This week, we’ve used Veganuary as a chance to re-explore the (surprisingly recent) history of veganism and also celebrate one of the planet’s great vegans; the giant panda.
The giant panda is not just a story of hope (they are no longer on the verge of extinction), but they also provide a powerful warning of the perils of environmental degradation and a strong case for savouring craft chocolate.
Lessons We Can Learn from the Giant Panda
Humans are very rare in moving from being omnivores to becoming herbivores (i.e. vegan).
Civet ‘cats’, prized for their digestion of coffee beans, are one example of a carnivore moving to enjoy fruits and vegetables. A few monkeys have also been known to switch to vegetarian diets.
But there aren’t that many other examples, with the giant panda being perhaps the best known exception.
Why do pandas eat bamboo? (Bear with me here; there are some lessons to learn!)
For a long time, scientists puzzled how to classify giant pandas because their diets are so different to other bears, who are either omnivores or carnivores. Eventually they’ve agreed that the giant panda is part of the bear family, and a rare example of an animal that moved from a meat only, carnivorous diet, to one that is primarily herbivorous/vegetarian (intriguingly the same is true of the red panda, who are part of the omnivorous racoon family and have also switched to a largely vegetarian diet).
Until recently, scientists also puzzled as to why pandas had made this move, seeing it as foolish from an evolutionary perspective. They assumed that because pandas lack the double stomach common to most herbivores, the panda’s dietary switch to bamboo would be nutrient poor (the double stomach is what enables a herbivore to thrive on a plant based diet, because it optimises extraction of plant nutrients). And indeed giant pandas do spend over 12+ hours a day feeding, chewing, masticating and digesting bamboo (and this doesn’t include the time to find the bamboo to eat).
Some have even used the panda’s dietary shift as a warning story against giving up meat. Cynics claim that the giant panda’s move to a bamboo based diet has led them to almost going extinct, arguing that they have to spend so long trying to find and digest their bamboo diet, that this leaves them with barely enough time to sleep, and no time to procreate.
However a series of recent studies have shown that the switch to a bamboo-based diet actually may have enabled pandas to avoid extinction a few million years ago. Pandas have evolved to being fantastically good at identifying which bamboos to eat, how to combine which bits of different bamboos into a healthy (and very nutritious) diet and even develop a ‘thumb-like’ finger to help them prepare the most nutritious parts of bamboo to eat.
So why did pandas nearly go extinct? (And why is this relevant?)
Outside of the argument of going vegetarian, a number of other weird reasons are put forward to explain why pandas are going extinct.
Perhaps the most bizarre of these revolve around panda’s reproductive challenges (i.e. having sex). The list is extensive, and makes great ‘click bait’, including, for example;
Giant pandas are ‘on heat’ for only 24-72 hours a year.
Even though pandas often give birth to twins, they lack the milk to suckle both so generally only one is fed.
Male pandas don’t know how to have sex (yes, some zoos really give them video sex lessons, ‘panda Viagra’ etc.).
And yet the giant panda thrived for millions of years all the way from Burma, through Vietnam and across as far as Beijing eating bamboo and only going on heat for a few hours per year.
So blaming these reproductive challenges and/or their dietary move to veganism for the near extinction of the giant panda in the last century just doesn’t stack up.
The reason why the giant panda nearly went extinct is simple: It’s because the bamboo forests pandas have lived in for millions of years have been systematically destroyed.
The giant panda is now only found in six mountain ranges along three Chinese provinces (Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi) that are on the border of the Tibetan Plateau. And in the ten years between 1974-1985, scientists suggest that the “panda habitat decreased by 50%”.
Fortunately a campaign launched and spearheaded by the WWF, and vigorously enforced by the Chinese government, has stemmed the tide. And the giant panda is no longer on the critically endangered list.
But despite their numbers in the wild nearly doubling in the last few decades (from around 1,000 in the 1980s to almost 1900 last year) the giant panda is a long way from being ‘safe’. The IUCN has warned “climate change could destroy more than 35% of their bamboo habitat in the next 80 years”.
So why is this an important argument for craft chocolate?
For many people (and probably most vegans and vegetarians), the most environmentally challenging product they consume is mass-produced chocolate (see the graph in the footer below). Eating a mass produced chocolate bar emits more greenhouses gases than most hamburgers, farmed fish, etc.
Mass-produced chocolate is made from cacao that, in the vast majority of cases, has been grown by cutting down rainforests and planting cuttings of fast-growing disease resistant cocoa clones (note: the jury is out on how much faster these clones grow, and they definitely aren’t disease-resistant).
These cacao trees need lots of water, a single bar of chocolate requires 1500+ litres of water. And cutting down rainforests to plant cacao monocultures causes droughts and desertification across vast swathes of rainforest from South America to West Africa.
By contrast, craft chocolate is all about protecting the rainforest; heirloom cacao needs rainforest canopy to cross-pollinate and grow. And the rainforest enables the water needs of cacao to be met by a virtuous circle of water recycling.
Craft chocolate really does help save the rainforest. And it help us from following the near fate of the giant panda in the late 20th century where we’ve ruined their environment.
This Veganuary, let’s learn some lessons from another great vegetarian of our time, the giant panda. Let’s be far more conscious of the environmental consequences of deforestation and the foods we eat. Let’s eat Craft Chocolate to celebrate Veganuary.
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