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24 November 2021updated 02 Dec 2021 3:05pm

Why we all – and men especially – must eat less meat to save the Amazon

New pledges and legislation should help slow tropical deforestation, but a full dietary shift is needed for real change.

By Philippa Nuttall

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has hit its highest rate since 2006. The increase, and its devastating impacts on climate change and nature, is completely contrary to President Jair Bolsonaro’s recent pledge to end the chopping down and burning of trees by 2030.

The destruction of the Amazon is nothing new. Forty years ago, tropical forests were being cleared to create pasture for the cattle destined to become “burgers in cheap fast-food joints”, writes UK biologist Dave Goulson in his latest book Silent Earth. “As a teenager in the 1980s I was horrified by photographs of vast areas of ancient, buttressed rainforest trees in the Amazon being simply knocked over and the timber burned in situ, smoke roiling across the blackened, skeletal branches, the most diverse ecosystem on Earth reduced to ashes.”

Today, trees are still being destroyed to make room for cattle, as well as to create vast amounts of space to grow monocultures of crops such as soy, which is then exported to feed cattle, and other livestock, elsewhere in the world. Indeed, our meat-eating habits are fuelling tropical deforestation faster than ever before. Worldwide, such loss has now reached a rate of about 200 km2 a day or 75,000 km2 a year – an area bigger than the Republic of Ireland. 

The result? An estimated 135 rainforest species go extinct every day and about 4.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide are released every year, equivalent to 8 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are committing ecocide on a biblical scale,” writes Goulson.

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In Brazil, after the rate of chopping and burning trees slowed between 2009 and 2014, deforestation has rocketed since Bolsonaro came to power in 2019. Twenty-two per cent more trees were destroyed in the Brazilian Amazon from August 2020 to July 2021 compared to the previous 12 months.

Yet while the number of trees declines, the number of cows continues to grow. Brazil now has an estimated 190 million cows – compared to 212 million people – and it exports beef all over the world. “Globally, beef provides just 2 per cent of the calories we consume, yet 60 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is used for beef production,” says Goulson. 

The country is also the world’s biggest soy producer. The majority, 70-75 per cent of it, is exported to China, while 15-20 per cent goes to Europe, primarily for animal feed. This soy has caused more deforestation than any other commodity imported into the EU and UK from 2005 to 2017, says advocacy organisation Mighty Earth

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“The whole system makes a negligible contribution to feeding the world, while having a huge negative impact on both the global climate and biodiversity,” says Goulson.

Step one towards changing this state of affairs is the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use. One hundred and forty-one countries, covering 90 per cent of the world’s forests, have now signed up to “strengthen shared efforts” to “conserve forests” and “accelerate their restoration”. However, it is unlikely that Brazil will introduce policies in line with these promises in the immediate future. With an election looming, tightening the restrictions on deforestation would risk Bolsonaro losing support among a key constituency.

Step two, if agreed by EU member states, is the draft legislation published last week by the European Commission demanding that companies prove that agricultural commodities, such as beef and soy, sold to the bloc’s 450 million consumers are not linked to deforestation. The UK is proposing similar legislation, but only for products related to “illegal deforestation”, which exporter countries could get around simply by expanding legal forms of deforestation.

The third recent step is the pledge by leading British and European retail chains not to purchase meat or dairy raised on soy animal feed that is sold by companies connected to deforestation. Aldi, the Co-op, Asda, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Lidl are among those that have signed up.

Campaigners hope such agreements will force companies such as the commodity giant Cargill and its rival Bunge, the biggest soy producers in Brazil, to end any engagement with traders engaged in deforestation, says Nico Muzi from Mighty Earth. He is also hopeful they will create global change, including on what is sold into China. “My hunch is that it will be really tough to clean up 20 per cent of the supply chain to send to Europe, and not the other 80 per cent,” says Muzi. “The EU market is the biggest in terms of punching power. It has huge leverage.”

While beef has the dubious accolade of being the top driver of global deforestation, all meats have a greater impact on the climate than plant-based products. Lamb has been found to be 25 times more polluting and pork five times more polluting than tofu. In recognition of this, the supermarkets working to reduce their impact on deforestation have also agreed to push more plant-based products onto their shelves, in order to encourage consumers to change their eating patterns and consume less meat. For many, a dietary shift is the real sea change that is needed. 

Joanna Smallwood, a lecturer at the University of Sussex, welcomes, with caveats, all of these attempts to reduce deforestation. But she insists that unless we reduce demand for meat, the Amazon will continue to be destroyed, with devastating consequences for everyone. 

None of this legislation “really addresses the need to reduce meat consumption and for us all to eat more sustainable diets”, she says. “There is a responsibility on producer countries, but we also have a role as consumers to change our diets and encourage companies to produce more plant-based products to protect biodiversity and stop climate change.” Research under the aegis of the UN concludes that a global dietary shift away from meat would reduce deforestation by 20 per cent between 2030 and 2050.

And men need to change more than women, suggests a study published this week. After examining the diets of 212 British people, scientists found animal products were responsible for almost half of the average diet’s greenhouse gas emissions, that non-vegetarian diets created 59 per cent more emissions than vegetarian diets, and that men’s diets had 41 per cent more emissions, largely due to eating more meat. 

Research published by scientists in Sweden in July came to a similar conclusion. While women are much more affected by the impacts of climate change than men, the Swedish study showed that on average men emit 16 per cent more greenhouse gases than women because they tend to spend more money on fuel and eat more meat.

Eating less meat is also better for our health, and helps protects indigenous peoples, increasing numbers of whom in countries like Brazil are losing their lives trying to defend land from big business interests.

Exchanging your steak-frites for moules-frites (I am based on Brussels) or your Big Mac for a McPlant would seem a small price to pay for such huge benefits.