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.
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.
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.
- 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
- 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
- 3. Food and Agriculture Organisation. Cattle ranching and deforestation. Livestock Policy Brief 03 ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a0262e/a0262e00.pdf
- 4. Food and Agriculture Organisation: Livestock’s role in deforestation http://www.fao.org/agriculture/lead/themes0/deforestation/en/
- 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
- 6. Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T et al. (2006) Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental issues and options. FAO/LEAD, Rome, Italy. http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM
- 7. Prada P, Barbara P (2013) Brazil data indicate increase in Amazon deforestation. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/05/us-brazil-deforestation-idUSBRE9640ZD20130705
- 8. Tollefson J (2011) Brazil revisits forest code. Nature News http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110817/full/476259a.html
- 9. McMichael AJ, Powles JW, Butler CW, Uauy R (2007) Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health. Lancet; 370: 1253–63
- 10. Zhu YG (2009) Soil Science in the Understanding of the Security of Food Systems for Health. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr;18(4):516-519
- 11. School of Natural Resources and Environment – University of Michigan; Modern Causes of Species Extinctions: habitat Destruction http://www.snre.umich.edu/~dallan/nre220/outline6.htm
- 12. Julie Denslow and Christine Padoch, People of the Tropical Rainforest (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1988), 169. cited by – McSpotlight – Beyond Beef: http://www.mcspotlight.org/media/reports/beyond.html
- 13. Wearn OR, Reuman DC, Ewers RM. (2012) Extinction Debt and Windows of Conservation Opportunity in the Brazilian Amazon. Science 337, 228; doi: 10.1126/science.1219013