Protein is abundant in plant foods, and without all the problematic aspects of animal foods, which include increased risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, among many other health problems.

And speaking of sacrificing, we don’t deserve to shield ourselves from the suffering of the animals behind our food choices. Even if I’m not directly killing animals, when I pay for animal products at a restaurant or at a store, I’m indirectly paying for someone else to inflict harm and suffering on animals on my behalf. Animals are being killed by the billions in horrible conditions, after enduring horrible lives — just because we breed them into existence for a life of misery — just so we can eat their flesh and secretions.

Let’s not sacrifice our planet to eat something that’s unhealthy, unnecessary and needlessly inflicts immense suffering and terror upon billions of sentient animals. If you’re not doing so already, I urge you to leave animals and animal products off of your plates forever –- for your own health, for the planet’s survival, and for the animals. Thank you very much.

This transcript is an approximation of the audio in above video. To hear the audio and see the accompanying visuals, please play the video.

• G Ceballos, PR Ehrlich, AD Barnosky, A García, RM Pringle and TM Palmer. Accelerated Modern Human–Induced Species Losses: Entering the Sixth Mass Extinction. Science Advances. 2015 Jun: Vol. 1, no. 5, e1400253. Available here (accessed Apr. 12, 2016).

• A Singh. A New Mass Extinction Could Be Underway, Researchers Say. CNN Online U.S. Edition. 2015 Jun. Available here (accessed Apr. 12, 2016).

• H Steinfeld, P Gerber, T Wassenaar, V Castel, M Rosales and C. de Haan. Livestock’s Long Shadow – Environmental Issues and Options. United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization. 2006 Nov. Available here (accessed Apr. 12, 2016).

This video was written and narrated by Sofia Pineda Ochoa, MD, and edited by Bob Rapfogel.

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