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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: How are the world’s reptile species faring in terms of population numbers and endangered status? What’s being done, if anything, to help them?

—Vicky Desmond, Troy, NY

The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers some 664 species of reptiles, including turtles, snakes, lizards, alligators and crocodiles, as endangered or facing extinction. Pictured: A freshwater turtle destined for the pet trade.

Photo © iStockPhoto

The world’s reptiles—turtles, snakes, lizards, alligators and crocodiles—are indeed in trouble. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which publishes an annual global roster of threatened and endangered species called the Red List, considers some 664 species of reptiles—representing more than 20 percent of known reptile species worldwide—as endangered or facing extinction. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service considers about 10 percent of American reptiles threatened or endangered.

Why care? The non-profit Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) considers reptiles “amazing creatures” with clever adaptations that have helped them survive for millions of years. CBD also points out that reptiles are valuable indicators of wider ecological health. “Because many reptile species are long-lived and relatively slow-moving, they suffer from disturbances like habitat loss or pollution for extended periods,” the group reports, adding that a diverse community of reptiles living in a given area is evidence of a healthy ecosystem that can support the plant and animal life they and other species need for food and cover.

So what’s causing the reptiles’ decline? “While habitat loss is the most obvious cause of endangerment, declines are even even occurring in pristine areas from threats such as disease, UV radiation and climate change,” reports CBD. Overcollecting and unregulated hunting also are taking a toll on reptile populations.

In order to help stem the tide of reptile loss, CBD leverages the court system to pressure the federal government to protect at-risk species. For instance, back in 2004 the group worked with the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection in filing a petition to add the Tucson shovel-nosed snake, which dwells in the quickly disappearing wild desert around fast-growing cities like Tucson and Phoenix, to the federal list of endangered species. Finally in 2011 the federal government agreed that it would add the snake to its list of endangered species which will help it get the habitat protection needed to ensure long term survival.

CBD also works on other fronts for reptiles. The group’s campaign to outlaw “rattlesnake round-ups”—contests whereby hunters collect and kill as many snakes as they can in a year—has helped stem population declines of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. And CBD’s efforts to educate the public about the plight of freshwater turtles, which are “overcollected” for food and the pet trade in the southern and midwestern parts of the U.S., helped convince several states for the first time to regulate turtle harvests.

One way everyone can help reptile species in decline is to make our backyards friendly to them. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center offers tips on what to plant and how to arrange a landscape to encourage reptiles and other wildlife. Landowners that take these steps may be rewarded with fewer pests, given reptiles taste for large numbers of mosquitoes and other insects as well as small rodents. Other pro-reptile tips include driving carefully (road mortality is a big issue for snakes, turtles and other species) and keeping outside areas around your property free of garbage that might attract raccoons, crows and other pests that also prey on reptiles.

CONTACTS: CBD; Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

 
 

 

Dear EarthTalk: We’ve been hearing for years how producing red meat is bad for the environment while consuming it is bad for our health. How do other types of meat, fish, dairy and vegetable proteins stack up in terms of environmental and health impacts?

—Julia Saperstein, via e-mail

A study by the Environmental Working Group assessed the climate impacts of 20 popular types of meat, fish, dairy and vegetable proteins and concluded that beef has more than twice the emissions of pork, nearly four times more than chicken and more than 13 times as much as vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu.

© iStockPhoto

Not all forms of protein are created equal as to the environmental and health implications of raising and consuming them. A 2011 assessment by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that “different meats and different production systems have varying health, climate and other environmental impacts.”

The quantity of chemical fertilizers, fuel and other “production inputs” used, the differences in soil conditions and production systems and the extent to which best practices such as cover cropping, intensive grazing or manure management are implemented all affect the amount of greenhouse gas emissions a meat product is responsible for generating. To wit, lamb, beef, cheese, pork and farmed salmon raised “conventionally” (e.g. with inputs including hormones and antibiotics and feed derived from crops grown with chemical pesticides and fertilizers) were determined by EWG to generate the most greenhouse gases.

EWG partnered with the environmental analysis firm CleanMetrics to assess the climate impacts via lifecycle assessments of 20 popular types of meat, fish, dairy and vegetable proteins. EWG’s assessment calculated the full “cradle-to-grave” carbon footprint of each food item based on the greenhouse gas emissions generated before and after it left the farm—from the pesticides and fertilizer used to grow animal feed all the way through the grazing, animal raising, processing, transportation, cooking and even disposal of unused food (since some 20 percent of edible meat gets thrown away by Americans).

According to EWG, conventionally raised lamb, beef, cheese and pork also generate more polluting waste, pound for pound. Of these, lamb has the greatest impact, followed by beef and then by cheese—so vegetarians who eat dairy aren’t off the hook. “Beef has more than twice the emissions of pork, nearly four times more than chicken and more than 13 times as much as vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu,” summarizes EWG.

On the health front, EWG reports that “eating too much of these greenhouse gas-intensive meats boosts exposure to toxins and increases the risk of a wide variety of serious health problems, including heart disease, certain cancers, obesity and, in some studies, diabetes.”

Besides cutting out animal-derived proteins altogether, the best thing we can do for our health and the environment is to cut down on our meat consumption and choose only organic, humane and/or grass-fed meat, eggs and dairy. “Overall, these products are the least harmful, most ethical choices,” says EWG, adding that grass-fed and pasture-raised products are typically more nutritious and carry less risk of bacterial contamination. “While best management practices can demonstrably reduce overall emissions and environmental harm, the most effective and efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts from livestock is simply to eat, waste and produce less meat and dairy.” For more information, check out EWG’s free online “Meat Eater’s Guide.”

CONTACTS: EWG Meat Eater’s Guide.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

 

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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