Home | News | Nº 8 – What’s the relationship between soya, palm oil and the Covid-19 pandemic?

Nº 8 – What’s the relationship between soya, palm oil and the Covid-19 pandemic?

Sunday, 12th Abril 2020

By Uwe Heitkamp

Since the publication of the Club of Rome’s first reports (The Limits of Growth, Meadows et al., 1972), there have been many heated debates about the limits of growth. And rightly so, as our civilisation is reliant upon energy being available. Having energy available requires, in turn, even more energy, which means that suppliers must produce more energy than is initially needed. This excess energy, defined in terms of production capacity, has been decreasing over the last few decades (since 1999) for fossil fuel energy sources, while it has been increasing for renewable energies, albeit at a slower rate. This not only calls into question our current economic system, but it similarly affects resource availability and environmental management. It also makes the economy vulnerable.

Human activity has continually underestimated the complexity of ecological systems, heavily damaging them in the process. This hinders our efforts to understand these systems. We introduce some species, eradicate others, and end up destroying precisely what we need to survive. Just because China and Indonesia are far away, does this mean that they don’t affect us?

People are accustomed to thinking linearly. The painter who needs one day to paint a tenmetre-long fence will need two days for one which is twenty metres long. But the answers to the questions that have been put to us are highly complex.

Global supply chains are central to the destruction of the environment, and come with heavy costs due to climate change and the issues that they cause. We are facing a great chasm when it comes to these supply chains. The production of palm oil (used in Nutella and other processed products) and soya (used for industrial animal feed) to supply our country would use as much as 13% of the entire agricultural area of Portugal, or 12,000 km2 (600km by 20km). It is out of greed, selfishness, ignorance and cognitive dissonance that we ignore these numbers.

And the story does not end here. Diseases often emerge in places where forests and habitats have been destroyed. Within an intact ecosystem, all animals have enough space to live. They are part of the landscape, and each species has its own function. These spaces were once sacred to us. But nowadays we interfere in these places, destroying biotopes to develop monoculture plantations, producing palm oil and soya beans for example. In these times, the proximity of life has become a problem, especially when we hunt wild animals to sell and eat as a culinary delicacy.

Covid-19 probably originated in a wild animal. In reality, hunger and greed know no bounds. Afterwards, the virus turned out to be transmittable from human to human. Is it therefore so difficult to see how leaving habitats intact and protecting flora and fauna are fundamental practices for ensuring our health and our safety? Our lifestyles provoke imbalances in the environment time and time again.

So, what lesson can be learned from the Covid-19 pandemic? That we need to develop vaccines in record time? No! The best vaccination would be to treat Nature with respect and to recognise that the best policies for our health are linked to those policies that take responsibility for our environment. The illegal trade in wild animals should be punished with heavy prison sentences worldwide. We must make sure that cutting down forests and developing monocultures has a marked financial impact on the balance sheet of the companies involved. We can’t allow these companies to get away with paying what is, for them, merely spare change in compensation for the damage they cause to the planet, delaying environmental progress at the expense of future generations. If one jar of Nutella cost ten euros, nobody would buy it anymore. And Nutella would then look into the possibility of using an oil that can be produced sustainably.

My questions (post corona) are these: Does it have to be Nutella for our breakfast bread? And can we try to live more often without meat, and thus without (dead) animals fattened with soya in our food chain? Let’s go shopping for local food!

By the way: it is worth investigating where, and how, Spanish flue started 100 years ago, before arriving in Europe …

Happy Easter

Uwe Heitkamp (60)

trained TV journalist, book author and hobby botanist, father of two grown-up children, knows Portugal for 30 years, founder of ECO123.


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