When people think about moderating meat consumption, they typically think of the health benefits and costs. Eating less meat is said to be a healthy practice since it reduces the risks of heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses. But according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, meat consumption has played a big role in deforestation and thus, can be deemed “ecologically inefficient.” Essentially, raising animals for meat requires using large stretches of land whether it be land to graze or land used to raise crops to feed the livestock, specifically beef. And finding large stretches of empty land requires cutting down trees.
The report, titled Grade A Choice? Solutions for Deforestation-Free Meat, states:
The inefficiency is particularly high for beef, which uses about three-fifths of the world’s agricultural land yet produces less than 5 percent of its protein and less than 2 percent of its calories. Beef production causes global warming through its effects on deforestation, both directly through pasture and indirectly through its use of feed and forage, and also because of the methane, a powerful heat-trapping gas, that comes from the stomachs and manure of cattle.
It has been estimated that 15 percent of the world’s global warming emissions are caused by tropical deforestation. What’s more, the increase in meat production has been responsible for 35 percent of the heat-trapping gases produced by deforestation. As stated by the report:
Clearing forest for pastures makes money, but it also causes global warming pollution. The effects of tropical deforestation, including the decomposition of peat in deforested tropical swamps, are responsible for about 15 percent of the world’s heat-trapping emissions, not to mention the loss of biodiversity and other kinds of environmental and social damage (Boucher et al. 2011). Tropical forests are enormous storehouses of car- bon, and when they are cut down and burned, large quantities of carbon dioxide—the main cause of global warming—are emitted into the atmosphere (Saatchi et al. 2010).
But it’s not just global warming: According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) deforestation results in a decline in biodiversity. Data provided by NASA shows that tropical forests only cover 7 percent of the Earth’s dry land but harbor close to half of all the species on Earth. Many of these species are so specialized to their microhabitats that they can only be found (and can only survive) in small specific habitats. Their uniqueness is what makes these species prone to extinction: When their habitat is wiped away, they become vulnerable to extinction since they can only live in a specific environment.
Wondering what can you do to help? The paper suggests that consumers make a commitment to buy deforestation-free meats and opt for chicken instead of beef to decrease the impact of deforestation. In addition, consumers can also encourage their government officials to take a stand on the issue and raise awareness.