Have you ever visited an aquarium or zoo and seen some display showing tropical rainforest acres disappearing by the second? The chilling display usually says it is due to “farming”, which made me feel a bit conflicted, thinking that it was referring to indigenous families who are just trying to scrape by. While subsistence farming has been a major contributor to tropical rainforest destruction for generations, it has now been eclipsed by commercial industrial farming, which destroys forests more quickly and completely.
During the years that my kids were little and I was frequently visiting such places and seeing those displays (from 1996-2006), it turns out that 80% of the deforestation in Brazil was for one product: beef. Ten million hectares, an area the size of Iceland, was chopped down in that decade to supply the US and other countries’ need for hamburgers, either for cattle grazing in large swaths of land, or growing soybeans to feed cattle. Much of the land clearing was illegal. Brazil rose to become one of the largest exporters of beef. And, these were not small indigenous family farms–but rather industrial plantations and large agribusiness corporations that form a powerful lobby in Brazil.
It is not just South American forests that are in jeopardy. Forests in Africa and Asia are also disappearing at alarming rates as well. The biggest driver is agriculture. Commercial industrial farming–which is responsible for 2/3 of the deforestation in Latin America and 1/3 in Africa and Asia–tends to grow only one crop. Presently this is largely palm oil production for processed foods and soy for cattle feed. In fact, globalized beef production and palm oil corporations are now considered the two main causes of tropical deforestation.
Think about that. Our doctors and health professionals are advising us to eat less meat and fewer processed foods, yet those same products–foods we don’t need and aren’t good for us–are driving global deforestation.
Why does deforestation matter?
- Global warming. Trees are often called the “lungs of the earth” because they take in carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases and produce oxygen for us to breathe. Losing those lungs could have dire consequences to combat the effects of climate change.
- Mass extinction. Remember learning about the sudden mass extinction of the dinosaurs? Scientists now believe that we are in the era of the “sixth mass extinction” that rivals that catastrophic event. Only this time it is entirely a man-made event, and deforestation plays a major role. Both land and ocean animals are in big trouble.
- Flooding and erosion. Deforestation contributes to devastating consequences of erosion and flooding. The loss of trees, whose roots anchor the soil, leads to erosion of the top soil. Poor soil leads farmers to increase their use of fertilizers, which leads to run off that pollutes in rivers and streams. The loss of trees as anchors for heavy rains leads to massive floods, which are now a frequent item in our daily news. Erosion and flooding are extremely costly for developing countries (where most of our rainforests are). Those who suffer most are not the corporate executives of commercial farms, but indigenous folks, who more and more are are becoming “environmental refugees.”
- The spread of disease. Remember the Ebola outbreak in 2014? Did you catch the news that linked the source of the outbreak to deforestation? Rainforests are home to two-thirds of all the living species on the planet. Many of these species have never been in contact with humans–until deforestation. Many infectious diseases are associated with deforestation, including yellow fever, dengue, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, monkey malaria, and Lyme disease.
Finally, consider this except from an opinion article published by the Yale School of Forestry:
Already, we have cleared or converted more than 35 percent of the earth’s ice-free land surface for agriculture, whether for croplands, pastures or rangelands. In fact, the area used for agriculture is nearly 60 times larger than the area of all of the world’s cities and suburbs. Since the last ice age, nothing has been more disruptive to the planet’s ecosystems than agriculture. What will happen to our remaining ecosystems, including tropical rainforests, if we need to double or triple world agricultural production [due to population growth], while simultaneously coping with climate change?