Plants

How to Become a Biodiversity-Conscious Consumer

By Martin Montague

Biodiversity – the vast array of life on our green and blue planet – is under constant threat from humans. And we can’t survive without it.

A wide range of animals, plants and microorganisms are needed to keep Earth’s ecosystems healthy. This biodiversity is essential for the air that we breathe and the food that we eat. However, some of the choices we make as consumers are endangering plants and habitats – often without us realising.

Many products we have in our homes contain wild plants, or have an impact on them in some way. Some of these plants are at risk of extinction for a number of reasons including overproduction, whilst others have been entirely removed from ecosystems to make way for another type of farming.

The loss of one species affects another, with the potential for them to fall like dominoes until the whole ecosystem has collapsed. And this is often nudged on by consumer demand. But we can do something about it. By becoming better informed and choosing to buy with sustainability in mind, our purchasing power can instead be used to protect biodiversity.

jungle
Plant species are used in cosmetics, aromatherapy, and food and drink. © Dr. Morley Reed
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The (Unknown) Cost of Beauty

According to a United Nations report published in 2022, 26,000 plant species are used in cosmetics, aromatherapy, and food and drink. As demand for them grows, production increases to meet that demand – but it’s often unchecked. Only 21% of the plant species used in trade have been properly assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)1, 9% of which are believed to be facing extinction.2

One plant yet to be evaluated is the candelilla shrub. It’s endemic to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico but is found in products around the world in the form of candelilla wax, an ingredient used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and chewing gum. The lack of awareness of how sustainable production is has the potential to result in candelilla being over-harvested, picked beyond its ability to reproduce.3

Another unassessed species is Africa’s distinctive baobab. In powder form, its fruit is used as an ingredient in food and drinks, whilst its seed oil is used for cosmetics. The rise in its popularity could lead to too much fruit being collected, meaning no seeds are dispersed to allow it to reproduce naturally.4

Argan oil is another cosmetic “must-have”, added to everything from face creams to lip gloss.5 It’s made from the nuts of the argan tree but a boom in global sales has left trees struggling to survive in Morocco – due to over-production to meet demand – and the IUCN has assessed its conservation status as “vulnerable”. Its loss would have a profound effect on the whole area because argan trees hold the whole ecosystem together, their deep roots stabilising the soil by absorbing water, making them a natural barrier against desertification.6 They’re also a source of food for tree-climbing goats that eat the fruit – in fact, the undigested nuts were originally harvested from their droppings!

Thankfully, these trees are under the protection of UNESCO7 and conservation measures are in place. Morocco’s argan forest covers around 800,000 hectares8 and by 2025, it’s hoped that 200,000 hectares of new trees will have been planted.9

turtle in a boat with fish
There’s been a loss in marine biodiversity over the past 50 years due to over-fishing. © Tara Lambourne

Biodiversity Guidance

As individual consumers, we may feel we don’t wield as much power as organisations such as UNESCO, but switching away from unsustainable products has a cumulative effect. It puts pressure on those producers to protect biodiversity instead by changing to sustainable production methods.

A range of global organisations are on hand to help us make informed choices of what to buy. One such group is TRAFFIC, which works to raise awareness of the impact of harvesting wild plants and offer up-to date information to aid consumers.10

Increasingly, products bear labels that announce how environmentally-friendly they are. There’s the Union for Ethical BioTrade logo,11 for example, and in the case of baobab products, some brands bear a FairWild certificate to prove they’ve been responsibly sourced.12 The Ethical Consumer has a handy guide to ones to look out for.13

And from the land, we take a quick dip into the sea, where a staggering 80% of the world's biodiversity lives.14 There’s been a loss in marine biodiversity over the past 50 years due to over-fishing, so the Marine Conservation Society has produced the “Good Fish Guide” to help us make the most sustainable purchase from global fish stocks.15

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) suggests a number of practical measures we can take to safeguard biodiversity16 – and The Jump campaign is aiming for a two-thirds reduction in the impact of consumers in rich countries by 2030, through its six-point lifestyle plan.17 One step they say will have the biggest positive effect is moving to a mostly plant-based diet.18

Ethical Eating

Western diets have a heavy impact on the planet. The demand for beef accounts for 37% of all agricultural deforestation from 2001 to 201519 – and when forests are cleared, their biodiversity is lost, too. “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth,” says Joseph Poore, from the University of Oxford.20 According to his study published in the journal Science, it would mean a 75% reduction in farmland around the world, reducing the threat to biodiversity, while still producing enough food for everyone.21

However, some meat alternatives cause their own problems. Since 1999, soya production for humans and animal feed has increased by almost 25%. It’s farmed in a vast monoculture, meaning land has been cleared from what was biodiverse.22 With this is mind, in 2019, the Round Table on Responsible Soy Association (RTRS) began development of a certificate for environmentally conscientious producers. This global non-profit organisation intends it to ensure transparency in the trade and help inform consumers.23

flowers in a field
Biodiversity is under constant threat from humans. And we can’t survive without it. © Lois GoBe

Averting the Biodiversity Crisis

Biodiversity loss is happening all the time, often affected by our choices as consumers. But we can make a positive impact by thinking more about what we buy and switching to products with a less negative – or a more positive – impact.

After all, we need a healthy range of biodiversity as much as it needs us to help save it. “All forms of life are interconnected,” says Cristiana Pasca Palmer, executive secretary of the Convention for Biological Diversity. “We need a change of narrative when we speak about biodiversity; we have to make sure people understand biodiversity is about all lives on the planet, including our life.”24

This article was commissioned as part of 'Our Green Planet'. This is a digital initiative, from BBC Earth in association with The Moondance Foundation, to raise awareness for the beauty and fragility of our planet’s green ecosystems. Discover more here. #OurGreenPlanet.

Featured image © Vaclav Sebek 

1. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, 2. Un-checked wild harvests, 3. Candelilla wax, 4. Baobabs at risk, 5. Argan oil uses, 6. Argan trees anchor the ecosystem, 7. The argan forest is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, 8. 800,000 hectares of trees, 9. 200,000 hectares of new trees, 10. TRAFFIC wild plants report, 11. The Union for Ethical BioTrad, 12. Certified baobab production, 13. Ethical Consumer, 14. Biodiversity in the sea, 15. Good Fish Guide, 16. WWF and biodiversity, 17. Take the Jump, 18. Biodiversity and food, 19. Deforestation for beef, 20. Joseph Poore, University of Oxford, 21. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers, 22. Soya and Biodiversity Loss, 23. Responsible Soya, 24. Cristiana Pasca Palmer