When you sit down to dig into a burger, what are you thinking about? That tasty, salty flavor that satisfies your cravings? That need to end the hunger that’s gnawing at your gut? The way that the lettuce, tomato and special sauce complement the meat so damn perfectly? Trees? (What?!) Yep, I said trees.
When you’re tucking into a burger, trees are probably the last thing on your mind. But, sadly, the existence of your meal probably depends on their destruction. Every single time you eat beef from an unsustainable farm, you’re adding to deforestation. And, thereby, you’re giving global warming a serious boost.
In fact, in nearly all the countries that the Amazon Rainforest calls home, cattle ranching is the main cause of deforestation. All in all, cows cause a mind-blowing 80% of the Amazon’s deforestation. Yep, it’s hard to believe, I know. But true. If you don’t believe me, wander over here, to this WWF’s report. Since 1978, 750,000 square kilometers of the Amazon have been destroyed. To put the numbers into perspective for you, that’s an area about the same size as the entire nation of Chile.
Most of the Amazon –60% of it, in fact– is found in Brazil. However, according to reports, the problem is that Brazil is also the biggest exporter of beef in the whole world. In 1996, Brazil exported $1.9 million worth of beef. Within eight years, this increased to $1.9 billion! It’s mind-blowing. What’s more, Brazil farms the biggest commercial cowherd on the planet –about 180-190 million cattle live there.
To a large extent, it’s the US that drives the market –every single year, the US buys 200 million pounds of beef from Brazil and other nations in Central America. And, according to Greenpeace, the exports won’t be stopping anytime soon. If anything, demand is increasing –not only in the US, but also in other nations, like China and Russia, too. In fact, the Brazilian government is planning on doubling its market share by 2018.
The whys and wherefores
There are two ways of raising livestock. The first is called intensive farming. This involves keeping cattle in confined spaces. This method might seem to reduce the need for land, but it has been widely condemned for its cruelty. And it actually creates a need for land in a different way. Because the cattle can’t move around, finding their own food, they have to be fed. And, to produce just one pound of beef, a farmer must feed a cow seven pounds of grains. (Note: We could just eat the grains instead and seriously save on time and waste).
The second method is grazing. This involves providing cattle with plenty of land, so they can wander freely, eating as they go. This strategy is used widely in the Amazon basin. But, of course, cattle can’t graze in rainforest. They need open pastures and that’s why farmers are cutting down the Amazon at such incredible rates. Removing a rainforest takes just a few weeks or months but according to New Scientist, proper regeneration takes about 4,000 years. So, once the Amazon is gone (and, at current deforestation rates, there won’t be any of it left within 100 years), we’ll be waiting forever for it to grow back.
What are the consequences of deforestation?
The obvious question to ask next is – why should you care if all the world’s forests are cut down? It’s not like your tech devices are made of wood, right?
Well, you might have trouble using your mobile if you can’t actually breathe. As you might already know, the Amazon’s nickname is ‘the lungs of the earth’. So, its gradual disappearance isn’t good news for global warming, at all. Every single year, deforestation caused by cattle ranching sends 340 million tonnes of carbon into the air. That’s 3.4% of all emissions, worldwide. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, beef production causes more greenhouse gases than cars and buses do.
What’s more, deforestation increases the likelihood of fires, causes erosion and increases salinization in rivers. At the end of the day, excessive cattle ranching, is, ironically, lowering our long-term chances of survival. We might have more food now, but, if changes aren’t made, farmers will be struggling like hell in the future.
So what can you do?
By now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, well, this is all horrible and I feel super guilty about eating my burger right now, but what can I do about it? I’m not a Brazilian farmer or the owner of a big American food chain. So how can I stop it?
Fair enough, it’s normal to feel powerless in the face of a problem that looks bigger than Ben Hur but actually, there are a couple of things you can do to help.
First up, let people know how you feel. Shout it from the top of the Facebook Mountain. Bring it up with your friends – I wouldn’t advise preaching at them when they’re wolfing down a burger. But there’s no harm in mentioning a few facts or statistics here or there. Write emails and tweets and letters to companies and restaurants that sell beef. Write emails and tweets and letters to governments that set policies that tell companies and restaurants what they can and can’t do.
Second up, think before your spend your money. At the end of the day, big beef companies can only survive because consumers buy their products. Therefore, one of the most powerful ways of helping to create change is boycotting companies with bad ethics. Instead, buy beef from local farmers who practice sustainable, responsible techniques.
Growing your own
Thirdly, get into growing your own food. At the end of the day, this is a fantastic and fun solution. If you’ve planted, watered and grown it yourself, you know exactly what’s happened to it. There’s no nasty deforestation and no unhealthy air miles involved.
To get started, begin with something simple, like punnets of herbs. Once they’re sprouting and you’ve gained some confidence, move onto lettuces and cherry tomatoes, before getting into other fruits and vegetables.
Finally, we can all make a difference and make our planet a beautiful one for generations yet unborn. Make environmentally-friendly activities a habit and remember to spread the word with your shares and comments.
MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to email@example.com