Cattle ranching in the Amazon cause widespread deforestation, their unsustainable practices highlight the need for more plant-based food agriculture.
Deforestation, also known as "habitat conversion", lies at the crux of what is shaping the future of Central and South America, particularly in the Amazon, where expansion of pastures for livestock production is one of the driving forces behind its wholesale destruction..
Cattle expansion is heaviest in the new agricultural frontier areas known as the "Arc of deforestation", covering an area from the Eastern Brazilian Amazon, through the Southern Brazilian Amazon and the Bolivian rainforests, to the Andean Amazon ecosystems of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela..
At present, cattle ranching is the largest driver of deforestation in the Amazon basin, accounting for 80% of current rates. Over the past 25 years, a forested area the size of India (approximately 900 000 km2) has been felled. The Amazon is home to nearly 200 million head of cattle and is the largest exporter in the world, supplying about a quarter of global demand (especially for fast-food chains like McDonalds and Burger King)..
Typically, the deforestation process starts when roads are cut into the forest to open it up for logging and mining. Once the forest beside the roads has been cleared, commercial or subsistence farmers move in and start growing crops. Alas, forest soil is not nutrient-rich, and after two or three years, it's depleted and crops fail. At this point, the farmers move on and let the grass grow.
The abandoned land is then picked up by cattle ranchers seeking lush grass to feed their stock. To maintain an adequate supply of fresh and nutrient-rich grass, it needs to be burned every few years, to replenish soils and encourage re-growth. As such, a thick blanket of smoke fills the Brazilian sky every dry season.
After five to 10 years, overgrazing and nutrient loss turn what was once a biological powerhouse into an eroded wasteland. Because cattle use energy to convert grass into protein, they require vast amounts of land; on average three times that of poultry and about ten times that of grain. In Brazil, pastureland outweighs planted cropland by nearly five times.
Deforestation causes incalculable environmental damage, releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (upsetting the delicate carbon cycle, learn more about this in our previous blog here) and driving thousands of species of life to extinction each year.
Cattle ranching is an attractive economic activity in Brazil because of the low input cost and easy transportation in rural forest areas. To date, approximately 450,000 square kilometres of deforested Amazon basin land has been turned into cattle pastures. This phenomenon first came to public attention when conservationists in the early 1980s coined the phrase “the hamburger connection”. The phrase describes how rapid growth of beef exports from South America to fast food chains in the United States was driving deforestation.
At that time, Brazil’s beef production was nascent and domestic, with the real industry taking place in Central America. However, government incentives; improvements in road and electricity infrastructure; and a boom in meat processing facilities contributed to its rapid expansion. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Brazil’s cattle exports exploded with the help of a devalued currency and the rampant spread of foot and mouth disease in rival producers (i.e., Europe).
Without a doubt, when compared to plant-based foods, animal-sourced foods use significantly more resources, such as water and land, and release exponentially more harmful carbon into the atmosphere. Researchers at Oxford University have found that red meat is 35 times more damaging to the environment than a bowl of vegetables. Let’s look at this accusation in context:
As you can see, the environmental impact of meat versus vegetables is astounding. A serving size of meat compared to a serving size of vegetables is linked to 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions and it requires 100 times more land for production.The study cited earlier also concluded that a diet that removes red meat and focuses on plant-based sources is better for the environment. And that the same foods that are better for the environment are also better for human health.
It is widely agreed by scientists and nutritionists that increasing consumption of whole-grain cereals, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish, olive oil and other vegetable oils high in unsaturated fats — foods that are consistently associated with decreased disease risk and low environmental impacts — would have multiple health and environmental benefits globally. Choosing a sustainable, plant-based lifestyle is one of the best ways people can improve their health and help protect the environment.
Recently, some promising and sustainable land-use alternatives have emerged in certain regions of Brazil; particularly as large farmers become cognizant of their negative ecological impact. Now, the strategy of some farmers is not to focus solely on timber extraction and land tenure expansion. Some of them are trying to use new government financial support to reforest degraded areas or to implement agroforestry systems.
For example, in the South of Para, large cattle ranchers are starting to plant teck (a valuable timber tree) in their pastures, increasing land productivity and decreasing environmental degradation. Some have also introduced small-scale-agroforestry systems, integrating perennial crops with fruit or timber trees.
International attention is growing in Brazil to change its ways. For instance, the World Bank recently cancelled a loan to a large Brazilian cattle company and the Brazilian government has stepped up enforcement of its forest code (requiring Amazonian landowners to maintain 80% of their land as forest).
Efforts are also being made to ensure deforestation-free cattle ranching through certification and promotion of sustainable ranching practices, overseen by NGOs like Alianca da Terra. Although deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has dramatically decreased over the past decade, it shows signs of increasing again (as per global demand), and it continues to rise in neighboring countries.
Overall, adequate solutions to minimise the negative ecological impact of widespread Amazon basin cattle production, the promotion of sustainable grazing systems and adoption of alternate plant-based diets will help to halt the cycle of environmental degradation.