Humans are eating the world's forests. Not directly, of course—but a spate of new studies shows we might as well be.
This is, of course, extremely bad news for the climate—which is bad news for all life on earth.
Deforestation is the world's second largest source of human-induced carbon emissions, which are the main driver of climate change. Currently we are on course to breach the climate danger threshold within 12 years according to the UN.
But a new scientific study by a team of European scientists reveals that the biggest cause of deforestation is industrial farming—and the major culprits include some of the most well-known names in Western agribusiness, such as Cargill and Bunge.
Eating the planet
The study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change at the end of March, is the first of its kind to demonstrate the extent to which deforestation in the tropics is directly driven by industrial food production.
Focusing on the period between 2010 and 2014, it shows that beef and oilseed products account for over half of emissions from tropical deforestation, with Europe and China among the major importers. And overall, global trade in such products accounts for up to 39 percent of emissions.
The paper, whose lead authors are Florence Pendrill and Martin Persson at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, demonstrates that deforestation is driven chiefly by land uses for crops, pastures, and forest plantations to produce specific commodities which are widely consumed around the world by industrial nations.
Other researchers involved in the study are from the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden, Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Germany, and NTNU, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
The study finds that the average European citizen’s diet has a substantive carbon footprint, a sixth of which comes from deforestation emissions. For some countries (such as Malta, Japan, Luxemburg, and Belgium), carbon emissions due to imports of products linked to deforestation are actually higher than half of their own domestic national agricultural emissions.
Yet these are usually not accounted for when countries compile figures for national carbon emissions.
By the far the biggest global driver of carbon emissions induced by deforestation is beef production in Brazil, the rest of Latin America, and Africa, accounting for some 34 percent of emissions. The next major driver is from oilseeds products such as vegetable oils, at around 20 percent.
Other commodities which play a lesser but still contributing role include staples such as rice, wheat, cocoa, coffee, tea, and spices.
Trading in extinction
Although the EU is the main focus of this paper, scientists from the Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research, Atmospheric Environmental Research (IMK-IFU), Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, and the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh have warned that the United States is about to make the situation far worse.
A new paper published last month in Nature warns that President Donald Trump's trade war with China is likely to trigger a new phase of accelerated deforestation in Brazil.
Over the last two decades, meteoric growth in the global market for soy has driven massive deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. In response to US tariffs of up to 25 percent on Chinese imports, China retaliated by imposing up to 25 percent tariffs on US goods, including soybeans produced in the US largely for animal feed.
"the dynamics of deforestation are increasingly inseparable from the growing demand for food from consumers in the most developed countries"
As US soybean exports to China have consequently plummeted by half, Chinese demand continues to grow. So instead of importing from the US, China will make up the shortfall by expanding its imports from Brazil—with devastating consequences for the Amazon rainforest.
“We forecast that a surge of tropical deforestation could occur as a result of the fresh demand being placed on China’s other major suppliers to provide up to 37.6 million tonnes of the crop (that is how much China imported from the United States in 2016)”, wrote Richard Fuchs, senior research fellow at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, and his co-authors.
According to Fuchs and his colleagues, the area dedicated to soybean production in Brazil could increase by up to 39 percent, which could destroy 13 million hectares of rainforest.
This could be an underestimate. Their forecast does not account for demand hikes unrelated to the US-China trade war. They point out that China’s demand for soy has grown exponentially since 2000, rising 200 percent from Argentina, 700 percent from the US and 2,000 percent from Brazil.
Apart from ending a trade war that many observers argue is self-defeating, the scientists suggest that one way to prevent looming disaster is for the US and China to agree to remove soy from their mutual tariffs.
The Amazon rainforest is already under severe strain due to climate change, with more intense droughts increasingly undermining tree growth. As deforestation accelerates, the forest’s capacity to act as a ‘carbon sink’—absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—has dramatically declined.
In recent years, as deforestation has accelerated, tropical forests like the Amazon are now releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than they absorb. Last year, a study in Science Advances concluded that the Amazon is on the verge of a ‘tipping point’ beyond which the rainforest could experience an irreversible degradation.
These new studies demonstrate that the dynamics of deforestation are increasingly inseparable from the growing demand for food from consumers in the most developed countries. But they also reveal the role of some of the world’s biggest food companies.
Several investigations by Mighty Earth, a global campaign organization based in Washington DC chaired by former Congressman Henry Waxman, Rainforest Foundation Norway, and Dutch NGO Fern have pinpointed how two American conglomerates in particular, Cargill and Bunge, have driven “massive deforestation” for soy production in the Cerrado, Brazil’s vital savanna, and Bolivia’s Amazon Basin.
Both companies export large quantities of soy into the EU, where it is used primarily for agriculture to produce dairy, eggs, pork, poultry and beef.
The Mighty Earth report, published in 2018, concluded that although parts of the Brazilian Amazon are now off-limits for soy production, soy raised for European animal feed (Europe imported some 27.9 million tons in 2016) has driven deforestation not just across the Cerrado and Bolivia, but also in Argentina and Paraguay’s Gran Chaco forest.
Although the Cerrado is not as recognized as the Amazon, it is home to 5 percent of species on the planet, and is disappearing nearly four times as fast. Over the last decade, an area larger than South Korea has been deforested from the savanna.
There is no sign that demand for these food products is going to stop rising anytime soon. But Mighty Earth argues that deforestation is completely avoidable. Across Latin America, there are over 650 million hectares of previously cleared land where agriculture could be expanded without threatening the rainforests.
According to Professor Martin Persson, co-author of the Global Environmental Change study, banning any of these commodities is not the answer. Producers must be pressured and incentivized to change.
“Just closing the doors on any particular commodity runs the risk of moving to another commodity or another producer,” he told Motherboard. “As long as the demand is there, then a ban would simply displace production somewhere else. We need to create incentives to make production better.”
In March, the European Commission banned palm oil produced in Indonesia and Malaysia from being included in the EU’s renewable transport targets for biofuels, on the grounds that it contributes to excessive deforestation.
But given the EU’s silence on other commodities such as beef and soy—which according to the new Global Environmental Change study are responsible for 30 percent of carbon emissions in Latin America from deforestation compared to less than 14 percent in the Asia-Pacific from palm oil—this approach is unlikely to really help.
Last year, a study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature explicitly warned that a blanket palm oil ban would simply replace production with much larger areas of rapeseed, soy or sunflower fields which use greater amounts of land—therefore driving even greater deforestation. Palm oil yields four to ten times more oil per unit of land than other oilseeds, and uses less fertilizer and pesticides.
Persson agreed with this analysis. “Palm is actually a fantastic crop in principle,” he said. “It uses far less land than other vegetable oils. In theory, there is plenty of already cleared land to grow commodities like palm oil and soy, or to host cattle—so we need incentives and regulations to ensure that companies adhere to proper sustainability criteria.”
As deforestation from industrial farming accelerates, Persson calls on governments to draw on measures that have had proven success. The EU’s approach to timber imports, he said, provides a potentially good model: “Currently there are stringent due diligence rules which companies must follow to prove they have taken precautions to ensure they not sourcing from illegal logging. Also, the EU can agree voluntary partnership agreements with countries to assist them in meeting appropriate criteria.”
This research serves to remind us that stopping climate change can be an incredibly complex matter due to the myriad ways in which our modern civilization depends on technologies that drive carbon emissions.
And while it reinforces how grave the risks are if we continue on our current course, it also makes clear that putting an end to the rampant destruction of the forests on which planetary ecosystems depend is completely avoidable.