5 biodiversity hotspots at risk for our food and drink

From chocolate to 'purple gold', our food and drink supplies are taking their toll on wildlife and the planet
By Kiley Price from Conservation International

The food and drink required by the planet’s ever-increasing population is taking a toll on some of the world’s most biodiverse regions. It pays to know where our coffee, seafood and chocolate comes from and the impact it might be having.

1: Chocolate

Where? West Africa

Photo by Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom for USAID / Flickr

Most of the chocolate you love comes from rough yellow pods of cacao trees in West Africa. Nearly 60 per cent of the world’s chocolate supply comes from Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, where humid climates create an ideal environment for cacao to flourish.

But this sweet treat comes at a bitter cost to West Africa’s ecosystems, contributing to the destruction of more than 80 per cent of the forests in Côte d’Ivoire in the past 50 years, decimating local primate and elephant populations in the process. Climate change is also putting pressure on cacao crops, with farmers paying the price, with average wages as little as 78 cents a day.

To secure a future for chocolate and the livelihoods it supports, governments and food companies must plant more trees in West Africa, and not just cacao trees. Planting a canopy of tall, locally grown trees (known as ‘shade-grown’ farming) can help reduce heat stress on cacao trees, while supporting habitats for endemic wildlife. In the long-term, shade-grown cacao trees could help slow climate change, as they absorb twice the amount of climate-warming carbon from the atmosphere as typical cacao plantations.

In Ecuador, another major cacao producer, 90 per cent of cocoa production comes from shade-grown cacao plantations, and chocolate lovers the world over are already reaping the rewards of this low-cost and high-yield farming method.

What can you do? Ensure that your chocolate bar is sustainable by checking the label for an environmental certification from a reputable organization or the ‘shade-grown’ stamp of approval.  

2: Coffee

Where? Sumatra, Indonesia

Photo by Chandra Arief / Conservation International

The dense rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia, are home to iconic wildlife species found nowhere else on Earth, from orangutans and tigers to rhinos. Among this sea of green, the stout Coffea arabica tree stands out, vibrant ruby beans lining its branches. These small beans are huge for the Indonesian economy, contributing to the more than 2.25 billion cups of coffee consumed around the world every day. But as temperatures rise due to climate breakdown, this bean’s journey to your cup is in jeopardy.

In fact, research shows that the effects of climate change have the potential to cut the world’s coffee-growing regions in half by 2050. And as demand for coffee rises, forests are being cleared to make room for new coffee farms in higher-altitude areas, endangering indigenous peoples and wildlife.

A broad coalition of coffee farmers, retailers and traders known as the Sustainable Coffee Challenge is working to ensure a brighter future for this caffeinated crop. With more than 140 partners, including Starbucks, Nespresso and McDonald’s, the Sustainable Coffee Challenge is helping companies and farmers increase productivity on their existing coffee farms to prevent further deforestation.

What can you do? To make sure your coffee purchase counts, look for brands that have committed to support sustainable coffee producers and the environment. You can view all the Sustainable Coffee Challenge partners here:

3: Seafood

Where? South-east Asia

Photo by Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation

The waters of southeast Asia offer a rare glimpse into the precarious balance of life in coral reef ecosystems. From vibrantly coloured fish to miniscule phytoplankton, every marine creature plays a critical role in maintaining the health of a coral reef.

Unfortunately, the same reason these biodiverse reefs provide a mecca for divers could lead to its demise, as overfishing and illegal fishing has soared across Southeast Asia in recent years. To keep up with the growing global demand for seafood, many fishers are depleting fish stocks at unsustainable rates, with more than half of Southeast Asia’s waters at risk from overfishing. Although illegal in most areas, some fishers use cyanide or bombs to quickly kill and capture high yields of fish, destroying the surrounding reef and decimating other populations of marine species caught in the crossfire. 

To protect the world’s seafood and the billions people who rely on it as their main source of protein, conservation organizations and governments are attempting a new strategy: sustainable aquaculture or fish farming’. By developing fish farms with minimal environmental impact, governments and businesses can keep up with the planet’s growing appetite for seafood while preventing overfishing.

Though sustainable aquaculture can improve fishing productivity, it does not address illegal fishing, which is why marine protected areas where human activities are restricted remain a crucial ocean conservation tool to ensure that the world’s coral reefs can thrive. 

What can you do? Be the person at a restaurant or supermarket to ask where it sources its fish from and whether it is certified as ‘sustainable’. If we choose to only buy sustainably and responsibly sourced things that are produced with people and the planet in mind, we can shift market demand. 

4: Quinoa

Where? Bolivian Andes

Photo by Bailey Evans / Conservation International

To walk on the high plains of the Bolivian Andes feels like standing on the ceiling of the Earth. This unique high-altitude ecosystem is home to plants and animals, such as the vicuña, prized for its fine wool and found nowhere else.

It’s also a source of one of the world’s favourite ‘superfoods’: quinoa. This tiny seed, a critical source of nutrition in this region for thousands of years, is sought after around the world for its versatility, subtle flavor and high protein content.

But the world’s appetite for quinoa is putting this fragile ecosystem and local livelihoods at risk. With consumers now eating more than three times as much quinoa as 20 years ago, many farmers have expanded their plantations to grow it for the entire season, encroaching into wildlife habitats and decreasing soil fertility.

According to experts, the key to preventing this land degradation may simply be leaving the land to rest and bringing back llamas. A common technique is sustainable agriculture. Leaving quinoa farmland unsown for a short period of time could help restore soil fertility. In addition, setting aside more area for llama herds could provide natural and easily accessible manure for farmers to act as fertilizer for the land.

What can you do? Only buy quinoa that’s certified as both ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’. All consumers are part of the solution, and doing this gives us the opportunity to ‘vote’ with our money.

5: Acai

Where? Amazon, Brazil

Photo by Carol Bergallo / Conservation International

Rewarded to those brave enough to climb the narrow trunk of a palm tree in Brazil, the plump, purple acai berry has nourished the people of the Amazon for centuries. Not only are acai berries proven to have immense nutritional berries, harvesting acai typically has a low environmental impact on forests, as they are carefully plucked by farmers without cutting down trees.

Recently, however, the global food industry has given this mighty berry a new nickname: ‘purple gold’. Sought after by health food corporations and skincare brands, acai berries are increasing value, due to high demand, which could be disastrous for the forests and unique species of the Amazon. Experts are concerned that acai berry production will quickly become unsustainable in Brazil, with companies clear-cutting native forests to make room for more acai trees. 

By driving jobs away from deforestation, food companies that source acai could help protect the world’s largest rainforest. For example, the food company Sambazon is exemplifying how businesses can source this ‘superfood’ sustainably, without sacrificing profits. Working with conservation organizations and regional governments, the company sources its berries from more than 20,000 local farmers in the Amapá and Para regions of Brazil, providing a sustainable, alternative source of income to highly destructive logging or timber companies.

What can you do? Before you buy this nutrient-rich berry from your local grocery store, make sure to do your homework about where and how a company sources its acai.

Conservation International:

Conservation International on Instagram: @conservationorg.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Two of the other biggest threats to the world’s biodiversity hotspots are plantations for palm oil, which is used in many kinds of food and beauty products, and deforestation for cattle farming, especially in areas of the Brazilian Amazon.

To find out more about palm oil, read our article: How to solve the palm oil emergency.

To find out more about deforestation around the world, read our article: The fight for our forests. And click here to find out how reducing meat in your diet can help the environment.

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NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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