Supplement industry must stake claim in climate change debate

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Photo courtesy Julienne Stroeve/National Snow and Ice Data Center
Photo courtesy Julienne Stroeve/National Snow and Ice Data Center
Can the dietary supplement industry make a difference in the global climate debate? The industry’s footprint is tiny, but experts say it can still make a valuable contribution toward a more livable planet.

Recent mainstream media reports leave one wondering where the planet is headed. Two are especially harrowing.

Ice disappearing

In late September, the National Snow and Ice Data Center based at the University of Colorado, Boulder released its annual report on the extent of Arctic sea ice.  The report showed that at its lowest extent, the Arctic ice pack covered about 1.77 million square miles. This is tied for the sixth lowest extent on record​.  In the past twelve years, the ice pack matched or exceeded the 1981-2010 average minimum of 2.4 million square miles only once.

“This year’s minimum is relatively high compared to the record low extent we saw in 2012, but it is still low compared to what it used to be in the 1970s, 1980s and even the 1990s,”​ said NASA climate change senior scientist Claire Parkinson. (NASA supports the ice data center.)

Insects are, too

Another even more sobering report was published late last month in The New York Times​.  Titled “The Insect Apocalypse is Here,” ​the report looked at still poorly understood population declines across insect species.  Conducting population studies is unglamorous, rigorous, time consuming and grueling work, the article noted, which is why few of them have been done.  

But the few that have been done have turned in alarming results. The Times​ article detailed a 2013 German study on insect abundance that was the work of a group of highly skilled and committed citizen scientists.

“The German study found that, measured simply by weight, the overall abundance of flying insects in German nature reserves had decreased by 75 percent over just 27 years. If you looked at midsummer population peaks, the drop was 82 percent,” ​the article noted.

Another researcher, entomologist Arthur Shapiro of the University of California Davis, has for the past 46 years been walking the same transects in California’s Central Valley and Sierra Nevada foothills counting butterflies.  He has noticed a similar dearth of individuals as was seen in Germany.

Similar declines have been noted in a rainforest study in Puerto Rico.  The insects there have not been contending with pesticides and habitat loss, two concerns mentioned in the German study, which leads researchers to point to global temperature rise as the probable culprit.

Climate change as culprit

Despite White House tweets to the contrary, worldwide scientific consensus attributes blame for rising temperatures on increased greenhouse gas emissions.  These come from smokestacks at factories and power plants, from the tailpipes of hundreds of millions of vehicles and from the burning of tropical woodlands to create cattle ranches or palm oil plantations.

Where does the dietary supplement industry fit into that equation?  From a practical standpoint, the industry’s footprint is minuscule.  Some ingredients, like fish oils, tropical botanicals, or krill oil, might get shipped around globe more than once when all of the extraction, formulation and packaging steps are taken into account. But even so, the carbon footprint of these materials is still not even a rounding error when it comes to the global emissions problem. 

So, should supplement companies just wave their hands and say, ‘not my problem?’ 

Effecting change

To me, this is an ethical consideration, not a marketing-driven one.  After all, how much does it matter if a company can nudge a particular consumer’s personal health needle in a positive direction if the environment that person is living in is falling off the edge of the table?

“I think absolutely supplement companies can be part of the solution,”​ consultant Steve Hoffman told NutraIngredients-USA. Hoffman, who is a principal in the consulting firm Compass Natural, was also tapped by Colorado governor-elect Jared Polis to serve as an adviser to his transition team as part of the on the Natural Resources & Energy and Agriculture committee.

Hoffman pointed to certain brands, such as Mercola, that have made big commitments to sustainable packaging. The energy that goes into packaging and shipping is part of the equation.  Other companies have made commitments toward restricting the flow of waste material off site, or have announced goals for use of renewable energy.

 Other brands such as Gaia Herbs and MegaFood, have committed to supporting regenerative agriculture. This is a concept that goes a step beyond traditional organic farming concerns, which is more about the nature of inputs.  It looks at the role agriculture can play in supporting local biodiversity (remember those insect declines?), creating rather than depleting top soil and lessening the overall carbon footprint of agriculture.

The idea has coalesced into plans for (yes, I know, yet another) certification called Regenerative Organic Certified.  Brands participating in the founding discussions are Horizon Organic, Guayaki and Maple Hill Creamery.

Part of the solution

All of these may be small steps, mere drops in the ocean of the global climate change debate.  But it is also true that every journey can only begin from where you are.  Many of the brands in the dietary supplement industry are owned by larger companies, and were purchased because they were leaders in ways beyond just strong sales. If sustainable, climate friendly practices were to filter up the chain and be adopted across these organizations, the effect might be a river rather than a rivulet.

 As author and activist Eldridge Cleaver is reputed to have said, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”

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