Deforestation: livestock destroying the living earth

By Amanda Rofe

“The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from global to local … Expansion of livestock production is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America where the greatest amount of deforestation is occurring.”

Ref: Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Livestock’s Long Shadow (2006)

Forests provide a rich selection of all ecosystem services which are essential for the efficient functioning of the planet and the health of the people and animals living on it. Ecosystem services can be described under four main sections: provision (food, fibre, minerals, timber), regulation (carbon absorption, climate regulation, water cycle), cultural (recreation, reflection, spiritual enrichment) and support services (oxygen, soil fertility, soil formation).

It is clear that forests are fundamental to life on earth. So what is happening to them? It is extremely difficult to obtain exact figures for global deforestation. According to FAO’s report State of the World’s Forests (2007), there are just less than four billion hectares of forest covering about 30% of the world’s land area, an average decrease of some 0.2% each year. Europe and North America have, apparently, reversed centuries of deforestation and are showing a net increase in forest areas but most developing countries, particularly in tropical regions, continue to experience high rates of deforestation.i

There have been criticisms about the methodology employed to compile these statistics and it has been suggested that they seriously underestimate the real extent of the damage. These include the fact that data is generated largely by in-country questionnaires rather than satellite generated data. In addition, figures are based on a definition of forest as being: an area with as little as 10 % tree cover, areas of land that have no tree cover but are ‘expected’ to recover and monoculture plantations which lack the key features of true forests. ii

Livestock and deforestation

Throughout the world forests continue to be destroyed at an alarming rate but what is the cause? Livestock has been shown to be one of the major drivers of global habitat change today. The two main habitat changes are degradation of pasture already in use and the clearing of forests for new pasture.iii Forests are also increasingly being cleared to grow crops such as soya beans and cereals to feed livestock.

Tropical rainforests are exceptional global forest areas. They are situated unevenly throughout the world but the largest unbroken stretch is in the Amazon River Basin in South America. The remainder are mainly situated in the Congo Basin, Indonesia and South East Asia. The Amazon Basin is a unique and important area which contains the most diverse ecosystem in the world. It also contains a vast carbon sink and regulates the planet’s water cycle and climate. It is so important that it has been called the ‘heart and lungs’ of the planet.iv v vi vii

While around 60% of the Amazon Basin is contained within Brazil, the Basin itself also covers several other South American countries. The growth in cattle ranching has expanded extremely rapidly here. In 1990 there were around 26 million head of cattle in Brazilian Amazonia but in 2006 this figure had risen to 73.7 million.viii Deforestation in this area is predominately caused by livestock farming by small-scale traditional ranchers and by large-scale commercial intensive systems. ix To put these figures in perspective, Brazil actually has the largest commercial cattle herd in the world and is the world’s second largest producer of soya.x Since 1988 the Brazilian Amazon has lost around 1.8 million ha per year to deforestation.xi

Feeding livestock

There is a heavy burden attached to feeding a growing global population of livestock. Increasing amounts of land are being deforested to grow crops to meet this demand. More than 97 % of soya meal produced globally is fed to livestock. Soya meal is a by-product of oil production and while it was originally the main driver of soya bean production, livestock feed is now the main driver of expansion. Although Europe uses most of its land for animal farming it is not enough and animal feed is imported from the developing world; enough to cover an area of land the size of Italy, France, Britain and New Zealand put together. People in the west die of excess whilst those in the developing world die of starvation. A Friends of the Earth report (2006) stated that “The main demand for soya comes from the high consumption levels of animal products in Europe, and changing diets and a burgeoning population in China. This trend is set to continue.”xii It seems they were right and a more recent report (2009) by the Worldwide Fund for Nature says that soya production is likely to continue with the abundant availability of cheap land, high international prices and a constantly increasing demand from China. xiii

Deforestation and climate change

The world’s proclivity for meat eating is causing deforestation. Deforestation in turn accounts for around 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), second only to energy which comes in at around 24%.xiv So what do we want – meat or forests? Meat is not going to save the planet. Forests, on the other hand, are absolutely vital in the fight against climate change, and we should be doing everything we can to save what we have left. Curbing deforestation is one highly cost-effective and very rapid method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions requiring no new technology or special equipment.xv

New research on forests and their role in the carbon cycle adds more weight to the argument for preserving forests. Beverly Law and her colleagues at Oregon State University have shown that when an old growth forest is harvested there is a new input of carbon to the atmosphere for around five to 20 years, before the new trees begin to absorb and sequester more than they give off. In addition to this, carbon accumulation can actually continue in forests that are centuries old. This is contrary to the commonly accepted and long-standing view, fostered by the forestry industry, that old-growth forests are carbon neutral and should be cut down and replanted.xvi xvii

Preservation not reforestation

Once forests are destroyed, it is very difficult if not impossible to restore them to their original state. Reforested land does not foster the same key elements as original intact forest and there are many problems associated with this type of re-growth. The structural complexity of the forest can be suppressed by the intensity of degradation, repeated disturbance, isolation from intact forest and competition from other plants. The complex ‘under storey’ layer may not develop sufficiently and there will often be a different floristic composition. Also, very importantly, land that has been used for an extended period for pasture destroys the seed-bank and rootstock.xviii Consequently the livelihoods of indigenous people plus local flora and fauna species are lost.

The bottom line, and the future

The world’s insatiable demand for meat and dairy products has always been unsustainable but is now a clear threat to the planet’s very existence. The UK and other European countries must take their fair share of responsibility for the current global economic boom in livestock farming which is fuelling deforestation. As long as demand for beef and soya for animal feed continues, so these massive industries will continue to expand and devastate the land. There is no question that modern livestock production is demand led. xix People can, therefore, make a significant difference by simply replacing meat, dairy and other animal products in their diet with plant-based products. More food for the developing world!

A common sense antidote to the devastating problems of an agricultural system based on livestock is a vegan organic or Stockfree organic system. Plants can be grown without using slaughterhouse by-products, animal manures, genetically modified material or chemical pollutants. Pure clean food, and other plant products, can be produced which will benefit rather than adversely impact on ecosystem services. This is a sustainable option and would create a healthier future for humans, animals and the environment. The now barren degraded pasture grazed by environmentally damaging livestock can be transformed into a vibrant healthy landscape bursting with a variety of different plants for use in an infinite number of ways. Fruits, nuts, vegetables, mushrooms, herbs and spices, medicine, timber, fibre and flowers are among many things we can grow. Many species of plants are yet to be discovered and may be lost forever if we lose the remainder of our forests.

Further information on Stockfree organic growing can be found in Growing Green by Jenny Hall and Iain Tolhurst published by The Vegan Organic Network, and at

i FAO. State of the World’s Forests (2007). FAO. Global Forest Resources Assessment (2005)

ii Rainforest Foundation. Irrational Numbers: Why the FAO’s Forest Assessments are Misleading. (2005)

iii FAO. Livestock’s Long Shadow. Environmental Issues and Options (2006)

iv Global Canopy Programme. Forests NOW in the Fight Against Climate Change: Forest Foresight Report 1v3. (Nov 2008)

v FAO. Livestock’s Long Shadow. Environmental Issues and Options (2006)

vi Smeraldi R and May PH. The Cattle Realm – A new phase in the livestock colonization of Brazilian Amazonia (2008) Amigos da Terra Amazonia Brasileira, Rua Bento de Andrade 85, 04503-010 Sao Paulo SP.

vii UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) & ACTO (Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization). Geo Amazonia (2009)

viii Ibid

ix Ibid

x Verweij P, Schouten M, van Beukering P, Triana J, van de Leeuw K and Hess S. Keeping the Amazon Forests Standing: A Matter of Values (2009). A report commissioned by Worldwide Fund for Nature, Netherlands.

xi Instituto Nacionale De Pesquisas Espaciais. Ministerio Da Ciencia e Technologia (2008)

xii FOE. Hoofprints: Livestock and its environmental impacts (2008)

xiii Verweij P, Schouten M, van Beukering P, Triana J, van de Leeuw K and Hess S. Keeping the Amazon Forests Standing: A Matter of Values (2009). A report commissioned by Worldwide Fund for Nature, Netherlands.

xiv Stern, N. The Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change (2006). Cambridge University Press. nb. The Stern Review uses the figure of 18% whereas the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) uses the figure of 20% for deforestation GHG emissions.

xv Ibid

xvi Sebastiaan Luyssaert, E. Detlef Schulze, Annett B?rner, Alexander Knohl, Dominik Hessenm?ller, Beverly E. Law, Philippe Ciais & John Grace. Old-growth forests as global carbon sinks. Nature 455, 213-215 (11 September 2008)

xvii Oregon State University. Old Growth Forests are Valuable Carbon Sinks. Media Release (Sept 2008)

xviii Development of forest structure on cleared rainforest land in eastern Australia under different styles of reforestation. Forest Ecology and Management 183, 265-280. Kanowski, J., Catterall, C.P., Wardell-Johnson, G.W., Proctor, H. and Reis, T. (2003)

xix FAO. Livestock’s Long Shadow. Environmental Issues and Options (2006)