• Dr. Anusha Seneviratne

How much does Human Welfare depend on Nature? | Part 2: Over-Consumption vs Planetary Health

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

In part 1, I examined the most potent sources of man-made pollution and their effects on the environment, wildlife and human health. In this part, I will explore how certain substances we consume in excess can not only damage our health and human rights, but also huge swathes of land are lost for nature. 

Sugar Increasing levels of sugar in our food has become a great concern among health professionals as rates of diabetes, obesity - particularly among children - and heart disease are on the rise in the developed world, and are rapidly rising among younger people in the developing world, as we increasingly indulge in sweets, cakes and fizzy drinks. In one of my previous blog posts, I discussed how excess sugar can increase the risk of vascular disease and subsequently heart attacks and strokes [1]. On a personal level, I am often frustrated by the levels of sugar present in food items in the supermarket and with diabetes in my family, I am puzzled by how diabetics can control their blood sugar levels as sugar is even added to foods that should be savoury. Of course, we shouldn't eliminate sugar from our diets as it provides vital energy for our cells, but the levels added to many foods are excessive and unnecessary. Measures are being put in place to crack down on the food industry's indulgence in sugar, such as the sugar tax that was implemented in the UK in 2018. Before any damage is done to our arteries, plenty of damage is done on the land used to grow sugar cane. Akin to the levels of forest destroyed to facilitate growth of palm oil in places like Borneo, 31 million acres of land globally is used to grow sugar cane [2] to satisfy our sweet cravings as well as developing biofuels from the use of extracted ethanol. Much of this land has been claimed through the exploitation and eviction of poor farmers and their families from their homes and ancestral lands. Serious human rights abuses such as child labour have been committed in developing countries by illegal landgrabbers funded by multi-national corporations. Large scale land grabs have occurred in numerous countries such as Brazil, Cambodia and Angola. As a result, local families lose their homes, livelihoods, and cannot continue their traditional practices that allowed them to live in mutual harmony with nature for thousands of years. To add insult to injury, local people do not receive any financial benefits from the sugar cane plantations that take over their homeland. With the loss of local knowledge and practices, as well as the bulldozing of forests and mangroves, nature in these areas is being wiped out. One country that has suffered greatly is Cambodia, where nearly 23,000 hectares have been taken over by sugar companies, (backed by the European Union), by forcibly evicting up to 7,000 people. 4,700 hectares of this land lies within the Oral Wildlife protected area. This land grab has led to serious issues such as deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil contamination and water pollution. The evicted locals now suffer from displacement, malnutrition and mental health issues. Some have even been arrested and face criminal charges for protesting the loss of their own homes [3]. For these people, nature was their home. The shocking impacts detailed above highlight why we must not only cut unnecessary consumption of sugar, but we must also pressurise the food industry to stop using sugar to excess. The addition of sugar to almost every processed food item only serves to exploit our sweet cravings as we become more conditioned to a sweeter taste. This has even led to the genetic modification of fruit to taste sweeter, thus loss of their nutritional value [4]. The UK’s sugar tax is a big step in the right direction. But until we hold the food industry to account for their actions, further progress will be far slower than necessary. So next time you stuff yourself with a doughnut, you may not be worried about your risk of diabetes in 20 years’ time but think about the thousands of lives that have been destroyed to feed your temptations. That doughnut doesn't taste so good now does it.

Salt   Many of the arguments above regarding the impact of sugar on our health, applies to salt too. I have previously explored how excess salt consumption damages our arteries, increasing the risk of hypertension and subsequently heart disease and strokes [1]. But is the extraction of salt having the same impact on the environment as sugar production?    While the environmental impact of salt extraction is not on a large scale like sugar production, some concerns remain regarding the impact on the local environment.  Industrial scale methods used to speed up seawater evaporation and trucks transporting large-scale amounts of sea salt involves the use of fossil fuel-based energy. Salt can be mined in the form of Halite (also known as rock salt, the mineral form of sodium chloride). This involves pumping water through a well or hard rock with gas guzzling equipment, this can cause environmental damage such as air and water pollution, soil erosion, and even sink holes [5].

Large-scale salt extraction can damage the local environment. Photo credit: hbeiser on pixabay

Of course, salt is vital for many of our bodily functions, such as maintenance of the osmotic (water) balance of our cells, the electrical balance of our nerves and heart function. Thus, low salt levels are not desirable although it's very unusual to suffer from low salt levels as almost all our food has salt. But as with everything, it should be consumed in moderation, not just for our own health, but even for the good of the environment local to areas where salt is extracted. With so much processed food containing salt as a preservative, we can significantly cut salt consumption by cooking our own meals and teaching our children these essential yet basic skills so they can enjoy a healthier future for themselves and the environment. Educational campaigns and pressure on the food industry meant salt consumption was falling year by year. However, relaxation of English legislation in 2011 stalled the decline in salt consumption and this has been linked to thousands of new cases of cardiovascular disease and cancer [6]. There may be an alternative in sight for the current gas-guzzling methods used to filter salt from seawater. Normally done with membrane distillation, high pressure pumping squeezes water through plastic polymer filters to leave the sea salt on the filter. This is not very energy efficient. Researchers in the US have made a thin American basswood filter which is chemically treated to generate a surface slippery to water molecules. One side of the membrane is then heated vaporising the water. The water vapour moves through the membrane pores to the colder side leaving salt behind and condensing cool fresh water. This process doesn't require constant high temperatures and uses far less energy [7]. While time is taken to develop these innovations, we need to strengthen legislation and regulation of the food industry to limit the use of salt in food manufacturing, particularly in processed foods, for the benefit of our health and the environment.

Meat Meat and fatty foods have been a major concern for human health for many years. In a previous blog post I detailed how excess fat from the food we eat, deposits in curvatures and branch points of our arteries, akin to fat blocking our waste drainage pipes. An inflammatory process that leads to the formation of a plaque can block the artery triggering a heart attack or stroke [8]. Red meat has also been shown to increase the risk of heart disease by increasing the production of L-carnitine which triggers inflammation [9]. Not all meat is bad, it provides many vital vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B12 and iron, which can be difficult to obtain by other means. But more and more evidence is emerging that meat, particularly red meat, should at least be consumed in moderation.

Dairy farming is putting pressure on planetary health in more ways than one. Photo credit: Pixabay

It's not just detrimental health effects that is a reason to reduce meat consumption. There are many negative environmental effects such as excessive methane release from farmed cows. But it's the highly inefficient conversion of cattle feed into calories consumed by humans that presents the greater problem at only 1%. For each ton of beef produced, double the amount of land (leading to deforestation) and freshwater is used compared to production of other meats. Carbon emissions are also doubled [10]. In fact, the production of animal-based products is responsible for 78% of carbon emissions from agriculture [11]. A recent IPCC report suggested switching to healthier plant-based diets is necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change [12]. Another growing health concern that is being magnified by intensive meat farming is antibiotic resistance. Scientists are struggling to find new antibiotics and other means to quell bacteria responsible for serious infections such as sepsis and pneumonia. While the over-prescription of antibiotics for non-bacterial infections, unfinished antibiotic courses by patients and poor cleanliness in hospitals has contributed to this issue, a largely overlooked problem is the excessive use of antibiotics in farming [13]. Antibiotics are added to animal feed used to promote growth and reduce chances of mortality. As a result, resistant microbes spread through the environment from contaminated meat, poor hygiene and slurry running off from farms. High levels of antibiotic waste have even been found in discharged water from drug manufacturers [14]. This not only increases the chances of human mortality but could also seriously affect biodiversity as wildlife succumbs to deadly multi-drug resistant infections (as detailed in part 1).

As climate change progresses it also changes the type of infections that could threaten our health. Tropical diseases could become more lethal, we could start contracting more infections from other animal species we are not immune to, as human-animal conflict grows in the competition for resources due to human population growth. Warming climate in currently temperate regions could see the spread of tropical diseases due to the migration of insects such as mosquitoes. If antibiotic resistance and climate change are not tackled soon, infectious disease could become a serious threat to both human and wild animal health. And we have seen how deadly zoonotic diseases can be to humans during the COVID-19 pandemic. With so many concerns stemming from meat consumption, the vegan movement was born. One might argue that switching to largely vegetarian diets or meat substitutes such as soya meat still requires large amounts of land, but it is still considerably less than the land required to grow animal feed on top of the land used to rear the animals. For people like me who unfortunately suffer from bloating due to currently available alternative meats, there is another hope - the development of lab grown meat. The concept is appealing to many as it only requires the isolation of stem cells from the donor animal, such as a cow to produce beef, which are then grown in the lab. Thus, no animal culling and no unwanted parts like fat, eyes and other organs. Meat products resembling beef burgers, fish and chorizo can be produced although many need convincing when it comes to taste and the scale up of manufacture. But as technology develops the future could see lab grown meat becoming a more affordable and healthier option. But one has to be cautious about heavily processed meat alternatives that can have the same detrimental health effects associated with consuming high levels of salt, sugar and fat.

Smoking   The detrimental health effects of tar derived from smoking tobacco cigarettes, namely an increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease, are well documented, thanks primarily to pioneering research by the late Professor Sir Richard Doll. As a result, we have seen a recent surge in popularity of e-cigarettes, which claim to only contain the addictive substance nicotine without the harmful effects of tar. 

Children used to work on Tobacco farms suffer from serious health problems. Photo credit: World Agroforestry Centre, Flickr

While not necessarily being smokers themselves, tobacco farmers suffer serious health problems from handling tobacco in plant form through to the product. Tobacco plants are highly vulnerable to pests, thus require the use of high volumes of insecticides and pesticides. Not only does this deplete soil fertility, but these strong chemicals have been linked to respiratory problems, blood disorders, birth defects, tumours, neurological disorders, psychiatric disorders & suicidal tendencies for farmers. Hence these substances are banned in many countries, so tobacco companies have moved their manufacturing to countries with less environmental regulation such as Malawi, Nigeria and Indonesia, where even children have been taken out of school to work on tobacco farms. They too are known to suffer from breathing problems [15]. Despite all they endure, farmers and working children are paid very little for their work.   The human cost of tobacco smoking is grave, but what impact does tobacco smoking have on the environment? Despite cigarettes being small and the smoke released from their use seeming insignificant, the combined use by millions means smoking contributes significantly to poor air quality, particularly in major cities. Tobacco smoke contains numerous chemicals such as formaldehyde, methane and nitrous oxide, in the form of gases and microscopic droplets which can enter our lungs and cause significant damage whether you are a smoker or inhale the smoke passively. It is estimated over a 5-year period, the average smoker releases 5,000 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere [16] a significant contribution to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.   'Filtered cigarettes' were marketed as a healthier alternative but such misleading statements have increased the risk of addiction for smokers and the burden of non-biodegradable and toxic cellulose acetate filters from discarded cigarette butts in our environment, in addition to non-biodegradable plastic being used to package cigarettes. The non-biodegradable properties of cigarette butts is brutally illustrated in the photo below of a mother Black Skimmer bird in Florida feeding its chick with a discarded cigarette butt.

A mother Black Skimmer bird feeds its chick with a discarded cigarette butt at a beach in Florida, USA. Photo taken by Karen Mason [17].

Extensive areas of land have been taken in countries like Brazil for tobacco farming causing heavy deforestation. Wood is also burned to cure tobacco (i.e. drying leaves), which is the main driver of deforestation in Malawi. Chemical pesticide run off from tobacco farms pollutes aquatic environments and destroys fish supplies. High amounts of energy are consumed for manufacturing and transport of tobacco. But the level of impact is not clear as companies currently self-report their environmental impact and emissions, lacking oversight and regulation [18]. Unfortunately, much of the environmental damage already done is largely irreversible thus any effort to curb smoking and tobacco manufacture must aim to achieve the complete elimination of tobacco products used by smokers. There has been significant progress in cutting down on smoking in public places and the rise of e-cigarettes - which do not produce non-biodegradable waste. But with recent concerns over the safety of e-cigarettes as well, the more we can do to discourage new smokers and encourage existing smokers to quit the better. Changing health policy As detailed in this part, health problems afflicting humans share many common causes with sources of environmental damage. This is slowly being recognised by policy experts, particularly those battling health issues in developing countries, as climate change will hit the health of the poorest hardest. There has been a call to strengthen international guidelines and treaties, accountability systems and reduce the influence of commercial interests [19]. Dietary guidelines have improved human health in recent years but implementing environmental sustainability in parallel has proved a challenge due to lobbying from the food industry. Existing measures must be built upon such as further nutritional education in schools, high taxation on harmful products, and accurate labelling of food's nutritional content, while also ensuring the welfare of the poorest is not hit hardest. Ultimately the responsibility for change lies with the food industry who currently profit enormously from large scale production of processed foods, resulting in high volumes of food waste. More efficient food production and the elimination of food waste would reduce cost, reduce the need for large scale production and improve our environmental situation. As a priority strict regulation must be imposed on the use of salt and sugar in processed foods, and it should not involve slow phasing out to please the taste buds of customers. The use of antibiotics in meat farming must be phased out, while alternative means of meat production are developed. Tobacco cigarette production must be eliminated as soon as possible. And the cost to our health systems due to these issues should be levied back to the food and tobacco industry if they are found to contravene strict regulations. In part 3 - our dependence on Earth's ecology and how we are destroying it.

This blog post is updated from the original version first published on in 2019.

References [1] 6 ways to cut your heart attack risk [2] Oxfam briefing note "Sugar Rush" October 2013 [3] Environmental Justice Atlas 'Blood sugar' land grab by Phnom Penh Sugar Company, Kampong Speu, Cambodia [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] Blocked pipework in our hearts [9] Red meat - it's that gut feeling [10] World Resources Institute [11] Science 360 (6392) 987-992, 01 Jun 2018, doi:10.1126/science.aaq0216 [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18];jsessionid=5A00A7D300AED7129C7C0F24AC25D76E?sequence=1 [19]

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