Food is a Cause of Fire in the Amazon Forest

Soumya Aggarwal
Soumya Aggarwal

February 2021

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Climate change, the future of our earth, and greenhouse gas emissions are some of the growing concerns since the last few decades. We have been talking about fossil fuels, single-use plastics, deforestation for development, waste management to combat this change. However, there has been a slow movement against meat production and its impact on the changing surroundings.

Producing food requires resources such as land, water, and energy. So, when Leonardo Dicaprio said in 2019⁣ “eliminate or reduce consumption of beef; cattle ranching is one of the primary drivers of Amazon deforestation” to protect Amazon rainforests, what did he actually mean? Here is a small data check: Soybeans can be produced at 52.5 bushels per acre x 60 lbs. per bushel = 3,150 dry soybeans per acre. Soybeans protein content (dry) is 163.44 grams per pound. The protein content per acre of soybeans is 163.44 g x 3,150 lb. = 514,836 g per acre. Beef can be produced at 205 pounds per acre. Beef protein content (raw) is 95.34 grams per pound. The protein content per acre of beef is 95.34 g x 205 lb. = 19,544.7 g per acre.

Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91 percent of Amazon forest’s destruction. 1 to 2 acres of rainforest are cleared every second. 26 million rainforest acres (10.8m hectares) have been cleared for palm oil production. 136 million rainforest acres cleared for animal agriculture. In July 2019, 73 sq km of the Amazon rainforest was cleared every day. For scale, that is an area of London that stretches from Hyde Park to Tower Bridge.

A study by the FAO concludes that livestock agriculture is the single largest anthropogenic user of land. Livestock takes up 70 percent of all agricultural land, making it a key factor responsible for deforestation and degradation. A non-vegetarian diet not only leads to more degradation but also requires more land for its production. A Netherlands-based study also noted that an ‘affluent’ diet requires three times as much land as a vegetarian diet.

Similar is the difference in greenhouse gas emissions. A non-vegetarian diet can release twice the carbon dioxide equivalent to a vegetarian diet, depending on the type of meat. Beef production releases methane, which is 23 times more harmful than CO2. One kilogram of dry beans produces 2 kilograms of CO2 equivalents against 6.9 produced by chicken and 27 by beef.

Additionally, food production is linked to water consumption. Throughout the world, humans drink 5.2 billion gallons of water and eat 21 billion pounds of food each day. Worldwide, cows drink 45 billion gallons of water and eat 135 billion pounds of food each day. At least 50% of grain is fed to livestock. A person who follows a vegan diet produces the equivalent of 50% less carbon dioxide, uses 1/11th oil, 1/13th water, and 1/18th land compared to a meat-lover for their food. The Pacific Institute, a US-based research center, reports that meat and dairy products consume nearly half of California’s water. Animal Agriculture is responsible for 20%-33% of all freshwater consumption in the world today.

What we eat is a personal choice. The philosophical debate here is ‘Individual rights vs Collective Responsibility’ for the environment. We are not proposing to ban meat. It is an integral and natural part of life for most humans. However, we can create mechanisms to raise awareness about this issue and encourage people to reduce the animal-based diet.

The UN and the international community need to recognize meat reduction as an actionable goal in order to achieve sustainability. Policymakers can incentivize such a dietary shift. A report on climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published in 2020 says a plant-based diet is a major factor for mitigating environmental degradation.

While the multilateral bodies, policymakers, and researchers are suggesting behavioral shifts, it largely falls on individual responsibility. We should adopt a more eco-friendly diet. Food is an everyday activity in human life. Among several other aspects of climate mitigation such as environment-friendly means of transportation, green practices in manufacturing, solar energy, and more, an eco-friendly diet is something that can be pursued by everyone and every day. This makes it a very powerful means of environmental conservation. Let us come together to make this a part of our daily lives and ensure policy measures in support of climate protection through food habits.

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