The Amazon is burning — Biden can help save it
The lush rainforests of the Amazon are considered the lungs of the planet — critical to mitigating climate change, protecting biodiversity, and maintaining the health and well-being of life on Earth.
Yet, clearing space for cattle grazing is turning this lifeline to ashes. New data reported by the Washington Post show an area five times the size of New York City was cleared in the Amazon in just the first half of 2022. In June alone the rainforest suffered the worst fires in 15 years.
The area is not naturally fire-prone. The overwhelming majority of fires are being deliberately set to clear land for cattle pasture or feed crops, known as “slash-and-burn” agriculture. Cattle ranching is responsible for 80 percent of current Amazonian deforestation.
The Amazon absorbs around 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. Yet, when forests are cut and burned, massive amounts of stored carbon are released. Some portions of the Amazon are so heavily deforested that the jungle released nearly 20 percent more carbon dioxide than it absorbed over the past decade, turning one of the world’s largest carbon sinks into a net emitter instead.
Although the Amazon isn’t within our borders, the United States has a role to play. A soy and cattle deforestation tracker showed JBS USA Beef (a subsidiary of Brazil’s JBS SA, the largest meat company in the world) has cleared 100,711 hectares (nearly 250,000 acres), which is the most among eight major beef competitors. And a recent environmental study showed a 50 percent rise in the company’s emissions: It has a climate footprint larger than Italy.
Last year, the company pledged to end illegal Amazon deforestation in its supply chain by 2025 and achieve zero deforestation by 2040. Earlier this year investigative reporting from the Washington Post showed that JBS has reportedly yet to cut its ties to illegal deforestation.
Considering fires caused by deforestation for cattle ranching were up 23 percent between 2019 and 2020, the rainforest can’t wait for agriculture companies to act.
President Biden must end U.S. complicity in the destruction of the Amazon. He should impose sanctions on Brazilian agricultural products, particularly beef and soy, until deforestation in the Amazon is stopped. The United States should then offer financial incentives to Brazil to develop sustainable standards of agricultural practices as part of a larger effort to support a just transition to agriculture that’s better for workers and the planet.
America’s appetite for beef is destroying the Amazon. People in the United States eat four times the global average of beef — 85 percent of which comes from only four companies. While producers point to grass-fed beef as a solution, the reality is the vast majority of grass-fed beef sold in the United States is imported — even beef labeled “Product of the U.S.A.”
Biden’s Department of Agriculture can lead on this issue with policy guidance like including sustainability frameworks in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. As individuals, we can take a stand against illegal deforestation by weaning ourselves off cheap, environmentally destructive beef.
Our ability to mitigate climate change, build a just transition and let the lungs of the Earth breathe again depends on it.
Jennifer Molidor is the senior food campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.