Are your food choices killing coral reefs?

 coral reef tulum        Image: HUMANS 4 REEFS

As you might know, coral reefs are considered the "rainforests of the sea", is home to more than 25% of total marine species in the ocean and gives shelter and provide food to them. Is one of the most important and unique ecosystems in the planet and it can provide great resources and benefits for us humans.

Sadly, coral reefs and the entire marine ecosystem is collapsing because of human activity.

There are a number of threats to coral reefs worldwide. Some threats are natural and include storms, extremely low tides, and variations in environmental factors including temperature and salinity. These threats alternate with the natural rhythms of nature, meaning nature is prepared to deal with them, is part of the natural process.

However, it is the man-made threats to coral reefs that are especially concerning. They range anywhere from pollution, to the gathering of fish and corals for aquariums, overfishing, fishing with harmful practices common in industrial fishing, such as dynamite, trawling, etc, and, of course, climate change.

Of all of the man-made causes of destruction to coral reefs, it is a human diet that relies on animal protein that is especially harmful to this amazing ecosystem. Animal agriculture contributes to massive emissions of greenhouse gases, constantly contributing to climate change. This industry also sends a massive amount of runoff waste into waterways, eventually reaching coral reef communities and impacting the natural world in so many ways.

Climate change and coral reefs

Climate change is a threat to anything and everything, coral reefs included. And animal agriculture has a lot to contribute when it comes to this problem. While exact estimates vary on just how much animal agriculture is contributing to climate change, it is cited by many researchers as being the leading cause of climate change, even more so than all of transportation together.

 But how exactly does climate change impact coral reefs?

As you might know by now, coral can be stressed by changes in water temperature. Sometimes this element varies naturally within the ecosystem. Corals already require warm water to survive, typically in the 20-32 degrees Celsius range. However, any increase on this range even half a degree and it becomes an important source of stress for coral reefs, so the Zooxanthellae ( algae in corals) becomes stressed and leave their happy homes in coral polyps (animal part of corals) behind. That means a lot less food for the coral which take on a bleached look and may eventually starve and die if the zooxanthellae don’t experience cooler water.

Climate change is also destructive to coral reefs in the increased atmospheric carbon dioxide that often ends up in the ocean. Oceans, including coral reefs, marine sea grass, they all serve as natural carbon sinkholes, however upping the carbon dioxide dissolved in the marine ecosystem has a consequence, which is the increase in the acidity of the water.  And this makes for a very very bad situation for corals trying to form their calcium carbonate exoskeletons. Their growth slows down, eventually to a tune of 50 % of normal capacity.

coral bleaching

If corals can’t eat because their zooxanthellae buddies have "packed their bags", and they can’t grow because the water is too acidic, the entire ecosystem is threatened, And this is all for someone’s hamburger, pork-chop or cheese; How crazy is that?

Sedimentation is yet another harmful impact that the animal agricultural system has on coral reefs, and produces similar results as nutrient overloads. Soil often erodes away from agricultural practices that are not maintained sustainably. It can block out sunlight, similar to excess algal growth, and make it difficult for anything in the coral reef that needs photosynthesis to survive. Sediments also have the potential to carry pollutants attached to their structure, smothering corals.

To raise animals, feed crops are needed which can often rely on many herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. And animals such as cows and chickens may be given antibiotics and growth hormones to maintain their "health" and size before slaughter. All of these chemicals often end up, washing into a local waterway and potentially into a marine environment where they cause stress to coral, impacting early growth stages and causing coral bleaching

Our global food system dominated by industrial animal agriculture is at the heart of our environmental crisis, as simple as that. This destructive industry currently occupies over half of the world’s arable land resources, uses the majority of our freshwater stores, and drives greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, this system causes rampant air and water pollution, land degradation, deforestation and is pushing countless species, like coral, to the brink of extinction. And yet, one in eight people still suffer from food scarcity, does this sound like a working food system to you?

“The real war against climate change is being fought on our plates, multiple times a day with every food choice we make,” says Nil Zacharias, ”one of the biggest challenges facing our planet, and our species is that we are knowingly eating ourselves into extinction, and doing very little about it.”

water quality and coral reefs

        Image: @Queensland government

Animal agriculture can cause increased nutrient inputs in the form of excess nitrogen and phosphorous into the water column. This encourages algal growth and the nowadays "satanized ever thriving sargassum" in the coasts of the Mexican Caribbean,  which eventually eats up oxygen and blocks out sunlight, and leaves behind huge amounts of ammonium. Less oxygen is available to the variety of reef animals that need it, and organisms like zooxanthellae don’t get enough light to photosynthesize. The ecosystem becomes overloaded by only a few organisms whose populations have gone rogue, and a healthy and diverse coral reef community struggles to exist.

saragassum mexico

           Image: HUMANS 4 REEFS

What can we do?

The time for mild actions is long gone, we are in the middle of a climate crisis and we need a radical change as a species, to mitigate as much as humanly possible green house emissions and climate change.

The easiest and quickest thing you can do to help coral reefs and fight global warming today, is to cut off or cut down your consumption of animal products. You have the opportunity at every meal to make choices that protect coral reefs and all the life in them from climate change and agricultural runoff, is a direct way of making a world of difference for nature.

Think about it , if you stop supporting fishing, meat and dairy industries with your diet and you start buying local and seasonal fruits and vegetables and also you generate the habit to do some research on the ingredients you consume on each meal, you will be helping directly to stop animal cruelty, reduce plastic pollution, preserve marine life ( coral reefs included), mitigate global warming, reduce your carbon footprint, and most important you will stop supporting industries that are very harmful to the environment. We have the power to create change 3 times a day every single day, how extraordinaire is that?

"It's not a popular and comfortable fact to deal with, it puts humans face to face with their own choices"

You will still find a lot of people that consider going vegan or even "cutting down meat and dairy" as "radical"and talk about "sustainable consumption"; and you have to keep in mind that this justification comes within the comfort zone each person lives in, and that is ok, everyone has their own process and timing, we must respect that, but is important to lay it as it is, change is possible.

We need more humans that become conscious of their decisions. Is not an easy transition, specially because of thousands of years of programming towards that way of living, but is not really hard neither, specially with so much information and options nowadays, personal evolution and as a collective is achievable for those who want to live a cruelty-free and environmentally friendly life.

Through inner work changing the outer world is at our reach. Let's unite to change our planet to a more empathetic and less violent reality, where the actions considered as "radical" are killing, torturing animals for human consumption and destroying the environment. It's time for us humans to learn to co-exist with nature.

This is what we can do at a personal and individual level, however let's not forget it is very important to demand our governments, politicians and authorities to create and support more sustainable ways of living. For example, cleaner energies away from fossil fuels; or a better use of land far away from industrial farming; and to implement stronger environmental laws and punishments for those who damage the natural world.

This blue planet is our home, and we all need to take care of it, we cannot rely entirely on governments to do the right thing, specially if we can all do something to help. 

Let us know your thoughts on the comments below, we would love to hear from you. 

healthy coral reef nature

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