Beef production drives deforestation five times more than any other sector

22 April 2021


A research published in the World Resources Institute in March 2021 found that two of the main products responsible for deforestation are beef and soy, the latter being used for animal feed. The EU, as net importer of these products, should address the impact of such imports on the environment and on animals to ensure coherence between EU trade policy and the EU Green Deal.

According to a research by Global Forest Watch, the total loss of tropical forest increased by 12% overall between 2019 and 2020. Agriculture is the top source of worldwide deforestation (40%), and among the top commodity-drivers of deforestation, beef holds the first place. Overall, beef is responsible for 36% of all agriculture-linked forest-replacement. The huge responsibility borne by the beef industry is due to the conversion of forests into cattle pasture, which amounted to 45.1 Millions hectares of lands deforested between 2001 and 2015 – a rate that is five times higher than for any other analysed products.

Soy also ranks second in the study, as it is responsible for the destruction of 8.2 million hectares of forests between 2001 and 2015. Soy is widely produced to serve as animal feed, notably in the poultry (37%) and pigs sectors (20%). Therefore, the role played by the meat industry in global deforestation largely exceeds the role played by the beef sector itself.

The findings by Global Forest Watch are deeply alarming, as rampant deforestation has clear impacts on wildlife and their habitats and can lead to the extinction of species that only exist in one specific region. 80% of terrestrial species live in forests, and the world is currently undergoing the sixth great mass extinction of species, which is mainly due to agriculture, according to Global Forest Watch’s report. Deforestation is also a source of many welfare-related concerns. With the increase in wildfires, animals -wildlife, but also pets - are suffering and many do not manage to escape. For the surviving wild animals, many are displaced and will generally suffer from starvation and social disruption.

Whilst hot spots of deforestation vary by sector, the beef industry related deforestation is highly concentrated in the Amazon, which is home to millions of species. In Brazil alone, which hosts the largest part of the Amazon, over half of the deforestation came from pasture in the last twenty years. The responsibility borne by agriculture (including the beef sector) on the Amazon’s deforestation is much higher than in other parts of the world, reaching 56% in 2020 whereas agriculture is generally responsible for 40% of deforestation.

Considering that agriculture-driven deforestation is permanent (whereas lands that suffer from deforestation caused by fires may regenerate), this adds a sense of urgency for the EU to uphold its sustainable agenda. Mercosur is already the largest supplier of beef to the EU, accounting for 73% of total EU beef imports. If the EU-Mercosur trade deal was implemented as it stands, imports of beef would increase between 30% and 64%. The Ambec report - the impact study commissioned by the French government - concluded that, as it stands, the EU-Mercosur agreement would generate an extra 25% of deforestation in the Amazon in the six years following its entry into force.

Increased Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Forests are carbon sinks and, therefore, help to mitigate the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Tropical forests alone hold more than 228 to 247 gigatons of carbon, which is more than seven times the amount emitted each year by human activities.

But when forests are cut, burned or otherwise removed they emit carbon instead of absorb carbon. Deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for around 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions. These greenhouse gas emissions contribute to rising temperatures, changes in patterns of weather and water, and an increased frequency of extreme weather events. For example, in Sumatra, rainforests on deep peatlands are being cleared, drained and converted to pulp plantations, contributing to Indonesia’s high greenhouse gas emissions. Changes in climate can affect forest-dwelling creatures by altering their habitats and decreasing availability of food and water. Some will be able to adapt by moving to higher elevations or latitudes, but species losses may occur.

Disruption of Water Cycles

Trees play a key role in the local water cycle by helping to keep a balance between the water on land and water in the atmosphere. But when deforestation or degradation occurs, that balance can be thrown off, resulting in changes in precipitation and river flow.

Increased Soil Erosion

Soil erosion in Africa.

Without trees to anchor fertile soil, erosion can occur and sweep the land into rivers. The agricultural plants that often replace the trees cannot hold onto the soil. Many of these plants—such as coffee, cotton, palm oil, soybean and wheat—can actually exacerbate soil erosion. Scientists have estimated that a third of the world’s arable land has been lost through soil erosion and other types of degradation since 1960. And as fertile soil washes away, agricultural producers move on, clearing more forest and continuing the cycle of soil loss.