Industrial animal agriculture and deforestation: Acknowledging industrial livestock production as a driver of forest loss

Lauren Berger, Brighter Green

For many, the image of a farmer tending his or her crops with animals roaming in the fields is what comes to mind when thinking of where the world’s food comes from.  However, this quintessential vision is hardly the reality. Industrialised livestock production increasingly dominates the modern food system – wreaking havoc on the environment, and in particular, the world’s forests. The expansion of animal agriculture for grazing and feed crop production is directly responsible for deforestation, and thereby the destruction of carbon sinks, but this reality receives little attention or action within the UNFCCC and REDD+ processes.

In Latin America and other parts of the Global South, unsustainable livestock farming and animal feed production continue to be key drivers of deforestation.  In Argentina, the Chaco forests have been devastated by the planting and harvesting of soybeans, processed and exported as livestock feed to China (China purchases nearly 50 per cent of the world’s soybeans for use as domestic animal feed). And in Paraguay, the production of genetically-modified soy monocultures are a major cause of the displacement of rural populations through land-grabbing and contamination.

A 2006 moratorium in Brazil, the world’s second largest soybean producer and exporter, has dramatically decreased direct deforestation from the soybean industryHowever, Amazon deforestation increased five-fold between 2012 and 2013, linked closely to soybean producers’ continual ‘indirect’ use of cattle ranchers’ deforested land.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN estimates that at least 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the world’s livestock sectorMeat and dairy production already uses 30 per cent of Earth’s land surface, 70 per cent of agricultural land, and accounts for eight per cent of the water humans use, mostly to irrigate feed crops.

Each year, nearly seventy billion land animals are raised for human consumption, and this number is growing.  Some estimates project that global production of meat will double by 2050, which could mean increasing the number of animals used each year in the food industry to 120 billion. As demand for meat and animal products continues to rise, so does demand for animal feed, meaning more land will have to be converted to cropland to grow food for farmed animals, not people.  Agriculture is estimated to be directly responsible for 80 per cent of global deforestation and, with tropical forests now covering only 7 per cent of the world’s surface, without proactive policies and proper regulation, these forests will continue to shrink.

Major mergers such as the recent Shuanghui-Smithfield deal and JBS’s acquisition of Seara Brasil highlight the rapidly changing face of a globalised and more consolidated industrial meat and feed complex. The burdens created by the global reach of the animal agriculture industry are wide and varied—and linked directly to deforestation. However, a lack of public awareness and policy makers’ resistance to acknowledging this reality means few sustainable, far-reaching solutions are on the negotiating table. With initiatives underway to create carbon markets that integrate agriculture and forestry, coupled with the increasingly devastating effects of climate change, it is time to address industrial animal agriculture’s role in deforestation and to prevent further damage to the world’s forests and prospects for achieving true food security in the 21st century.

Here at COP 19 in Warsaw, the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) should send a draft decision to the COP calling for a series of SBSTA agriculture submissions and stakeholder workshops. The September 2013 SBSTA submissions and SBSTA 39 in-session workshops focusing on adaptation, and adaptation co-benefits, are a good start, but Parties need to follow up with action and a work plan that is directly related to industrial animal agriculture as a driver of deforestation. Parties should also finance sustainable, animal-welfare-friendly agriculture adaptation and mitigation – capacity building, research and extension, knowledge, and tech transfer. Moreover, the REDD+ process needs to more quickly acknowledge the drivers of deforestation and ask for submissions on how to address these drivers at national and international levels.

Additionally, governments and civil society must include industrial animal agriculture and deforestation when designing climate change plans and ensure that policies manage unsustainable demand for animal products, particularly as demand increases.

More info

Brighter Green and the Global Forest Coalition are currently collaborating on a project to bring the links between deforestation, climate change, and industrial animal agriculture to the attention of policy-makers, including within the UNFCCC and REDD+ negotiations.  Additionally, Brighter Green, Humane Society International, and the World Society for the Protection of Animals have produced a set of farm animal welfare recommendations for COP 19.

About the author

Lauren Berger is a Program Associate at Brighter Green, a public policy action tank, focusing on the environmental, social, and ethical impacts of the industrial livestock industry as well as the intersection of climate change and women’s rights.