Human’s love for and reliance on meat as a source of protein is one of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis.
Deforestation happens all over the world, and humans have played a leading role in the mass clearing of land since we started settling for civilization and agriculture thousands of years ago. But now, this trend is accelerating at an alarming rate. The two main culprits? Beef and soy. To keep up with the world’s insatiable appetite for hamburgers and steak, cattle ranchers in Brazil find themselves at the end of a massive network of multinational corporations and government corruption, and they clear forests indiscriminately, releasing 340 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
Grazing cows, photographed by Suzi
Cattle ranching accounts for 80% of direct deforestation in the Amazon, but cows and soy are closely related. Once the forested land has been cleared for grazing cows, soy producers come in and buy the land at a higher price, pushing cattle ranchers to clear even more forests and begin this devastating cycle anew. Cows and soybeans “are linked in two primary ways: they act as mutual enablers to access land within the Amazon, and they support each other through integrated value chains.” Soy producers rely on cattle ranchers to clear the land, and cattle ranchers rely on turning a profit on said land when the soy producers buy it off them; it’s a degenerative partnership.
This system is mutually beneficial and serves as a loophole to the Soy Moratorium of 2006, signed by British and American soy traders, who accounted for 90% of all soy exports from the Amazon. The moratorium intended to decrease deforestation by banning the purchase of any soy that could be directly linked to deforestation. And it worked: by 2014, direct deforestation for soy was reduced to nearly zero. But the moratorium said nothing about the exportation of soy on already-deforested land, and under this system of pasture conversion, there is now more overall acreage of soy than there was before. Additionally, because the moratorium only covers land in the Brazilian Amazon, all it has done is move deforestation to Paraguay, Argentina, and other parts of Brazil.
This may make it seem like it is in fact all those tofu-loving vegetarians that are the real reason for deforestation. However, this is not the case.
Nearly 80% of all soy produced globally is fed to livestock to fatten them up quickly and turn them into food.
It isn’t just cows leading to the destruction of forests worldwide, but the other animals bred for consumption too. So though cutting out beef is an incredible step in reducing your carbon footprint—beef accounts for just 2% of the world’s calorie intake but dominates 60% of all agricultural land—it is unfortunately not enough. Since 1970, 90% of the cleared land in the Amazon has been converted to cattle ranches, which quickly become soy plantations, where the overwhelming majority of soy crops are converted into a protein-dense cake and fed directly to pigs and chickens.
Pigs that will soon be slaughtered, photographed by Suzi
People may assume that eating chicken is the environmentally-friendly answer to being a meat-eater, and on the surface, it might appear that way: 4,000 liters of water are required to produce 1 kilogram of chicken, as compared to the 15,000 liters of water for the same amount of beef. But when the only reason you can eat that chicken is because it was fed with the soy that benefited from the burning of thousands of kilometers of trees in the Amazon, can you really still say that?
This is why we cannot separate livestock from traditional agriculture.
Animal Agriculture, Land Use and Hunger
A whopping 80% of all agricultural land—and 45% of all land on the entire planet—is dedicated to animal agriculture: the livestock that we eat, as well as the food that our food eats. This is an enormous amount of land, roughly equivalent to the land masses of the United States, China, the European Union, and Australia, combined. This, when meat and dairy provide just 18% of the world’s calories and only 37% of its protein.
Imagine all of the hungry mouths around the world. Right now, there are over 800 million people suffering from chronic malnourishment, not to mention the millions of others who regularly forego meals in order to provide for their families. If we used all of the soy (as well as corn and wheat) that currently feeds pigs, chickens, and sometimes fish, to feed humans instead, we would be able to feed an additional 3.5 billion people. And if more and more of us switched to a plant-based diet, we could free up thousands and thousands of miles of land for the trees and native wildlife that really belong there.
If we don’t change the way that we eat, beef and soy will continue to destroy forests, destroy habitats, and destroy the planet. In other words, animal agriculture will see us to our own demise.
But what if we do change the way that we eat? What if more and more of us cut out beef, only ate meat three times a week, went vegetarian, or even vegan? If you, your family, your neighbors, everyone you know, the whole world, decided that a healthy planet was more important than a plate of ribs or adding chicken to our salad, we could be the generation to end climate change.
Don’t believe me? See for yourself. (I’ll wait).
Welcome back! So, put down that hamburger, and let’s go save the planet.
Unsustainable Cattle Ranching, WWF. Retrieved from: https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/where_we_work/amazon/amazon_threats/unsustainable_cattle_ranching/
Replacing the Forest with Plantations, WWF. Retrieved from: https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/where_we_work/amazon/amazon_threats/mechanized_agriculture/
W. Fraanje and T. Garnett, Soy: food, feed and land use change, FCRN. Retrieved from: https://www.foodsource.org.uk/building-blocks/soy-food-feed-and-land-use-change
Meat and Animal Feed, Global Agriculture.https://www.globalagriculture.org/report-topics/meat-and-animal-feed.html
2020, How would a vegan shift free up land and reduce deforestation?, Truth or Drought.https://www.truthordrought.com/land-use-and-deforestation/
Forests and Climate Change, IUCN.https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/forests-and-climate-change