Our diets are fueling flames in the Amazon

Our diets are fueling flames in the Amazon
© Getty Images

The Amazon has made headlines this month as fires rip across the region. While this is the dry season for the area, during which fires are common, fires have nonetheless reached unprecedented highs this season — up 80 percent compared to last year. As the Amazon burns, the world has lit up with despair and outrage, with hashtags such as #PrayForTheAmazon going viral.

As the fires and emotional uproar continue, one naturally wonders "who is to blame?" Of course, the obvious cause is "human ignition," as these fires are mostly due to farmers and ranchers using flames to clear forests and shrublands (a common practice in tropical regions). However, the underlying reason for farming-related fires is also important to pursue.

Some news reports point to climate change, as hotter and drier temperatures have contributed to the increased flammability of landscapes not only in Brazil, but all over the world. Others point to Brazil's new far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who champions the exploitation of the Amazon for economic gain and who’s government has scaled back efforts to fight illegal logging, ranching and mining — thus emboldening more farmers, ranchers, and land-grabbers to clear forestlands.

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While these are important contributing factors, the evident international concern for the Amazon that has surfaced this month is not without irony. As we look to blame ranchers, politicians, and climate for these fires, we overlook a glaring paradox. That is, underlying the long-term destruction of the Amazon rain forest for decades has been global demand for meat products.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Brazil remains the world's number one beef exporter, accounting for nearly 20 percent of global exports, and still growing. As of 2018, Brazilian beef exports reached a record 1.6 million tonnes. Some reports suggest as much as 80 percent of Amazon forest destruction is related to cattle ranching.

Thus, as ranchers capitalize on drier-than-average weather this month to burn and clear forests, we must recognize the connection between fires in the Amazon and consumer demand. According to CNN, Finland has taken notice of this as the nation’s finance minister on Friday called for the European Union to "urgently review the possibility of banning Brazilian beef imports" in light of the Amazon fires.

Although the majority of Brazilian beef exports go to China and Hong Kong, the Unites States, European Union, and other nations nonetheless have roles to play, as we all fit into the picture of global demand.

The destruction of the Amazon means more than just the loss of beautiful forests. It’s also a blow to biodiversity. At a time when extinction rates are already 1,000 times higher than natural background rates, we should be doing everything we can to preserve the biodiversity that remains on our planet, rather than expediting its disappearance.

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What’s more, the Amazon rainforest plays a crucial role in oxygen production, carbon sequestration, and the saga surrounding climate change. Often called the lungs of the earth, the Amazon absorbs much of the carbon dioxide we emit to the atmosphere through human activity. When the forest burns, we not only remove this important carbon sink, but we also directly release carbon back to the atmosphere as fires convert solid biomass to carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

Besides the impact that burning the Amazon has on greenhouse gas emissions, the livestock industry itself is notorious for its massive contribution to climate change and the buildup of greenhouse gases. Beef production is particularly problematic since cows produce a potent greenhouse gas called methane, which is even 30 times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide.

Additionally, cattle require extensive food supplies, which increases the destruction of native habitats for farming while in the process placing increased demand on fossils fuels used to produce fertilizers, pesticides, and energy. All told, beef accounts for about 40 percent of livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions, and livestock accounts for 15 percent of total global emissions.

Once cleared, forests are not easily restored to their original condition, even with dedicated restoration efforts. This in part because soils deteriorate with the loss of plant cover, as the sun’s rays bake the ground and as rains wash away important topsoil.

Coming full circle, it is imperative to realize that we all have a role to play in the preservation of the Amazon. If images of this month’s forest fires have stirred public emotion, then it’s incumbent upon us to reflect on our personal behavior and understand how consumer choice at the grocery store fits into the story of either the preservation or ultimate destruction of the Amazon rainforest. It is often said that we cast a vote each time we use our dollar to make a purchase. This couldn’t ring truer than in the present context.  

As the disappearing Amazon causes us to reflect on our personal consumer choices, we need not fall into the black and white tradition of thinking that one must be vegan or vegetarian to make a difference. Ecological impacts are not so dichotomous. A heavy meat eater who decides to reduce his or her meat consumption will make a difference, just as a light meat eater who decides to eliminate meat completely will do the same. These are all worthwhile pursuits as we realize our place in the important story of protecting the Amazon.

Shahir Masri, Sc.D., is the author of "Beyond Debate: Answers to 50 Misconceptions on Climate Change." He is an air pollution scientist at the University of California at Irvine, and also teaches at the Schmid College of Science and Technology at Chapman University. Follow him on Twitter at @ShahirMasri.