Meat consumers need to accept their own role in the destruction of the Amazon

The recent fires in the Amazon spurred a global outcry — and for good reason. The Amazon rainforest is burning at record rates, with more than 80,000 fires already being recorded this year, an 80% increase compared to 2018. But when it came to learning the cause of these fires, people were less receptive. The vast majority of the fires have been set by ranchers to clear land for cattle or for soy plantations, which is then fed to cattle or pigs.

Image credits: Earth Observatory / NASA.

In other words, the world’s demand for beef is fueling the fires in the Amazon — and it’s something we need to take responsibility for.

Meat and fire

Brazil is the world’s largest meat explorer. The country is home to around 200 million cows and supplies a quarter of the global beef market. It should then come as no surprise that deforestation and forest fires are ravaging Brazil.

Agriculture is the main driver of deforestation — accounting for 80% of deforestation worldwide. The vast majority of this is done either to clear room for cattle or for plantations that feed cattle. So while the rest of the world looked in horror as the Amazon burned, it was pretty much business as usual in Brazil.

In truth, not everything is as it was in Brazil. Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s president, has called for an increase in rainforest clearing and deforestation, lending support to loggers and ranchers. With environmental laws already being notoriously difficult to enforce in Brazil’s remote landscape, any cutback in regulations can be disastrous. Bolsonaro has denied any responsibility for this and has tried to shift the blame to environmental NGOs — a baseless accusation for which he provided no evidence whatsoever.

However, regardless of Bolsonaro’s questionable actions and systematic weakening of environmental protections, without global demand for beef, most of the fires wouldn’t be happening — and that’s something we need to take responsibility for.

Cut the Amazon from your diet

What we’re witnessing now in the Amazon is just the latest stage of a tragedy that’s been unfolding for years. Deforestation through forest fires is not a new process — it’s spiking now, but it’s been a pretty steady development across the years. It’s easy to blame Brazilian ranchers and lawmakers (and they certainly do have their part of the blame), but the reality of it is that without international demand, this problem would be greatly reduced.

For instance, 19% of all soy used in the European Union comes from Brazil, as does 10% of the continent’s beef. Asia’s appetite for beef has surged in recent years, and the US is also a major importer of Brazilian meat. It should come as no surprise, then, that every single consumer shares a tiny part of the blame — and if we want to stop the Amazon from burning, we need to shift our diets.

Reducing meat consumption has long been a problem for the environment. A report released last year by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that changing our diets can contribute to 20% of the effort required to achieve our climate goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Meat also requires disproportionately large soil and water resources, placing more stress on local environments.

Reducing meat consumption is not only the environmentally-friendly thing to do — it’s also the healthy thing to do. A flurry of studies have shown that plant protein is much healthier than meat protein, and a low-meat diet reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases and cancer. However, meat consumption has doubled over the past century, and shows few signs of slowing down.

At the very least, if reducing meat intake is just not possible, we as consumers need to pay more attention to where our meat is sourced from. Finnish finance minister called for the European Union to “urgently review the possibility of banning Brazilian beef imports” over the Amazon fires. This decision is greatly supported by Europeans — a recent survey showed that 87% of Europeans want laws to ensure that the food they eat doesn’t drive global deforestation. Other major importers of meat (particularly China and the US) should also pay more attention to the meat they are eating.

Yet at the end of the day, we can’t only rely on policymakers to do the right thing. First of all, that rarely really works out, and more importantly, it would be refusing to shoulder a responsibility that is rightfully ours. If you don’t want the Amazon to burn, eat less beef

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