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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

My Morning Cup of Coffee Kills Monkeys

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spider-monkeyMy coffee habit is killing the black-handed spider monkey, a cute New World simian (my favorite kind) that thrives in the canopy of Central American forests with tall trees. That's pretty much the opposite of the kinds of forests that still exist where the spider monkey lives, because for decades we've been cutting down those tall trees to make room for farms. Worse, the monkey requires a large amount of such forest as a home range to find enough fruits to eat.

What do those farms grow, you ask? Well, more often than not, it's coffee beans. The international trade in Central American coffee has spurred forest clearing that eradicates habitat for the endangered monkey and, ultimately, the monkey itself.

The monkey's woes come despite its protected status. This spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) shelters behind the legal shield of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, meaning it cannot be openly sold, which is meant to keep it from becoming a pet (yes, it's that cute). But no such protection exists for its habitat, which may ultimately make any other protections moot. Not even the monkey's amazing gripping tail can help it hang on in the face of forest clearing.

And that's why this spider monkey is just one of at least 25,000 animals currently threatened around the globe. The primary culprit in at least 30 percent of such looming extinctions, according to a new analysis published in Nature on June 7? Global trade.

By linking the list of threatened species prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to a list of some 15,000 globally traded commodities as well as more than 5 billion supply chains—i.e. the route that takes rubber from a tree to your car's tire—the authors of the study revealed that Americans, Europeans and Japanese are largely eating, drinking and wearing the primary causes of the sixth mass extinction in the planet's history. That's because palm oil plantations in Indonesia, mining in Madagascar and forestry in Papua New Guinea are providing the fundamental inputs of the global economy at the expense of a long list of animals, plants, fungi and microbes.

As a result, the planet is losing species at least 100 times faster than the historic rate of extinction (outside of the five previous mass extinction events), a bio-apocalypse driven by our taste for fine coffee, cocoa, tea and gadgets, among other things. Averaged out, every person on Earth requires more than two acres of land to support his or her consumption. In reality, people like me in the U.S. require multiple acres of land each while billions of the worlds' poorest get by on less than an acre.

Given my own predilections, let's just look at coffee. The cultivation of coffee beans to supply a seemingly unquenchable thirst for stimulus now threatens species from Central America to Indonesia. But sprawling coffee farms (even the shade-grown ones, though those are better) aren't the only things endangering species. Logging, city-building, even industrial pollution, among other uniquely human pursuits, also conspire to eliminate life. This problem is not restricted to coffee farms or developing countries either, mind you. In the U.S., some 450 species are affected by our timber and fishing industries, for example.

But it is American consumption, above all, that is wiping out biodiversity. Our imports are contributing to the loss of nearly 1,000 species, according to this new analysis, outstripping the Japanese tally and dwarfing the Germans. That's quite the outsized footprint we're leaving, kicking a gaping hole in the web of life. We are also imposing our vision of radically simplified ecosystems on the globe: crop monocultures, unchecked spread of certain generalist species (think: rats), and paved landscapes.

This is a problem that is not getting better, despite world leaders having agreed to make it better all the way back in 1992 with the Convention on Biological Diversity. World leaders and people generally have made little progress in ensuring that the rich array of plants and animals that shared the world with us would thrive along with us, even less progress than the better known fight initiated against climate change at the same time, which hasn't exactly been a rousing success. Instead, in the 20 years since the biodiversity convention was signed, the extinction of species has accelerated and new targets to restrain this holocaust agreed in 2010 in Japan—including halving habitat loss by the end of the decade—may yet again prove no more than words on paper.

Fortunately, we still have roughly 9 million different kinds of plants, animals, microbes and fungi on the planet so the Earth won't soon be devoid of life. But this loss of biodiversity has a whole slew of impacts, according the majority of scientific research published in the last 20 years. Losing species means environments that are less productive for life as a whole, less stable, and more likely to change in function (bye bye clean water). In fact, this loss of biodiversity may be the single largest environmental change we humans are foisting on our home planet, outpacing even climate change.

This is also nothing new. Humans have been driving other species extinct for at least tens of thousands of years, if not millions. The question is whether this accelerating process is already too far gone to stop. After all, so-called "critical transitions" or "tipping points" can occur that fundamentally reorder the shape of the world.

Take, for example, the end of the last Ice Age, in which great ice sheets that had been covering some 30 percent of the globe retreated over the course of thousands of years. That led to extinctions, range shifts and, ultimately, cleared the way for human civilization (and the seven billion of us on the planet today.) Our collective impact has now turned more than 40 percent of the globe to our uses—whether agriculture or cities—and plants will have to move much faster than they did as the glaciers shrank to keep up. In fact, to keep up with the climate change we're creating by burning fossil fuels, flora and fauna will have to move on the order of decades rather than millennia.

What are the solutions? First, slow human population growth (good news: it's already happening) and also restrain consumption (not so much). Protect biodiversity where it still exists and figure out ways to power human society without fossil fuels (or alternative energy sources that impact habitats). Perhaps even reconfigure corporations so that they can better steward limited resources, argues Pavan Sukhdev, former head of the United Nations Environment Program's Green Economy initiative, in a comment in Nature published on June 7. His hypothetical "Corporation 2020" would reveal its global impacts—whether on biodiversity or human rights—engage in forthright advertising, limit debt and pay taxes based on resource extraction to encourage efficient use.

Such corporate reform may seem a long shot. But remember, even the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs—the global trade rules precursor to the World Trade Organization, the only international body that powerful independent countries like the U.S. or China seem to obey—contains a clause that allows countries to adopt "measures relating to the conservation of exhaustible natural resources." Life itself is one of those exhaustible resources, apparently, and far more unique than, say, copper.

The alternative is to continue as we have, which will keep us on track to kill off 75 percent of the known species on the planet. That would make this sixth extinction the second worst ever, behind only the Permian—a dubious distinction for our species. We have already lost species (that we know of) ranging from the river dolphin dubbed the baiji to the ground-dwelling dodo bird. If we can't even bother to save the charismatic megafauna, who knows what species of molluscs or roundworms have winked out of existence without us ever noticing? How long will it take to recover from that?

Ecosystems are still adapting to the loss of large carnivores 10,000 years ago, which percolated down to even the types of vegetation that grow in a given region. And plants around the world continue to produce fruits or berries for birds and other animals that no longer exist. It takes hundreds of thousands of years (if not millions) to recover from a mass extinction. In fact, research published recently in Nature Geoscience notes that it took 10 million years to fully restore ecosystems following the Permian mass extinction event, which wiped out nearly three-quarters of the species then living on land and nearly all ocean life.

Speaking of which, we won't even hardly know what ocean life we've lost from the 70 percent of the planet covered by water. And what we don't know may kill us, if it turns out to have played a critical role in global systems—whether climate regulation or food supply.

Our own place in this mess may be the only way to get you and me to care about this issue. Biodiversity is not a very people friendly word. What is in it for me? After all, I drink coffee to keep up with my work and my family (our population rears its head again). There's no question I'm addicted. The only question is whether I can get my fix without killing the black-handed spider monkey.

The only solutions presently available in the trade arena are so-called certification schemes, like that of the Rainforest Alliance. That scheme chose as its symbol the red-eyed tree frog, another endangered species from a group—the amphibians—more threatened than any other. The frog means that someone somewhere ensured that the coffee you are drinking was brewed from beans produced to meet certain criteria. That is if someone is around to check; the organization may lack the funds to keep up with the demand for oversight to ensure that certification schemes do indeed deliver what they promise and they are taking on a role that governments either cannot or will not do.

Take El Salvador. The only forests that remain are the forests on coffee plantations, and they will only remain as long as farmers certified by groups like the Rainforest Alliance can earn more money for their coffee beans. And there is a human component to this misery. People, often smallholder farmers, grow those coffee beans in a bid to produce a better life. Finding solutions that work for them, like central bean processing mills that can save farmers labor as well as water, will be key. It's a new capitalism where everyone can win, including the planet, we are promised. But the black-handed spider monkey may find it hard to factor into that new financial calculus. What is this monkey's continuing existence worth? That is both the wrong question and the only question that can shift the present system of global trade.

My aim here is not to depress you, it is to empower you. Surely if we apply some of that vaunted human ingenuity to this problem, the problem of preserving our fellow travelers on this planet hurtling through the vast void of space, we can solve it. Surely there is room for the black-handed spider monkey outside of a zoo or its "wild" cousin, the eco-tourist nature preserve.

It's not just my inviolable coffee, of course, that's doing in the spider monkey, which hangs by its tail from trees as it feeds and whose barks, whinnies, screams and other calls fill the treetops with lively sound. It's also my taste for chocolate, our sweet tooth, which we share with the fruit-loving New World monkey. It remains to be seen whether we African apes can invent a more sustainable mode of consumption. If not, we will find ourselves living—if our own species survives—on a planet haunted by ghosts. The black-handed spider monkey and all its fellows are ours to save or discard. Otherwise, the taste of coffee may just be too bitter to bear.

Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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