Quantifying and Reducing Global Food Loss and Waste

Originally posted on the Economics that Really Matters blog


Keiron Audain is a researcher and visiting lecturer in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Zambia, and has previously blogged on this topic. Megan Sheahan is a Research Support Specialist at Cornell’s Dyson School. Both were members of the Junior Researcher Task Force at the 2nd International Conference on Global Food Security following theme 7.

A robust food production system alone cannot guarantee food availability. The FAO estimates that around one-third of all food is lost or wasted between farm and fork, a value whose magnitude is debated but has catalysed considerable attention and many calls to action, including a new Sustainable Development Goal by the United Nations. At the recent 2nd International Conference on Global Food Security, researchers from across the globe—ranging from South America to South Asia to Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe—presented work on food loss and waste (FLW) from their respective regions.

[photo caption] Buying bananas at the market in Guatemala. Photo by Curt Carnemark / World Bank.

Many of the presentations focused on quantifying FLW at particular levels of the value chain; all suggested that levels of loss and waste are considerably high. We learned from Ofira Ayalon and co-authors at the University of Haifa that 178,000 tons of edible agricultural surplus are left in fields by farmers in Israel every year, an issue they are working to rectify by assisting farmers with better planning and diverting remaining excess to food banks. Losses are also thought to be quite high as food moves between locations. Joao Gilberto M. dos Reis from Paulista University in Brazil discussed the loss of life and weight of pigs in transport between the farm and the slaughterhouse, a major concern for Brazil, the fourth largest pork producer in the world. His results show that transporting pigs distances greater than 100 km had major loss implications.

Losses continue to accumulate further along the value chain. K.F. Omotesho and colleagues from the University of Ilorin in Nigeria estimated the size of leafy-vegetable losses in Kwara State, Nigeria. These researchers found that vegetable losses predominantly occur at wholesale due to poor post-harvest handling and lack of processing facilities. The retail level is also a significant source of loss. Lisa Mattsson from Karlstad University in Sweden showed that 1.9 percent of fresh fruit and vegetables are thrown away at the supermarket level in Sweden, comparing those values with established waste quotas.

Most researchers relied on these subjectively “high” values as a call-to-arms in eliminating FLW. But, as K.F. Omotesho pointed out, we need to better understand the drivers behind these losses before moving directly to mitigating interventions.

A few interesting papers tackled some of the lesser-considered drivers. Orjon Xhoxhi studied the power dynamics between farmers and intermediaries in horticulture value chains in Albania and Turkey, finding that imbalances were a major driver of loss up the value chain (related work here). Aditya Shrinivas, a PhD student at the University of Illinois, found a high rate of precautionary savings on the part of consumers in India, an issue that could be tackled with better storage facilities to help smooth consumption. Rohit Sharma from the Indian Institute of Plantation Management Bangalore explained that although India is the second largest producer of wheat in the world, the country still has major problems regarding waste along the supply chain, particularly due to poor logistics and a lack of knowledge about consumer demand. Both of these issues could be solved with the use of better data and logistics parks.

Researchers also studied the effectiveness of interventions already in place or proposed new ones. “Social innovations” was a theme across various discussions. Barbara Redlingshoefer from France’s INRA utilised the multi-sectoral expertise of twenty researchers to assess the potential for socio-technological innovations in food waste prevention, as well as to determine the potential of cities to adopt “zero waste” systems. Her research revealed nine such strategies, albeit trialled only on a small-scale. During an interactive workshop café session, Karin Östergren, helped conference delegates brainstorm ideas for other FLW-reducing social innovations, drawing on her work.

Yet as MIT graduate students Emily Gooding and Mark Brennan, even great ideas for reducing FLW—including improved post-harvest storage technology in Uganda, as they study—can incur hiccups in implementation. These researchers found that sourcing metal silos from local artisans, a fantastic idea for also building an in-country supply chain, caused major delays due to high levels of risk aversion and capacity constraints, ultimately hindering timely use on-farm. They suggested innovative contracting agreements that could mitigate these challenges.

Researching FLW can be a difficult task due to myriad data challenges (e.g., the most relevant data is often owned by private firms), widespread confusion about meaningful distinctions between food loss and food waste, and the inability to track an intervention along various levels of the supply chain. Nevertheless, the research community will continue to work towards a better understanding of the extensiveness of the problem and its implications for global food security. Indeed the few days engaging in discussion around this topic has left us all more thoughtful about the role we can play in addressing this issue.

conference, food security, GFS2015, summaries


‘All Poor Everything’ – The Food System, Poverty and the Double Burden of Disease

Based on the fact that the term ‘malnutrition’ has been redefined to include undernutrition AND overnutrition, it’s safe to say that malnutrition is now a global problem. However, even though it’s no longer just about starving children in Asia and Africa, it is about obese children in Europe and America…AND Asia and Africa. Yes indeed, thanks to globalisation and the nutrition transition, poor people in poor countries with poor diets and poor healthcare are now dealing with potential obesity epidemics and all the trimmings that come with it; including the chronic diseases once associated with the more affluent parts of the world such as cancers and heart disease and hypertension. So, all of this new burden is being piled on top of an existing burden of infectious diseases associated with undernutrition, which has actually gotten worse (See A Broken Food System…). So yes, poor people in poor countries with poor diets and poor healthcare (which I will now refer to as P to the 4th power or P4, or ‘All Poor Everything’) now have to battle against a double the burden of disease with the same malfunctioning, mediocre healthcare system they’ve always had – which is apparently seventy-six doctors for every one hundred thousand people; not to mention poor infrastructure, poor sanitation, poor road systems and poor electricity supplies (Pearson and Jordan, 2010) – talk about reverse progress.

So in addition to the 800 million people suffering from what is called ‘chronic hunger’ – “not consuming enough energy to lead a normal life”; another 600 million people are consuming too much energy to lead a normal life, suffering from what is called ‘obesity’. On top of this, another two billion people are deficient in essential micronutrients. In fact, here’s a not-so-fun trivia question: What do children’s diets in India, Kenya, Senegal and Guatemala all have in common? Answer: They are all deficient in micronutrients (vitamin A, Iodine and Iron) that are oh-so important for their optimum growth.

I think that everyone can now agree (at least I hope so) that this state of nutrition chaos is all down to an incredibly messed up food system – from the policies to the production to the processing to the marketing to the purchasing to the preparing to the consumption to the wasting. Yet the link between the human food system and human health is a relatively recent one and a difficult one to make at that, as audacious as that might sound – (like which other species relies on their food system to keep them healthy?) Worse yet are the links between agriculture, nutrition and health: the food you grow becomes the food you eat, which provides the nutrients you need to keep you in good health – sounds like a no-brainer right? Well apparently it’s more complicated than that; so complicated that some of the highest incidences of chronic hunger and childhood stunting are found in agricultural regions and in the households of small-scale farmers – people that grow food for a living. Let that one sink in…

To explain this complication, I find it fitting to use a quote made by Uncle Ryan from ‘Everybody Hates Chris’ – “you can get it good and cheap but not fast; fast and cheap but not good; or good and fast but not cheap.” Indeed he was referring to passport photos for a fake ID, but it can apply to the global food system as well. For many P4 people, food is either not available or not accessible, of really bad quality, or simply way too expensive. Not only that, but in those cases where food IS available AND affordable AND of good quality; some people apparently either don’t have the knowledge of how important this food is for their health, or have neither the time nor resources to prepare it, for whatever reason; be it too busy working in a fast-paced urban environment, or limited water to wash and cook with in a rural setting.

So change is needed – and not just any change, but quick and drastic change; something radical… like a food revolution; a total reshaping of the food system. So how do we go about achieving this? Some experts recommend that this should begin with governments improving national food policies to make them more sensitive to the nutrition needs of their population. Given that undernutrition during infancy and childhood can lead to poor cognitive development, permanent IQ loss and a decreased potential for lifelong learning; perhaps the emphasis should be placed on the economic impact of poor nutrition instead – after all, everyone talks, but money usually has the first say. So it may be momentarily heart-breaking to hear that three million children die every year because of undernutrition; but the fact that that undernourished children go on to earn 20% less when they become adults compared to those that were well nourished; and that Africa and Asia stand to lose eleven percent of their Gross National Product every year due to poor nutrition; and (one more) that chronic diseases can cost the global economy $35 trillion US dollars by 2030 might motivate more of a response.

Part 2: More expert recommendations – coming soon

Source: Healthy Food for a Healthy World: Leveraging Agriculture and Food to improve Global Nutrition. Sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs


References available on request

Waste A Lot, Want A Lot More

why reducing food losses should be prioritized over boosting production

Increasing food production to meet the demands of a growing population and amidst the impact of climate events has been highly prioritized on the development agenda. Yet up to one third of the food currently produced globally is either lost or wasted. It may be the case that the best practice to ensure food security and avoid further environmental degradation would be to improve the existing food system by minimizing food loss and waste.


Food lost in Africa each year can feed up to 300 million people

It is predicted that by 2050 the world will have an additional 2.3 billion people. The vast majority of this population growth is expected to occur in the developing world, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa (FAO, 2009). The current trend of Sub-Saharan economies growing at a faster rate than many high-income countries is also expected to continue well into 2050. As a result of this population and economic growth, alongside the threat of climate change, boosting food production has remained a priority (Larson, 2014).

Calls for increasing cereal production, both for human consumption and animal feed have been made, with demand projected to rise to one billion tonnes by 2050 (FAO, 2009). The demand for other products such as livestock, dairy and vegetable oils are expected to grow even faster than cereals, with meat production predicted to increase by 200million tonnes. All in all, the FAO has estimated that global food production would have to be up-scaled to produce 70% more food in order to meet the demands of the 9.1 billion world population expected by 2050. This would include a doubling of current food production in low and middle-income countries (LMICs).   However, the problem with this is that it would require considerably more land and water, which can have an exhausting and detrimental impact on the planet’s existing resources.

The growth of agricultural production, particularly meat and dairy can cause the further depletion and pollution of land, air and water resources; which can lead to an exacerbation of the already erratic climatic conditions. For instance, meat and dairy are very resource-intensive commodities. The livestock sector occupies 45% of the global surface area and is responsible for 8% of global human water use (Thornton et al. 2011; Joyce et al. 2012). Approximately 13 million hectares of global rainforests were cleared each year between 2000 and 2010 to make space for agricultural activities, particularly mono-crop farming and animal grazing (UN, 2012). Deforestation is one of the leading causes of carbon dioxide emissions. In total, agriculture is responsible for approximately 22% of global greenhouse gas emissions (more than the transport sector) including methane and nitrous oxide, which have a greater warming effect than carbon dioxide (McMichael et al. 2007). Thus, increasing food production in light of the impact of global warming can actually lead to further climatic changes. With regards to water, scientists at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) have predicted that by 2050 there will be insufficient water to maintain the level of intensive agricultural practices needed to meet the requirements of this future population (Jägerskog et al. 2012).

Parallel to the forecasted increase in demand for food commodities and need to boost production, is the amount of food that is currently lost or wasted. In short, food waste occurs primarily at the consumer level, where food is discarded by supermarkets and households or left to expire due to negligence. Food loss however, is defined as the “decrease in quantity or quality of food”, and usually occurs at the production end due to poor post-harvest techniques and a lack of infrastructure such as road networks (FAO, 2014). Globally, approximately 30% of annual cereal production is lost or wasted, (which totaled 2.3 billion tonnes in 2009/2010); along with 20% of the meat and dairy produced (FAO). Fruits, vegetables and tubers constitute the largest portion of wasted food at 45% (FAO).  Every year, LMICs are estimated to lose or waste in excess of 630 million tonnes of food; which is almost on par with high income countries at 670 million tonnes (FAO). This has been calculated to cost LMICs approximately US$310 billion (FAO). The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the food lost in Africa alone can feed up to 300 million people; and if only a quarter of the food wasted globally was to be saved it could feed 870 million people, which is nearly all of the undernourished people in the world.

Food waste exists mainly in high-income countries, while the majority of food loss is found in poorer countries. However, with the current nutrition transition in many LMICs, food waste is expected to become more of a problem. Currently consumers in Sub-Saharan Africa were estimated to waste 6-11kg of food per year compared to 95-115kg in North America and Europe; however this is likely to increase due to a rise in supermarket chains, rapid urbanization, and diet and lifestyle changes.

Food lost at the post-harvest and processing stages of production in LMICs has been calculated at around 40% (FAO). This occurs largely as a result of financial and technical constraints, including a lack of adequate storage facilities. Thus, providing support to farmers in terms of post-harvest infrastructure such as cold storage, packaging and transportation could go a long way towards mitigating food loss. Professor Judith Kimiywe from the Department of Food, Nutrition and Dietetics at Kenyatta University in Kenya stated at the 2014 ANEC Conference in Ghana that 40% of all food loss in Africa was due to poor road networks*.

Strategies to reducing food loss in LMICs can be as straightforward as prioritizing investment in the necessary infrastructure, reducing transport distances by providing sales points closer to farmers and improving access to simple, low-cost post-harvest technologies such as plastic bags** and chlorination;*** all of which can have a significant impact on reducing food loss. Also, farmers can benefit from post-harvest handling and food management training as well as the improvement of market access and the provision of market requirement information (IRIN, 2014).

The need to reduce food losses and waste goes beyond increasing availability; as it results in the unnecessary depletion of land and water resources, not to mention energy, labour and capital (FAO, 2014). This environmental impact varies according to the level of processing and the stage in the supply chain at which food is lost. Also, small-scale farmers and poor consumers in LMICs tend to feel the brunt of food losses as it translates into a loss of income for farmers and higher food prices for consumers – thus contributing to hunger and food and nutrition insecurity. It is therefore recommended that reducing food loss and waste should be the first point of call for ensuring global food security for the future population of the world.

* for a digest of the 2014 ANEC conference email keiron.audain@gmail.com 
** Storing in sealed plastic bags with cotton liners; the cotton prevents emerging insects from perforating the plastic bag
*** The purpose of chlorination is to drastically reduce the number of microorganisms in the water and thus reduce or prevent inoculation with post-harvest diseases or contamination with human pathogens


Further Reading:

Reducing Food Losses in Sub-Saharan Africa

A Broken Food System and its Link to Disease Burden

The increasing burden of chronic noncommunicable diseases: 2002 - 2030.

Source: US Department of State and the Department of Health and Human Services

The stark reality that close to one billion people in the world are undernourished, while on the opposite spectrum over 1.9 billion people in the world are either overweight or obese (WHO, 2015; FAO, 2014); is by any scale a clear reflection of a broken food system. The long-term/indirect consequence of such a defunct system is a high disease burden of both communicable and non-communicable diseases (NCDs); given that research has long indicated that undernutrition has a hand in communicable disease susceptibility, while obesity increases the risk of developing NCDs (Black et al., 2013). In fact, many low income countries are now facing a double burden of both communicable and NCDs (Black et al., 2013). For instance in 2010, over two million deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa were attributed to NCDs; a 46% increase since 2000. During the same period, deaths related to communicable diseases increased by 17% (Naghavi and Forouzanfar, 2013). This is an important public health concern that undoubtedly requires urgent government responses via policy actions.

Scientific evidence suggests that the promotion of healthier diets such as increased consumption of fruits, vegetables and wholegrains; and a decreased consumption of animal fats, and sodium through effective policies can be a crucial prevention strategy for minimising the global disease burden (Hawkes, 2012). These sentiments were reflective of points raised in a recent public lecture given by Dr Corinna Hawkes, a research fellow at City University in London; some of which will be shared in this post.

At the Food Thinkers seminar organised by the Food Research Collaboration at City University on April 22nd 2015, Dr Corinna Hawkes presented her research and thoughts on the links between the foods we consume, the wider environment and its relation to the food system, and the need for a collective approach to solution-oriented thinking. With well over 15 years of experience in research and analysis of the global food system, Dr Hawkes highlighted the importance of identifying the clear but often understated relationship between food systems and NCDs.

While indicating that there is no clear or single solution, Dr Hawkes mentioned that food and health researchers can benefit from working backwards: from the picture of an ideal food system that consists of an optimum food environment with adequate individual dietary habits, backwards to the problems of the current broken system.

“It is okay to get lost”- Dr Corinna Hawkes

In her talk Hawkes mentioned an argument regularly presented by the food industry that individuals themselves are responsible for their food preferences and choices. However, she also highlighted the interconnections between personal food preferences and the impact of the food industry; given that food preferences are learnt during the course of a person’s life and are influenced by a range of environmental factors that are underpinned by the food system. Hawkes also urged for policy makers and policy protagonists to remain patient, as changes in food preferences among the general population should not be expected to occur overnight.

Dr Hawkes spoke of her experiences in Cape Town, South Africa where she observed a poor food environment in some of the poorest communities. Within such communities, Hawkes observed high levels of obesity among women and high levels of stunting among children. This is in conjunction with findings of the South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SANHANES-1), which indicated that 11.9% of girls at birth to 14 years of age were overweight and 4.8% were obese, whereas 24.9% of women 15 years and older were overweight and 39.3% were obese (Shisana et al., 2013). South Africa actually has the highest prevalence of female overweight (69.3%) and obesity (42%) in Sub-Saharan Africa, which even surpasses the United States (Ng et al., 2014).

Hawkes noted the high consumption of cheap, fatty foods such as polony: a paste-like meat product produced from mechanically deboned meat (MDM) under high pressure. Polony is a popular food in South Africa, particularly in low income areas. Approximately 122,391 metric tons of polony was imported into South Africa in 2011, 90% of which came from Brazil. In addition to its high saturated fat content, the high-pressure conditions under which it is produced exposes the end product to the risk of microbial growth (EFSA). Despite its poor health profile, polony remains a cheap source of protein that is mostly affordable to the poorest of South Africa’s population. It is also an important commodity for the local food processing industry. Therefore, with regards to seeking policy solutions for healthy eating, Hawkes suggests that it cannot be as simple as calling for a ban on polony or other unhealthy foods; but rather for other ways that governments can support the availability of healthy food such as improving the capacity of production and promotion; which in this instance would be whole chicken production and other healthier sources of protein.

In line with the theme of the food system impacting on the food environment, which in turn influences food preferences; Hawkes gave the example of the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. Of particular mention was Coca-Cola, whom according to Hawkes has grand ambitions of increasing their point-of-sale presence to the point where you will be able to purchase a Coke within a 100 metre radius of every person on the planet. Indeed such companies specifically target younger people via mass media advertisements (Stupar et al., 2012). To stress this point, Hawkes included quotes from executives at PepsiCo India and KFC respectively.

“We are focused on working our way into the skin of younger people” PepsiCo, India

“The philosophy is, if you get them in grade school, you’ll have them until they’re ninety” – KFC executive, Hungary.

Hence schools are a main target for the food and beverage industry. In fact, as a result of their huge advertising budgets, companies such as Coca-Cola are able to infiltrate millions of schools. Hawkes highlighted that as there is little consolidation among schools, many are not in a position to negotiate or bargain for better terms or healthier products.

Reiterating the point that there is no single solution to fixing the food system, Hawkes closed her talk by mentioning that there are elements of truth in every proposed solution. She encouraged researchers to have the courage to strategize and make judgments on how best to create change, as well as to try to understand the experience of others.

According to Hawkes’ most recent article published in the Lancet (2015), in order for food policies to have its desired effect on improving this food system, it must cater to the “preference, behavioural, socioeconomic, and demographic characteristics of the people they seek to support, are designed to work through the mechanisms through which they have greatest effect, and are implemented as part of a combination of mutually reinforcing actions”. The article went on to suggest that developing healthy food preferences for infants, children and disadvantaged populations should be an utmost priority for policy development and implementation. Therefore, the connection between the individual food preference and the wider food system should be made in order to identify specific problems and develop and implement effective policy actions.

Email for reference list: keiron.audain@gmail.com

Livestock depletes and pollutes global water sources – Happy #WorldWaterDay

Water is essential for the continuation of life as we know it, yet over the years it has become dangerously depleted and polluted. This post briefly highlights the impact commercial livestock farming has on the world’s water sources.


While it is said that the average person uses between 30 and 300 litres of water a day 1, it takes up to 3000 litres of water to produce the food  in their daily diet, particularly meat and dairy.

Commercial livestock farming uses over 8% of global water, of which almost 90% is used to produce animal feed 1. Sadly, the vast majority of this animal feed is produced in areas that are already facing considerable water scarcity. Approximately 38% of the world’s population live in water stressed areas and it is predicted that by 2025 this will rise to 64% 1. By 2023, roughly 33% or 1.8 billion people will be living in water-scarce areas such as South Africa, India, China and Pakistan 1. Predictions such as these will have disastrous consequences on the food system, as it was already estimated that close to 350 million tonnes of food was lost to water depletion in 2012 4.

The concept of “virtual water” refers to the total volume of water needed to produce a  commodity or provide a  service 2. Animal products have a higher virtual water content than plant products, as the living animal needs drinking water, service water, and as mentioned before, the water needed to produce animal feed 2. Based on this concept, it is estimated that 200 litres of water is used to produce just 200ml of milk; 135 litres of water is used to produce one 40g egg; and 2400 litres of water is used to produce one hamburger patty weighing 150g 2.

The use of virtual water is not always monitored in terms of where the commodity is produced but rather where it is consumed. For example, the 90% of virtual water used for producing animal-based commodities in Japan actually comes from imported animal feed  2.|Thus it is  actually countries outside of Japan that shoulder the majority of water depletion necessary to meet the Japanese demand for animal products.

Apart from depleting water sources, livestock is also heavily involved in polluting them. Animal manure used as fertiliser is very nitrogen-rich and the excess remaining after plant uptake can saturate soils and contaminate surface and groundwater sources via leaching and soil runoff 5. Nitrogen then accumulates in water bodies such as lakes, rivers and oceans, and encourages the growth of oxygen-consuming algae. This leaves less oxygen available for aquatic life, a process known as eutrophication 5. It is estimated that livestock adds 32% of the nitrogen load and 33% of the phosphorus load into fresh water sources 1.

Algae overgrowth due to Eutrophication

Algae overgrowth due to Eutrophication

A significant amount of pollution occurs by way of antibiotics, pesticides and heavy metals 5, 6. The amount of antibiotics used in the livestock industry worldwide has also not been quantified due to the heavy reliance on estimated international data 6. Antibiotic use in livestock has been banned in the EU; however, approximately 11,200 metric tons are used each year by livestock producers in the US to promote animal growth 6. This may be contributing to the growing number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria circulating within the human population, for example Aeromonas spp, which was identified in human drinking water in the US from as early as the 1980s 6. Antibiotics can even be absorbed by certain crops, as once observed in carrots, corn and lettuce 7.

The sobering conclusion of the state of the world’s water is that the impact will only felt as the situation gets worse;  making it more difficult to implement improvement strategies, especially in poverty-stricken areas 7. Scientists at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) predicted that by 2050 there will be not be enough water to maintain the intense animal farming needed to feed an expected population of 9 billion 8. To avoid this, intervention is needed to reduce animal-based calorie intake from current levels of 20% to just 5%, as well as to improve water usage within the sector 8.



  1. Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T et al. (2006) Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental issues and options. FAO/LEAD, Rome, Italy.
  2. Chapagain AK & Hoekstra AY (2004) Water Footprints of Nations – volume 1: Main Report; Value of Water Research Report Series No. 16. UNESCO-IHE; http://www.waterfootprint.org
  3. Turner K, Georgiou S, Clark R, Brouwer R, Burke J. 2004. Economic Valuation of Water Resources in Agriculture, from the Sectoral to a Functional Perspective of Natural Resource management; FAO paper reports No. 27. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  4. FAOSTAT (2013) Statistics Division of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Available: http://faostat.fao.org/site/291/default.aspx
  5. Martinez J, Dabert P, Barrington S, et al. (2009) Livestock Waste Treatment Systems for Environmental Quality, Food Safety, and Sustainability. Bioresource Technology; 100; 5527–5536
  6. Kümmerer, K (2009a) Antibiotics in the Aquatic Environment – A Review – Part I. Chemosphere; 75; 417–434
  7. Kümmerer, K (2009b) Antibiotics in the Aquatic Environment – A Review – Part II. Chemosphere; 75; 435–441
  8. Jägerskog A., Jønch Clausen T (2012) Feeding a Thirsty World – Challenges and Opportunities for a Water and Food Secure Future. Report (eds.) Nr. 31. SIWI, Stockholm.


Meat doesn’t grow on trees – so let’s cut them down

To mark the United Nations’ International Day of Forests on March 21st, this post briefly highlights the association between deforestation and arguably its  single largest cause – commercial livestock farming.



Beef consumption contributes to deforestation in the Amazon

In our modern world of dietary indulgence, where a person can order an entire platter of pork ribs, or a bucket of chicken wings, and receive it in matter of minutes, one can’t help but wonder just how did it become so easy to satisfy our cravings for all things meaty, and who or what is paying the real price for this convenience.

One doesn’t have to be an economist to understand the concept of ‘supply and demand’ – meaning that any increase in demand must be met by an increase in supply. So essentially, the livestock industry needs ensure that the supply is sufficient to satisfy consumer demands. This usually means scaling-up on existing production by acquiring more land space to house animals and grow food to feed them. Seeing that livestock already takes up around 45% of the global surface area 1, there is little space left to occupy – apart from rainforests.

The term “hamburger connection” was coined in 1981 to describe the United States’ then growing, and now firmly established love affair with beef 2. Cheap beef from cattle in Central American countries was produced and sold largely at the expense of their rainforests 2. In fact, over the past forty years, Central America alone  lost close to 40% of their rainforest  to cattle ranching alone 3. It wasn’t only US meat consumers enjoying cheap meat ranched on deforested land – in 2004-2005, approximately 1.2 million hectares of rainforest was cleared to grow the soybean crops that fed pigs and chickens in Europe 4. These figures are incorporated in the13 million hectares of global rainforest that has been cut down every year since 2000 5

The problem worsens as one travels further South, where the bulk of deforestation is taking place, and pasture land and feed crops make up the largest proportion of agricultural land 6. Brazil, believed to possess 62% of the Amazon rainforest, has already lost close to 80% of it; 70% of which was designated to cattle ranching 6.  Sadly but not surprisingly, this rate is increasing. From August 2012 to July 2013, Brazil reported a 35% increase in deforestation, as a space three times the size of New York City (2,338 sq km) was cleared 7.  The rate of deforestation in the Amazon was five times higher in 2013 than it was in 2012, which according to Reuters was “linked closely to soybean producers’ continual ‘indirect’ use of cattle ranchers’ deforested land.” 7


So what is all the fuss about deforestation anyway? Perhaps someone working in environmental health, or maybe a climatologist should be asked to comment. Up to 75% of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions is said to be caused by deforestation 8. From a global perspective, deforestation is responsible for a monumental 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year 9, making it the largest contributor within the livestock sector. Deforestation also leads to considerable land degradation, which causes an estimated 75 billion tonnes of soil to be removed each year, at an average cost of US$400 billion dollars 6. Soil has a rich biodiversity of microbes that not only contributes to plant growth 10, but also determines much of the nutrient content of foods 10. During deforestation, organic matter is removed 10, leaving microbes with less of the carbon it needs to regulate nutrient delivery to plants 10, thus contributing to food and nutrition insecurity.

Deforestation, Climate Change, and Food Insecurity

Deforestation, Climate Change, and Food Insecurity

Environment scientists cite deforestation as one of the main causes of plant and animal species loss in tropical rainforests 11. This is hardly surprising when considering that just one quarter-pound hamburger imported from Latin America can destroy 165 pounds of living matter, including 20-30 plant species, 100 insect species, and dozens of bird, mammal, and reptile species. 12 It is even predicted that the number of birds threatened with extinction in the Amazon should triple within the next few decades 13. If current deforestation rates increase or even stays the same, species extinction will continue up to three decades after deforestation has ceased 13 – if it ever does.

Much of the ‘powers that be’ appear to be taking a “wait and see what happens” approach to deforestation and its impact on the environment and life as we know it. Unfortunately, much of the science is saying that by the time we begin to experience the real effects of deforestation, it may already be too late to prevent, reverse or halt any of the damage being done. In a sense, the real ‘power’ lies in the hands of the consumer, who can decide whether or not they want to learn more about how their diet contributes to deforestation, and whether or not they choose to do something about it.

Further reading:

Brighter Green

Case Study: Brazil Livestock

Deforestation: Disastrous consequences for the climate and for food security


  1. 1.      Thornton P, Mario Herrero M, Ericksen P (2011) Livestock and climate change. International Livestock Research Institute. http://piarn.org.au/sites/piarn.boab.info/files/resources/541/issuebrief3.pdf
  1. 2.      Hecht SB. (1993) The Logic of Livestock and Deforestation in Amazonia. BioScience, Vol. 43, No. 10, pp. 687-695 http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/1312340.pdf?acceptTC=true&acceptTC=true&jpdConfirm=true
  1. 3.       Food and Agriculture Organisation.  Cattle ranching and deforestation. Livestock Policy Brief 03  ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a0262e/a0262e00.pdf
  1. 4.      Food and Agriculture Organisation: Livestock’s role in deforestation http://www.fao.org/agriculture/lead/themes0/deforestation/en/
  1. 5.      United Nations (2010) Deforestation in decline but rate remains alarming, UN agency says. United Nations News Centre.  http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=34195
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