Killing us slowly

6 07 2010

I’m currently attending the 2010 International Congress for Conservation Biology in Edmonton, Canada. I thought it would be good to tweet and blog my way through on topics that catch my attention. This is my second post from the conference.

I silently scoffed inside when the plenary speaker was being introduced. It was boldly claimed that we were about to hear one of the best presentations any of us had ever seen at a scientific conference before.

I cannot say for certain whether it was indeed ‘the best’, but bloody hell, it was excellent.

Our speaker is certainly well-known in the endocrinology world (very well published), is a bane to certain chemical industries and is revered as a scientist who puts his money where is mouth is.

Professor Tyrone Hayes of the University of California Berkeley is an ‘eco-endocrinologist’ who blew the lid on the devastating health effects of the most available and ubiquitous agricultural herbicide in use today – evil atrazine. As my readers know, I am certainly pushing the empirical basis for the link between environmental degradation and deterioration of human health (my talk here at the ICCB on Wednesday will be on this very topic), so this topic interests me greatly.

It’s no secret that atrazine has devastating feminising effects on amphibians (and many other taxa), and has been linked convincingly to increasing the risk of cancer in humans. It’s banned in Europe, but still widely used pretty much everywhere else. Read the rest of this entry »

Greenwash, blackwash: two faces of conservation evil

21 11 2009

Beware false prophets, and especially those masquerading as conservationists (or at least ‘green’) when they are not, in fact, doing anything for conservation at all. But this blog site isn’t about typical greenie evil-corporation-making-a-mess-of-the-Earth sermons (there are plenty of those); it’s instead about real conservation science that has/should/could have a real biodiversity benefits. This is why I highlight the bitey and the toothless together.

With the slow (painfully, inadequately, insufficiently slow) maturation of environmental awareness and the rising plight of biodiversity in general (including our own health and prosperity), it has become almost chic to embrace a so-called ‘green’ perspective. This approach has blown out into a full-scale business model where in many wealthier nations especially, it’s just plain good business to attract the green-conscious consumer to buy more ‘environmentally friendly’ products. Problem is, so many of these products are the farthest thing from green you can imagine (see examples here, here & here). This stimulated the environmentalist Jay Westerveld to coin the term greenwashing in 1986. Greenwashing is basically defined as activities that misleadingly give the impression of environmentally sound management that thereby deflect attention away from the continued pursuit of environmentally destructive activities.

Well, not that the problem has disappeared, or even dissipated (if anything, it’s growing), but I don’t want to focus on that here. Instead, I want to highlight a recent paper in which I was involved that outlines too how environmental groups can be guilty of almost the same sin – claiming businesses, practices, individuals, corporations, etc. are far more environmentally destructive than they really are. This, we termed blackwashing.

The paper by Koh and colleagues entitled Wash and spin cycle threats to tropical biodiversity just came out online in the journal Biotropica, and therein we describe the greenwashing-blackwashing twin conservation evils using the oil palm controversy as an excellent example case. Just in case you didn’t know, much of the tropical world (especially South East Asia) is undergoing massive conversion of native forests to oil palm plantations, to the overwhelming detriment of biodiversity. I’ve covered the issue in several posts on before (see for example Tropical forests worth more standing, Indonesia’s precious peatlands under oil palm fire & More greenwashing from the Malaysian oil palm industry).

Briefly, we demonstrate how the palm oil industry is guilty of the following greenwashes:

On the either side, various environmental groups such as Greenpeace, have promoted the following blackwashes:

  • Orang-utan will be extinct imminently – A gross exaggeration, although something we believe is eventually possible.
  • Avoided deforestation schemes (e.g., REDD) will crash carbon-trading – Again, even economists don’t believe this.

For details, see the paper online.

Now, I’d probably tend to believe some of the less outrageous claims made by some environmental groups because if anything, the state of biodiversity is probably overall worse than what most people realise. However, when environmental groups are exposed for exaggerations, or worse, lies, then their credibility goes out the window and even those essentially promoting their cause (e.g., conservation biologists like myself) will have nothing to do with them. The quasi-religious zealotry of anti-whaling campaigns is an example of a terrible waste of funds, goodwill and conservation resources that could be otherwise spent on real conservation gains. Instead, political stunts simply alienate people who would otherwise reasonably contribute to improving the state of biodiversity. Incidentally, an environmental advocacy group in Australia emailed me to support their campaign to highlight the plight of sharks. I am a firm supporter of better conservation of sharks (see recent paper and post about this here). However, when I read their campaign propaganda, the first sentence read:

Almost 90 % of sharks have been wiped out

I immediately distanced myself from them. This is a blatant lie and terrible over-exaggeration. Ninety per cent of sharks HAVE NOT been wiped out. Some localised depletions have occurred, and not one single shark species has been recorded going extinct since records began. While I agree the world has a serious shark problem, saying outrageous things like this will only serve to weaken your cause. My advice to any green group is to get your facts straight and avoid the sensationlist game – you won’t win it, and you probably won’t be successful in doing anything beneficial for the species you purport to save.
CJA Bradshaw

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ResearchBlogging.orgKoh, L., Ghazoul, J., Butler, R., Laurance, W., Sodhi, N., Mateo-Vega, J., & Bradshaw, C. (2009). Wash and Spin Cycle Threats to Tropical Biodiversity Biotropica DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-7429.2009.00588.x

Man bites shark

7 01 2009

cut-shark-finYesterday I had a comment piece of the same title posted on the ABC‘s Unleashed site. I have permission to reproduce it here on

The silly season is upon us again, and I don’t mean the commercial frenzy, the bizarre fascination with a white-bearded man or a Middle-Eastern baby, the over-indulgence at the barbie or hangovers persisting several days into the New Year. I mean it’s the time of year when beach-goers, surfers, and municipal and state policy makers go a bit ga-ga over sharks.

There are few more polite pleasures than heading down to the beach during the holidays for a surf, quick dip or just a laze under the brolly. Some would argue it’s an inalienable Australian right and that anything getting in our way should be condemned to no less than severe retribution. Well, in the case of sharks, that’s exactly what’s happened.

Apart from a good number of adrenalin-addicted surfers and mad marine scientists, most people are scared shitless by the prospect of even seeing a shark near the beach, let alone being bitten or eaten by one. I won’t bore you with some ill-advised, pseudo-psycho-analytical rant about how it’s all the fault of some dodgy 1970s film featuring a hypertrophied American shark; the simple fact is that putative prey don’t relish the thought of becoming a predator’s dinner.

So, Australia is famous for its nearly 100-year-old pioneering attempt to protect marine bathers from shark attack by setting an elaborate array of shark nets around the country’s more frequented beaches. Great, you say? Well, it’s actually not that nice.

Between December 1990 and April 2005, nearly 3500 sharks and rays were caught in NSW beach nets alone, of which 72 per cent were found dead. Shark spearing was a favourite past-time in the 1960s and 1970s, with at least one high-profile species, the grey nurse shark, gaining the dubious classification of Critically Endangered as a result. Over-fishing of reef sharks has absolutely hammered two formerly common species in the Great Barrier Reef, the whitetip and grey reef sharks (See the Ongoing Collapse of Coral-Reef Shark Populations report). And illegal Indonesian fishing in northern Australia is slowly depleting many shark species in a wave of protein mining that has now penetrated the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone.

Despite the gloomy outlook for sharks, I’m happy to say today that we are a little more aware of their plight and are making baby steps toward addressing the problems. Australia has generally fared better in shark conservation than most other parts of the world, even though we still have a lot of educating to do at home. Over 50 per cent of all chondrichthyans (i.e., sharks, rays and chimaeras) are threatened worldwide, with some of the largest and most wide-ranging species being hardest hit, including white sharks. The most common threat is over-fishing, but this is largely seen by the lay person as of little import simply because of the persistent attitude that “the only good shark is a dead shark”.

The attitude is, however, based on a complete furphy. I’m sure many readers would have seen some statistics like the following before, but let’s go through the motions just to be clear. Dying from or even being injured by a shark is utterly negligible. Based on the International Shark Attack File data for Australia, there were 110 confirmed (unprovoked) shark attacks in Australian waters between 1990 and 2007, of which 19 were fatal. Using Australian Bureau of Statistics human population data over the same period, this equates to an average of 0.032 attacks and 0.006 fatalities per 100,000 people, with no apparent trend over the last two decades.

Now let’s contrast. I won’t patronise you with strange comparative statistics like the probability of being killed by a (provoked) vending machine or by being hit by a bus, they are both substantially greater, but I will relate these figures to water-based activities. Drowning statistics for Australia (1992-1997) show that there were around 1.44 deaths per 100,000 people per year, or approximately 0.95 if just marine-related drownings are considered. These values are 240 (158 for marine-only) times higher than those arising from shark attack.

It’s just plainly, and mathematically, ridiculous to be worried about being eaten by a shark when swimming in Australia, whether or not there’s a beach net in place. The effort made, money spent and anxiety arising from the illogical fear that a shark will consider your sunburnt flesh a tasty alternative to its fishier sustenance is not only regrettable, it’s an outright crime against marine biodiversity. Of course, if you see a big shark lurking around your favourite beach, I wouldn’t recommend swimming over and giving it a friendly pat on the dorsal fin, but I wouldn’t recommend screaming that the marine equivalent of the apocalypse has just arrived either.

You may not be fussed either way, but consider this – the massive reduction in sharks worldwide is having a cascading effect on many of the ocean’s complex marine ecosystems. Being largely carnivorous, sharks are the ecological equivalent of community planners. Without them, herbivorous or coral-eating fish can quickly get out of control and literally destroy the food web. A great example comes from the Gulf of Mexico where the serial depletion of 14 species of large sharks has caused an explosion of the smaller cownose ray that formerly was kept in check by its bigger and hungrier cousins. The result: commercially harvested scallops in the region have now collapsed because of the hordes of shellfish-eating rays.

The day you fail to find sharks cruising your favourite beach is the day you should really start to worry.

CJA Bradshaw

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More greenwashing from the Malaysian oil palm industry

17 11 2008

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A recent article from What the good doctor Basiron appears to gloss over rather well is that his own country’s very economic future, well-being of its citizenry and long-term sustainability absolutely depends on maintaining large tracts of intact primary forest. The value of its forests far outweighs the short-term ‘development’ gains from palm oil. The backflips, greenwashing and overt profiteering will only be a blip in Malaysia’s economic development, so keep on with the propaganda while you can, Basiron. Why don’t you call a spade a spade – it’s greed, not so-called ‘development’ that’s raping your own country.

Dr. Yusof Basiron, the controversial CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), blogs about the sustainability of palm oil.

Scientists should compare the biodiversity oil palm plantations to other industrial monocultures, not the rainforests they replace, said Dr. Yusof Basiron, CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), in a post on his blog.

“I would also like to encourage environmental scientists not to compare the biodiversity of an agricultural crop such as the oil palm with that of rain forests,” he wrote. “The findings would not win you a Nobel price [sic].”

“If a comparison is to be made, the biodiversity of the oil palm, an agricultural crop, should be compared with that for soyabean or rapeseed, corn or sugarcane or other agricultural crops,” he continued. “Biodiversity that exists in the oil palm plantations is a bonus for all to benefit, while we enjoy the supply of oil for our food need, in addition to palm oil – an agricultural commodity – helping to promote economic growth not only in the developing countries but also in all other countries involved in using the product.”

Oil palm plantations and logged over forest in Malaysian Borneo. While much of the forest land converted for oil palm plantations in Malaysia has been logged or otherwise been zoned for logging, expansion at the expense of natural and protected forest does occur in the country. Reserve borders are sometimes redrawn to facilitate logging and conversion to plantations.
Basiron’s comments are noteworthy because until now he has maintained that oil palm plantations are “planted forests” rather than an industrial crop. Oil palm plantations are indeed biologically impoverished relative to even heavily logged forests – a study published earlier this year showed that oil palm plantations retain less than one-sixth the biodiversity of old growth forests and less than a quarter of that in secondary forests. However when compared with soy or rapeseed farms, which support almost no wildlife, oil palm plantations look a little less like biological deserts. Small measures – like maintaining and restoring forest cover along waterways, conserving peatlands and high value conservation areas, and reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides – can help augment the biodiversity of existing plantations.

Basiron also noted that oil palm is the highest yielding conventional oilseed on the market – far outstripping the production per unit of area for rapeseed and soy. While its high yield makes oil palm exceedingly profitable – especially during the recent boom in palm oil prices, which recently ended, coinciding with falling oil prices – it also theoretically means that less land needs to be converted to produce the same amount of oil had the land been cultivated with other crops. The problem, say environmentalists, stems from the practice of clearing natural forest for oil palm plantations, which reduces biodiversity, hurts ecosystem functioning, and results in greenhouse gas emissions. While Basiron and the MPOC have flatly denied that natural forest has been cleared for the establishment of oil palm plantations, ground and satellite evidence proves the claims quite false. Nevertheless there are opportunities to covert degraded and abandoned agricultural lands for oil palm, mostly in Indonesia, rather than Malaysia where most land is already under cultivation or forested. While returns would be lower without the “logging subsidy” generated by selling the timber harvested from forest land prior to planting with oil palm, such plantations would face less criticism from the environmental community.

A third point made by Basiron is that Malaysia is a sovereign nation that has same rights to develop its economy as industrialized nations have had. The same concept has been put forth by Brazil over deforestation of the Amazon and China with regards to its rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Basiron writes,

“It is also unethical, immoral and somewhat patronizing for NGOs of the developed countries in Europe to ask developing countries such as Malaysia to stop developing its land. Asking Malaysia to stop developing its land will lead to conflicts and misunderstanding because some states in Malaysia have not yet had the opportunity to develop their agricultural land as they were until a few decades ago under oppressive colonial rule.”

“Sarawak [a state on the island of Borneo] which achieved independence from the British later than Peninsular Malaysia had only developed 8% of its land for agriculture compared to the UK which has over 70% of its land under agriculture. But there are still opportunities in Sarawak and other parts of Malaysia to develop degraded logged over land for planting rubber and oil palm to increase the country’s sources of foreign exchange while not involving the deforestation of the pristine permanent forests.”

While Basiron’s comments will likely be dismissed or ignored by many environmental groups, his points are not the sort that typically provoke outcry from the green lobby. MPOC lands in the most trouble with the environmental community when it attempts to deliberately mislead the marketplace on the environmental performance of palm oil, an approach the group has used repeatedly in recent years with advertising campaigns, “greenwashing” and “astroturfing” techniques, and other propaganda. Of course MPOC is not alone in using these tactics – it follows the model employed widely by industries ranging from U.S. ethanol producers to big oil. The problem for MPOC – and other industries – is that misleading campaigns are only providing more fodder for its enemies. But MPOC is hedging itself. The palm oil marketing group is also employing a second strategy that may pay better dividends in the long run – an effort to improve the environmental performance of palm oil. While the initiative – known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – has stumbled a bit coming out of the blocks, it appears there may be a market for certified palm oil, which would offer producers a premium for mitigating the environmental and social impacts of producing the vegetable oil. The first RSPO-certified palm oil is expected the reach Europe today. Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumers of palm oil, has already pledged to buy only certified palm oil by 2015.

See also previous posts on oil palm at

Unexpected benefits of falling palm oil prices

Oil palm plantatations destroying tropical biodiversity

Another nail in Borneo’s biodiversity coffin

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