BY SHAHIR MASRI,
While these are important contributing factors, the evident international concern for the Amazon that has surfaced this month is not without irony. As we look to blame ranchers, politicians, and climate for these fires, we overlook a glaring paradox. That is, underlying the long-term destruction of the Amazon rain forest for decades has been global demand for meat products.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Brazil remains the world’s number one beef exporter, accounting for nearly 20 percent of global exports, and still growing. As of 2018, Brazilian beef exports reached a record 1.6 million tonnes. Some reports suggest as much as 80 percent of Amazon forest destruction is related to cattle ranching.
Thus, as ranchers capitalize on drier-than-average weather this month to burn and clear forests, we must recognize the connection between fires in the Amazon and consumer demand. According to CNN, Finland has taken notice of this as the nation’s finance minister on Friday called for the European Union to “urgently review the possibility of banning Brazilian beef imports” in light of the Amazon fires.
Although the majority of Brazilian beef exports go to China and Hong Kong, the Unites States, European Union, and other nations nonetheless have roles to play, as we all fit into the picture of global demand.
The destruction of the Amazon means more than just the loss of beautiful forests. It’s also a blow to biodiversity. At a time when extinction rates are already 1,000 times higher than natural background rates, we should be doing everything we can to preserve the biodiversity that remains on our planet, rather than expediting its disappearance.
Besides the impact that burning the Amazon has on greenhouse gas emissions, the livestock industry itself is notorious for its massive contribution to climate change and the buildup of greenhouse gases. Beef production is particularly problematic since cows produce a potent greenhouse gas called methane, which is even 30 times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide.
Additionally, cattle require extensive food supplies, which increases the destruction of native habitats for farming while in the process placing increased demand on fossils fuels used to produce fertilizers, pesticides, and energy. All told, beef accounts for about 40 percent of livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions, and livestock accounts for 15 percent of total global emissions.
As the disappearing Amazon causes us to reflect on our personal consumer choices, we need not fall into the black and white tradition of thinking that one must be vegan or vegetarian to make a difference. Ecological impacts are not so dichotomous. A heavy meat eater who decides to reduce his or her meat consumption will make a difference, just as a light meat eater who decides to eliminate meat completely will do the same. These are all worthwhile pursuits as we realize our place in the important story of protecting the Amazon.
Shahir Masri, Sc.D., is the author of “Beyond Debate: Answers to 50 Misconceptions on Climate Change.” He is an air pollution scientist at the University of California at Irvine, and also teaches at the Schmid College of Science and Technology at Chapman University. Follow him on Twitter at @ShahirMasri.