As the world’s human population increases, other species decline, on average by almost a third in the past 40 years. In an equivalent 40 years, from 1950 to 1990, the population of our species doubled to 5 billion. Just before the end of the 20th century, it passed 6 billion and is still growing.
Suppose people world‐wide were asked to voluntarily limit their families to one child, perhaps for a generation or two? For the love of that child, and so it could share the planet with freely living wild creatures, would we be willing to do this? For our survival alone, could humans carry out this single, simple act?
One in five of the world’s remaining mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians are now under threat of extinction, according to a 2010 survey by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
We share this whirling rock with about 5,500 other types of mammals, plus tens of thousands of other species. How has one creature come to dominate such a complex system?
It has been suggested that this dominance began when humans started to domesticate other animals. Yet we are not the only creatures to co‐exist with others for mutual benefit, there are many other examples in nature. However our large brains have led to us developing technology that we are too immature to use responsibly. Surely we would do better to consider our state rather than our behaviour?
One person who deeply considers this situation is Jared Diamond*, Pulitzer Prize‐winning author. He has calculated that only 15 of the world’s 148 large mammals have evolved with the temperament and attributes to be suitable for human domestication. Counting the llama and alpaca as one species, the remainder are: cow, sheep, goat, horse, pig, reindeer, donkey, Arabian camel, Asian camel, water buffalo, yak, Bali cattle and gaur (Indian wild cattle). Five of these species are farmed in New Zealand.
Our technology now enables entire forests worldwide to be felled, river deltas fenced and swamp plains dried out to provide pasture and cut fodder for these teeming herds, leaving less and less territory for other creatures.
As these captives breed and their numbers expand for people’s satisfaction, free species are denied food and finally pushed into extinction.
For domestication, humans seek animals that breed well in captivity, are non‐fussy eaters and grow quickly, are of placid temperament and have a strong, well‐defined social hierarchy where different social groups are tolerant of one another. Once in captivity, such benign qualities work against these benevolent creatures, millions of whom live on New Zealand farms, mostly as breeding females or castrated males.
In New Zealand, dairy cow breeding is from the most docile, passive, large‐breasted females. This has transformed not only their temperament but also dairy cows’ physiology. Due to their heavy, unwieldy milk udders, some breeds now experience an inability to walk freely, along with leg problems.
Technological interference extends into every domesticated species, leading to well‐documented situations of unutterable cruelty. In Aotearoa’s South Island, there are herds of 700‐plus dairy cows. The land and climate cannot provide natural pasture for such numbers, so cows endure the bovine equivalent of factory farming. In Southland, they are kept inside virtually all year round, denied all exercise and free movement unless it is to obtain food and water – and of course, provide their milk. Absurdly, leaving the welfare of the cows out of the equation, this has been claimed as better for the environment.To feed their herds, New Zealand dairy farmers buy imported palm kernel, $300 million worth in 2008. In that year, our cows ate a quarter of the world’s total consumption of this palm oil by‐product. Kiwi dairy farmers are helping turn the once‐lush Indonesian forest, the world’s last great rainforest, into a charred, smoking wasteland to grow palm nuts for palm oil.
Destroyed along with the forest is the endangered orangutan, a creature that shares 96% of its DNA with humans.
Sheep in New Zealand fare only a little better. Vast flocks of harmless ewes and hapless wethers (castrated males) are too often fenced in confined pastures where they must graze on fouled pasture, breed, and lose their wool in conditions more related to the farmers’ profit than to nature.
Such immense flocks and herds are not needed in any practical sense by this small country with its modest population. We have been beguiled by the relentless demand for economic growth into believing that such large‐scale farming for exports is for our benefit.
This country has a proud history of refusing to buy products from nations with aberrant practices. Are we bold enough to demand a boycott of Fonterra’s products? Are we brave enough, at the same time, to confront some of the destructive farming practices of this dairy giant? Dare we take this risk, knowing that many politicians, businesses and influential people are ‘on Fonterra’s payroll’? And if New Zealand must import fewer consumer goods as a result of a drop in our export receipts, are we willing to ‘go without’ for a time, so this land can survive?
As well as studying domesticated animals, Jared Diamond has observed that of the planet’s approximately 400,000 known plants, only about 200 have been domesticated for human use.
Of these 200, a mere dozen now account for over 80 percent of the modern world’s farmed crops. Those are the cereals: wheat, corn, rice, barley, and sorghum; the pulse soybean; the roots or tubers: potato, manioc, and sweet potato; the sugar sources sugarcane and sugar beet; and the fruit banana.
New Zealand’s planting of wheat is down 60% and barley down 50% since 1972. As more and more arable land is turned over to dairying, many cereal crops have to be imported both for us and for our domesticated animals. Of Diamond’s “dozen”, potatoes and corn are now the main ones grown here.
Destined to benefit humans and their domesticated animals, these dozen crops occupy much of the world’s remaining fertile land. All other creatures that might compete for the food are destroyed or driven off by technology in a way that virtually amounts to warfare. Over 20% of the world’s plants are also now threatened with extinction due to human activities. Nearly two‐thirds of these endangered plants are found in tropical rainforests, with our farming practices contributing to this destruction.
Although the situation would be far worse were it not for current global conservation efforts, there is no evidence yet of the radical change of heart needed to halt this downward spiral.
When the land and resources are finally exhausted; when all that is wild, wonderful and free is exterminated, what type of world will we see?
We do not want that nightmare future for our children and this beautiful land. In New Zealand, we have been offered enlightened help to wake up, to stand up, to grow up. It is time to begin.
*Diamond, Jared: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997).
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005)