Out of the Woods?

When I came to Iowa six years ago from central Pennsylvania, I was struck at how similarly the land is used, namely, to grow corn and soy.  I know many Iowans love this land, and I know farmers who were devastated by the recent derecho.  As much as there are caring farmers, I wish to draw attention to how our view of land as a commodity that largely disregards biodiversity has given rise to the Covid pandemic.  In many ways Iowan’s view of the ground is like a mirror reflection not only of other states like Pennsylvania, but of how we view land on both a national and international level. 

Earth is mostly seen as a commodity to be used for human benefit and profit.  Yet, the connection between the biodiversity that the land holds, and the welfare of humans is often lost on us.  Land can be used to grow crops or extract natural resources like gas, but it’s often at the expense of biodiversity.  Iowa has a tiny fraction, for example, of the prairie that once existed here.  Covid-19 is a reminder from the Earth that the human community exists within a web of relationships that include non-humans, and of the need to maintain biodiversity on all levels – locally, nationally, and internationally. 

While hopes of a Covid-19 vaccine are on our minds, little attention is given to the role a healthy environment plays in protecting humans from new diseases.  The Covid-19 pandemic is the result of a virus that was originally contained within animal populations which then jumped to humans.  SARS, Ebola, Zika, malaria, avian flu and even HIV-AIDS are also zoonotic diseases (meaning they jumped from animals to humans) that humans have until fairly recently been protected, thanks to the presence of healthy ecosystems.  In the wake of increased and ongoing human encroachment into wild ecosystems, humans are becoming more vulnerable to diseases we do not have immunity to.

According to the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, an interfaith international alliance which works to bring attention from a moral perspective to the urgency of ending deforestation, “the Covid-19 crisis and the potential for future pandemics are closely tied to … deforestation, habitat loss, and ecosystem decline.”

  The valiant efforts being made to distribute a vaccine for Covid-19 need to, therefore, take into consideration the importance of preserving and maintaining our forests and other habitats from human exploitation.  The largest drivers of deforestation are large-scale commercial agriculture and the logging that occurs with the mining of gas and oil by the fossil fuel industry.  In particular, the global trading of beef, soy, palm oil, and paper needs to be reckoned with.

As individual consumers, we also have a responsibility to know where our food comes from and whether or how our purchases contribute to deforestation.  Corporations that profit from these global commodities also need to be called to task for their role in deforestation and thus the spread of viruses like Covid-19.

While looking to preserve forests may seem out of reach for most Iowans, we cannot dismiss the recent actions of former President Donald Trump on the national level to undermine protections from one of the largest intact temperate rainforests in the United States, the Tongass National Forest, in Alaska.  Although the move by Iowan farmers to include prairie strips is a step in the right direction on the state level, we cannot ignore the results of excess manure from hog confinements affecting the water that comes out of our taps.

Religious communities are in a unique position to call attention to the moral imperative of protecting ecosystems and biodiversity.  Every religious tradition has something to say about the importance of caring for the Earth, and can use their influence to educate others, advocate on the level of policy, and insist that businesses adopt sustainable practices. 

Businesses that utilize unsustainably harvested palm oil, for example, include Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft-Heinz, PepsiCo and many others.  Faith communities are in a position to divest their assets from these companies and to invest in renewable energy projects, local natural resource management, and/or support the development of social programs which benefit local economies. 

While individual action is not enough, each one of us can also choose to purchase foods that are sustainably harvested, creating both healthier diets for ourselves and at the same time cutting off the consumer drives behind deforestation.  As important as getting the vaccine for Covid-19 is, we cannot ignore how our relationship with the natural world effects our overall health.  We have a responsibility on all levels – locally, nationally, and internationally – to understand how our use of the land has contributed to the pandemic, and to consider better ways of management that takes into account the need for maintaining ecosystem biodiversity.

For more resources on what to do visit:

Iowa Interfaith Power and Light:  https://iowaipl.org/

Interfaith Rainforest Initiative:  https://www.interfaithrainforest.org/

To see a modified version of this article in the Des Moines Register visit here.

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