Blogs Climate Change and Nature

Forest fires in South America - all of our food has an environmental impact

Sustain’s sustainable farming campaigner Vicki Hird gives a personal reflection on what forest fires in South America tell us about the meat on our plates and its links to destruction of biodiversity and farmer livelihoods and with catastrophic climate change.

Seed saving by agroecological farmer, Paraguay Credit V Hird

Seed saving by agroecological farmer, Paraguay Credit V Hird

There's a small farmer in Paraguay who saves his crop seeds in old fizzy drinks bottles. He farms a great mix of crops amongst the trees in a still forested area his family has farmed for generations. As you stand by his tomato patch – the third he has planted that year due to herbicide damage - you can see endless green monoculture soy farms next door – aerially sprayed over and over with these herbicides. All around him, his fellow farming families have been thrown off the land to make way for timber extraction, to plant monoculture crops like soy and for beef ranching. I wrote in the Guardian of my visit in 2014.

The recent Amazon fires - the most intense for a decade - were dramatic but these forests are not the only resources being destroyed by big agriculture and the huge global demand for cheap meat. There is an enormous social harm exemplified by that Paraguay farmer alongside the destruction of ecosystems and huge climate impact in Brazil. Such harm is happening across Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina as well as Africa and the Far East. Communities destroyed as forests burn. The recent horrific killing of a Brazilian forest defender shows how dangerous life is for those trying to protect forests.

Such harm is happening across Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina as well as Africa and the Far East. Communities destroyed as forests burn. 

And ultimately we are all affected. As the forest burns, carbon stored in the trees is released as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide; and as these forests are wiped out, we lose the carbon-storage potential of not only the trees but the soil too. We lose the global water cycling driven by this vast forest and the unique animals and plants protected within it. And the science is pretty clear that the Amazon forest fire spike was caused by deforestation.

There is no doubt that this rise in fire activity is associated with a sharp rise in deforestation.

 The recent report of the IPCC on land and climate change made stark the huge climate impact of losing forests like the Amazon. It is a part of how the global food system contributes a staggering one third of all emissions. It is a staggering climate impact and until recently too often overlooked. The land use change involved in much modern food production – such as converting rainforests to cattle ranches or soy monoculture or when Indonesian peatland is destroyed to create millions of acres of oil palm plantations for cheap palm oil for processed foods and biofuel for cars (and palm kernel for feed). The terrible plight of the orangutans as their habitat is destroyed is bad enough...adding planet warming into the mix and it should make us pause on our food purchases. Some beef products on UK shelves are also known to be sourced from companies linked to forest destruction.

The rise and rise of these commodities such as soy has been rapid and driven by huge multinational trading corporations like Cargill and ADM. Brazil alone is the second largest producer of soybeans and exports the most soya globally in a multibillion dollar trade. China, Europe and the far east are huge consumers of south American soy (as well as beef and chickens). Soy and grain is used to feed pigs and poultry and (depending on the system) dairy cattle that are housed in intensive systems. Breeds are chosen which can fatten in the shortest time with this ‘rocket fuel food’ to make good profits or even to stay in business as their dominant buyers drive a hard bargain. The cheap protein and cereal feeds are vital to intensive livestock systems alongside the antibiotics used to keep them disease free in such close confinement.

The Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro reacted angrily to world condemnation as the pictures of the Amazon fires went viral and the G7 summit offered support in tackling them. And to be fair, we have little to be proud of as it is our corporations, and our diets driving much of the demand. But the global community must act, collectively, to stop climate catastrophe and show solidarity with the forest communities affected. Bolsarono's presidency has been marked by greater help for agribusiness through a significant roll back of forest protection and somehow that must be tackled.

It is not going to be easy. Ultimately we have to make the choice of whether to feed some of us with cheap meat and oils or feed all of us. That's the stark reality as climate change is making food production vulnerable globally. We need policies, globally applicable ones across a range of areas because there is no silver bullet.

Ultimately we have to make the choice of whether to feed some of us with cheap meat and oils or feed all of us.

The IPCC made clear that limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees – a vital target - cannot be achieved without action on land use, farming methods and livestock. They propose adopting farming – such as agroecological farming practices - that work with nature rather than forcing production with overuse of artificial fertilisers, including those used in vast quantities to produce animal feed. Strong measures are also necessary to eliminate food waste, support a transition to balanced diets with more plants and less and better livestock, halt deforestation, restore damaged ecosystems and use indigenous knowledge to protect and foster ecosystems. Solutions must be sensitive to differences in land use, food and farming in different regions. We should end harmful subsidies – whether explicit or hidden - of big single crops (such as corn, sugar cane, soy, palm oil) as well as fossil fuels. 

Driving shifts in diet will take intervention in markets alongside procurement initiatives, education and training. The emerging National Food Strategy in the UK would be a perfect opportunity to show case good policies. And there will be benefits as it’s clear our current diets are not healthy. Too much processed foods and meats, oils and sugar are killing us as well as our planetary life support system. 

Too much processed foods and meats, oils and sugar are killing us as well as our planetary life support system. 

We urgently need to give indigenous and forest communities land rights and protection from bullying corporations whilst farmers in high meat eating nations need to be supported in a transition away from cheap feeds they have come to rely on.

Supporting sustainable domestic protein feed production and we should be using by co-products and catering waste as feed. Japan is already doing this safely and it has been calculated that if farmers globally fed their livestock on food waste enough grain would be liberated to feed an extra 3 billion people.

All foods have an environmental impact.

We have just not seriously tried to measure and address the impact of changes in food production, and distribution and, most crucially power, over the past few decades. Any government serious about stopping the Amazon burning and tackling the climate emergency in time to make a difference needs to get to grips with the fundamental reality that we need to change our diets as well as how we manage land.


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Published Monday 11 November 2019

Climate Change and Nature: Sustain has taken a keen interest in the rapidly accumulating evidence about the effect of food and farming on climate change and nature, as scientific evidence emerges that our food system is a very significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss.

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Vicki Hird MSc FRES is an award -winning expert, author, strategist and senior manager who has been working on environment, food and farming issues for over 30 years. Vicki’s book: Rebugging the Planet is a homage to insects and other invertebrates, why they are so essential to our ecosystem and what we can do to help them.

Vicki Hird
Strategic Lead on Agriculture for the Wildlife Trusts

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