3 Common Sweet Treats | How They Impact Biodiversity
Desserts and sweet treats can often be an afterthought when we think about our diets as a whole. But these foods have an environmental impact, just like your beef burger does. Here are a few familiar sweet treats, and the ways their production can affect biodiversity and your own carbon footprint.
Biscuits and ice cream
Did you know that one of the key ingredients in many everyday items – including desserts – is actually an oil? Palm oil comes from the fruit of the African oil palm. Many foods and household objects contain palm oil – from biscuits and ice cream, to shampoo, laundry detergent, and even lipstick. Palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature, helping stop chocolate melting and giving ice cream a smooth creamy texture. It also has a neutral taste, which is helpful in biscuits and baked goods.2
Palm oil production in recent decades has expanded throughout the world. In part, this is because it is an efficient crop to grow – a unit of land used to grow oil palms produces four to 10 times more oil than land used to produce other vegetable oils, such as sunflower or rapeseed.3
Palm oil is grown widely in Indonesia. There, forests have been turned into palm oil plantations, transforming them from diverse ecosystems to monocultures. Monocultures – where a single crop is grown in a particular area – are a problem for biodiversity, because they make it hard for a wide variety of other plants and animals to thrive.
The spread of palm oil plantations is one of the main reasons orangutans are critically endangered. And it’s not just animals: around 40% of Indonesia’s plants exist nowhere else on Earth, and deforestation risks losing them forever.4
If you’re concerned about palm oil, check for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) label, which means your food contains certified sustainable palm oil.3
It’s not just demand for products containing palm oil that leads to biodiversity-harming deforestation. Demand for cocoa beans – used to make chocolate – has also driven large scale deforestation. West Africa’s Côte d'Ivoire is testament to this, producing around 40% of the world’s cocoa. Undoubtedly this has contributed to the country’s 80% drop in rainforest cover since 1960.5
A growing number of these cocoa farms are located inside national parks and other protected areas. One study that looked at 23 protected areas in the country with illegal cocoa plantations, found that 13 had lost their entire primate populations.6
Widespread deforestation is also bad news for the cocoa plant itself. Shade from remaining trees is needed to prevent high temperatures during the warmer seasons from drying out the soil.7 If growers don’t follow sustainable farming practices, growing cocoa can reduce the fertility of the soil, making it hard to keep producing the crop on that land – driving more deforestation as they expand to more fertile growing areas.
Thankfully, there is such a thing as “forest friendly” cocoa beans. Farmers in the Gola rainforest in Sierra Leone, for example, grow cocoa among native forest trees. Growing amongst the native trees helps to preserve the natural environment that provides a home to many endangered species including pygmy hippopotamuses and chimpanzees, as well as hundreds of species of birds and butterflies.8
Fruit might seem like a virtuous choice when it comes to dessert, but does that halo remain when we consider its environmental impact?
Changing large swathes of land into banana plantations affects biodiversity in Latin America in the same way that deforestation for palm oil and cocoa does elsewhere. But bananas have perhaps an even more extreme biodiversity problems themselves: 47% of the bananas grown globally are one particular variety, Cavendish, and they make up the vast majority of bananas supplied to the US and Europe.9
This lack of genetic diversity makes them vulnerable to pests and disease, so large amounts of pesticides are used to ward off these dangers. These pesticides affect the surrounding environment by leaching into waterways, destroying aquatic life – either directly by poisoning fish and other species, or indirectly by making them more susceptible to disease and predators, or destroying plants and insects that act is food for fish – and contributing to soil erosion. In Ecuador, the country that exports the most bananas worldwide, the average commercial producer of bananas spends more on agrochemicals than on labour costs.9
Pesticides are often used with other fruits too, including staples like apples, oranges, and grapes, killing off beneficial insects in the local environment, as well as other plants.10
Organic farming cuts way down on the use of artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, so if you’re looking for biodiversity-friendly fruit, going organic may be one way to achieve that.11
Do you try to buy food containing sustainable palm oil, or look for fruit grown without pesticides? Let us know below!