Deforestation is simply the action or process of clearing forests. At the moment, the world’s total forest area is just over four billion hectares but the FAO reported that each year of the last decade, around 13 million hectares of forests were lost. Almost a third of those losses are occurring in South America, and most of that is happening in the Amazon. Livestock production is responsible for 90 percent of Amazonian deforestation that’s happened since 1970. Now, pastures occupy 70 percent of the cleared land and feed crops (food for the animals) cover most of the other 30 percent. At this rate of deforestation, the world’s rainforests, which once covered 14 percent of the earth, could completely vanish within forty years.
That’s a lot of information to digest but the important point is that deforestation is happening right now, most likely to make room for more meat production.
So, four billion hectares of forests, that sounds like a lot. Why does it matter if some of them are cut down?
Deforestation has many, many negative repercussions. Pollution, especially CO2 as mentioned at the start, is a major one. Not only is tons of it produced by the vehicles used to cut down trees, but also by the ever popular slash-and-burn technique used when clear cutting. Ironically, we need trees to fight this pollution because they absorb carbon dioxide, the number one cause of global warming. Cutting trees down means there are less of them to absorb these emissions and to produce the oxygen we need to live. Very bad on both accounts.
Biodiversity loss is another very scary effect of deforestation. Biodiversity is the variety of species that exist and, by clearing forests, we are depriving many plants and animals of their habitats, which means that they will cease to exist, a.k.a. become extinct. In fact, about 50,000 (!!!) different plant, animal, and insect species go extinct every year due to deforestation, often before even being discovered.
But maybe you don’t care about nine-inch long beetles and frogs half the size of your fingernail. But what about medicine? Of the 3,000 plants that the U.S. National Cancer Institute has identified as having active cancer fighting properties, 70 percent of them are found in the rainforest. Also, 25 percent of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from the 1 percent of tropical plants that have been tested. That means we haven’t even experimented with 99 percent of this vast resource and, if we keep destroying it, we’ll never be able to realize the possibilities.
Don’t mind about medical advancements? Surely, then, you care about the land itself. Forests exist where they exist because that is the climate in which they thrive. By taking away what naturally wants to be there (forests) and forcing something that doesn’t (livestock and farming), it can’t last long. A tree’s roots hold the tree, and therefore the soil, in place and the branches and leaves protect the ground from constant exposure to rain. When the trees are gone, the soil is no longer held in place nor protected so it easily erodes away. Runoff increases since the water no longer has any roots to absorb it, making flooding more frequent and extensive. The FAO states, “these conditions encourage more erosion; as a result, sediment loads in rivers are increasing, dams are filling with silt, hydro-electric schemes are being damaged, navigable waterways are being blocked and water quality is deteriorating.” Bad, bad, and more bad. Eventually, most areas that were once thriving, healthy forests become dry, barren deserts within just a few years.
All of these consequences are directly fueled by the meat industry and the growing demand for its products. If this demand were to decrease, or at least level-off, deforestation could be stopped immediately. As this deforestation article from The Independent states, “No new technology is needed…just the political will and a system of enforcement and incentives that makes the trees worth more to governments and individuals standing than felled.” We are these individuals and we need to show them that the forests are worth more than the meat is.
The first photograph was taken by Alberto Cesar of Greenpeace of the Amazon in 2004 and used in this Guardian Article about Brazil’s reduction of deforestation in 2009 (which has now increased again).
The second photograph is from the Sipa Press and depicts the slash-and-burn technique. It was used in this awesome Guardian slideshow about deforestation in the Amazon.