Cattle ranching, animal agriculture, and logging are the leading causes of deforestation in our forests. The forest is cut to provide timber to build houses and create specialty wood products, or burned to make room for cattle grazing and feed crop production. This constant destruction of our forests threatens biodiversity, decreases carbon absorption, magnifies natural disaster damage, and disrupts water cycles.
What Is Deforestation?
Deforestation is the large-scale clearing of land, generally for agriculture, industry, or transportation.
Upwards of 50,000 acres of forest are cleared by farmers and loggers per day worldwide. An area equivalent to over 10,000 football fields is destroyed each day in the Amazon Basin alone. This extreme clearing of land results in habitat loss, amplification of greenhouse gases, disruption of water cycles, increased soil erosion, and excessive flooding.
A significant amount of total deforestation occurs in rainforests, which are home to over 50 percent of plant and animal species on the planet. If we humans continue to burn and bulldoze our rainforests, thousands of species will die each year, it will be harder to grow crops like wheat, chocolate, and coffee, and the effects of climate change will worsen.
How Does Animal Agriculture Cause Deforestation?
As the global demand for meat rises, so does the number of cattle needed to produce beef. These animals require space and nourishment, so millions of acres of uncultivated land are cleared every year to make room for feed crops and grazing pastures. Forests are cleared to produce feed for other animals, too, like pigs and chickens.
Animals always require more calories to raise than the calories they produce for humans to eat. Therefore animal agriculture is always more destructive than agriculture producing plant-based food directly for humans.
Livestock operations occupy 45 percent of the global surface area, and an additional 10 percent is dedicated to growing feed crops for those animals. Nearly 60 percent of the world’s arable land is used for beef production alone, which requires large amounts of land for cattle grazing and cultivating feed crops like soy. Soy production has doubled in the past 20 years, largely because of expanding animal agriculture. Every year around 1.2 million acres of land are cleared for soy production in tropical climates, and that number will continue to climb if the world does not reduce consumption of animal protein.
Our biodiverse rainforests, and the plant and animal species residing within them, are often hit the hardest by deforestation. At least 15 percent of the Amazon rainforest has already been destroyed, not including the devastation from recent fires. Around 80 percent of that land is used for growing crops and creating grazing pastures for cattle.
How Many Trees Are Cut Down for Agriculture?
Trees have been cut for human use for thousands of years, but the industrial boom of the nineteenth century increased the demand for timber and also introduced technologies that made clearing land a much faster and easier process.
Though it is difficult to pinpoint an exact number of how many trees are cut down each year, the estimate is between 3.5 and 7 billion. Agricultural expansion accounts for nearly 30 percent of this estimate, including growing crops for livestock and clearing land for grazing.
What Is the Biggest Reason for Deforestation?
Going by recent discussions in the media, it is sometimes thought that the largest threat to our rainforests is palm oil (used for food and biofuel), or wood (for paper and construction). But beef production surpasses them both as the largest contributor to deforestation.
Around 6.7 million acres of tropical forests are bulldozed or burned for cattle production each year. This accounts for over half of deforestation in South America and is more than five times as destructive as any other commodity in the region.
Soy production for animal feed is another quiet competitor that has doubled in the past 20 years as a result of the increased demand for meat and dairy products. Of the 346.02 million metric tons of soy produced each year globally, 80 percent is used for animal consumption. Around 60 million acres are exclusively devoted to soy production in Brazil, and that number continues to climb along with growing demand for meat.
Other Causes of Deforestation
A variety of industries cause deforestation either directly or indirectly, but the main driver is animal agriculture. Close behind are logging and infrastructural expansion. Natural forms of deforestation do exist, like forest fires and invasive species, but they are often exacerbated by human involvement.
Logging is the process of cutting and processing trees to create wood-based products. Large portions of our forests are cut down in order to build houses and produce paper products.
Deforestation in tropical regions from logging and timber conversion accounts for 15 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. As the global population increases and more houses are built, logging is becoming a top deforestation driver.
Clearcutting is a highly invasive method of tree removal that destroys all trees and seed sources from an area. This method of logging is used for paper products and lumber, but is also common in ranching, to expand croplands and grazing pastures. This aggressive removal of forests threatens plant and animal species in addition to the natural regrowth of tree saplings.
Selective logging, or the removal of only a few trees per area, is mildly less invasive and used for high-value wood products, but smaller trees are still damaged in the process and species native to those areas are still displaced. A study has shown that selective logging can actually double the total number of trees felled per year instead of reducing the amount.
Both clearcutting and selective logging make forests vulnerable to flooding and fires, since water is no longer hindered by trees and shrubbery, and logged areas are dried out by sunlight and made more susceptible to flames.
Forests are set ablaze to clear space for cattle and feed crops, taking vegetation and wildlife with them. These intentional fires — often called slash-and-burn fires — alter water cycles, compromise soil fertility, and threaten communities of people living and working within the forests.
In 1997, intentional fires set in Indonesia roared out of control, resulting in one of the largest wildfires in recorded history. Hundreds of people, animals, and plants perished in the flames. Blankets of thick smoke hung in the air of neighboring countries like the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia for months, and locals were advised to stay inside.
Fast forward to 2019 and flames continue to engulf forests, fueled by the desire of large corporations and farming industries to increase their profits. Agriculture is believed to be responsible for the recent Amazon fires — specifically land clearing for soy production, to feed livestock around the world. Brazil has already experienced over 70,000 fires so far in 2019 — more than double the amount in 2018, and corporate greed is likely to blame.
Global Forest WatchThis map displays every fire that has sparked since August 13, 2019 across central South America. Intentional agricultural fires are scorching our planet, killing endangered wildlife, and threatening native communities.
Expansion of Infrastructure
A growing global population leads to the expansion of cities and highways, often to the misfortune of biodiverse forests. Roadways like the Interoceanic Highway, stretching over 1,600 miles across Brazil and Peru, rip through lush forests to make room for cars and trucks.
The construction of roads throughout forests, especially the Amazon rainforest, increases the probability of animal deaths caused by loss of habitat and motor accidents. New roads make the process of illegal logging and poaching more convenient as well. Infrastructural expansion not only displaces animals and increases the risk of deforestation, it also encroaches on local residents’ homes and livelihoods.
What Causes Amazon Deforestation?
In the past 40 years, at least 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed.
Farmers annihilate scores of trees by bulldozing, burning, or chopping them to create grazing areas and produce crops, mostly for cattle. The chart above displays Amazon rainforest loss from 1995 to 2018. It is self-explanatory: tree populations continue to decline.
Palm oil production has been a recent whipping boy for deforestation and species endangerment, but animal agriculture is 10 times more destructive to our rainforests, causing over 60 percent of Amazon deforestation.
Rainforests are home to 50 percent of the world’s plant and animal species, and the Amazon itself houses at least 10 percent of them. Sadly, those species, along with millions of indigenous people residing within the Amazon Basin, are facing disaster as a surge of forest fires continues tearing through their homes. As previously mentioned, Brazil has already experienced over 70,000 fires so far in 2019, which is a significant increase from the 42,000 fires in 2018.
Brazil’s President Jair Balsonaro is often referred to as “Captain Chainsaw”, reflecting his willingness to exploit the Amazon for profit. Bolsonaro’s lack of compassion toward our planet’s most diverse rainforest continues to create concern in native communities, among Brazilian government employees, and in the rest of the world, for that matter.
At least 20 percent of the Amazon has already been cleared and around 80 percent of that land has been used for cattle. According to environmental researcher Nicholas Carter, “Animal agriculture is the leading cause in the reduction of biodiversity, which is mostly from deforestation. Brazil’s Cerrado area, the most biologically diverse savanna in the world, is deforested from the production of half of the country’s soy crops. The wild species diversity in the area is threatened by the rapid increase in livestock feed production and the 40 million cattle per year that this region produces.”
Current deforestation rates are increasing and soon the Amazon will not be able to sustain the interconnected ecosystems within it. If the demand for meat continues to rise, as the FAO expects it to, farmers will eventually run out of arable land and move on to the next forest.
Effects of Deforestation
Deforestation is a leading cause of climate change, causes species to become extinct, increases greenhouse gas emissions, and decreases soil quality.
The effects of deforestation impact the entire planet.
Loss of Habitat
Human-induced destruction is a major contributor to habitat loss for plant and animal species, especially in our rainforests. Jaguars, sloths, bonobos, and orangutans are just some of the better-known animals threatened by deforestation.
As seen with recent Amazon fires, burning our forests can result in much more destruction than simply creating an empty space for cattle to graze. Animal agriculture is a leading contributor to deforestation and biodiversity loss in Brazil’s Cerrado area, which is considered the most biologically diverse savanna in the world.
The Amazon rainforest is not the only region losing its plant and animal habitats to man-made threats. Indonesia’s rainforests cover a mere 1 percent of the planet’s surface area, yet contain up to 20 percent of known plant, mammal, and bird species.
Indonesia has already lost 70 percent of its forests, and over 180 million acres of rainforest have been cleared for palm oil, agriculture, and paper production in the past 50 years. Brazil and Indonesia are two of the most biodiverse countries in the world, but they are being torn apart, often illegally, for consumer goods.
We are on the brink of a sixth mass extinction, and if humans continue tearing through our forests for profit, it will happen sooner than expected. The extinction of plants and animals in rainforests across the world does not impact that region in isolation. The effects will shake the entire planet.
Deforestation is a leading cause of climate change, which is a leading cause of crop extinction. If our forests continue to vanish and release greenhouse gases into the air, crops like coffee, tea, avocados, chocolate, and bananas could be largely lost in our lifetime.
Increased Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The extreme removal of trees for beef, paper, and palm oil disrupts the carbon cycle, because fewer trees are available to absorb carbon dioxide from the air. Additionally, when trees are cut, especially in large amounts, excess carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.
This release of greenhouse gases warms the planet and contributes to climate change. Deforestation in the tropics alone accounts for approximately 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually.
Additionally, when forests are cleared for agriculture and urbanization, more emissions are produced and the effects are prolonged.
Disruption of Water Cycles
Forests are a vital component of the water cycle that regulates our rivers and precipitation patterns. Without trees, a process called evapotranspiration — the combined evaporation of water from land and plant surfaces, and the release of water from plant leaves — would be disrupted. This would alter precipitation patterns which could lead to droughts around the world.
Research from the World Resources Institute suggests that large-scale deforestation in any of our major tropical forests, including the Amazon or Africa’s Congo basin, could impact water cycles and lead to severe agricultural disturbances across the globe. This means deforestation in Brazil can affect the yield of wheat crops in Ohio.
In addition to regulating rainfall, evapotranspiration from forests also regulates temperature. Most scientists agree that planting trees in tropical locations would have a cooling effect on the entire planet. Unfortunately, these temperature-regulating tropical trees are being cut down by the thousands every day, which weakens soil quality and induces flooding.
Increased Erosion and Flooding
Deforestation removes vegetation, which anchors soil in place. Without enough trees, soil is vulnerable to erosion and nutrient loss. The absence of roots causes topsoil to easily wash or blow away, leading to decreased soil quality and increased landslides. It’s estimated that a third of the world’s arable land has been lost to soil erosion and degradation since 1960. Once land is cleared and roots are ripped away, cash crops like coffee and soy are planted which can make erosion worse, since their roots cannot anchor into the soil like those of a tree.
Reduction of dense forests also amplifies the effects of storm surges. Take, for example, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. These countries are neighbors, yet Haiti has experienced more extreme soil erosion, flooding, and landslide issues. The reason is believed to be Haiti’s reduced forest cover compared to the Dominican Republic.
Temperate forests in Russia are experiencing increasing deforestation and its effects. Timber is a major Russian export, so as loggers invade forests, the soil is compromised and loses its ability to hold moisture, which leads to flooding. Flooding and forest fires are threatening Russia’s permafrost layer, which covers two-thirds of the country. As this layer melts, sinkholes form, changing the landscape and posing problems for humans and other animals alike.
Most Impacted Species and Locations
The Amazon rainforest is the most biodiverse forest on the planet but is also the most deforested. Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana make up the Amazon basin which is where the Amazon rainforest grows. Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru have been hit the hardest by deforestation due to excessive logging, agriculture, and cattle production.
One in ten known species on the planet live within the Amazon and they will all be in danger if deforestation rates continue to climb. White-cheeked spider monkeys, Brazilian bare-faced tamarins, and the giant otter are just a few species facing extinction in the Amazon due to agriculture, cattle ranching, and infrastructural expansion.
Sumatran rainforests, which are home to most of the world’s orangutans, are being ravaged for palm oil and paper products. Rhinos, tigers, and gorillas are being displaced by deforestation and illegally poached in Asia and Africa.
Forests in Mexico are disappearing thanks to agricultural expansion, ranching, and lumber production. One of America’s favorite foods, avocado, is threatening Mexican forests by causing farmers to clear more forest space to keep up with rising demand.
As long as the demand for meat, timber, and palm oil rises, habitats will continue to be scorched and chopped, and the animals depending on them will perish.
How Can We Stop Deforestation?
First, let’s address the largest contributor to global deforestation — meat production. The world’s demand for beef, chicken, and pork is a leading cause of habitat loss, resource use, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Consumers around the world are unknowingly supporting deforestation by purchasing products with ties to it, especially from Brazil. One of the largest meat suppliers in the world, Brazilian company JBS, owns major meat producers like Pilgrim’s and is involved with popular brands like Smithfield, Tyson, and Cargill.
In 2017, JBS was involved in a deforestation scandal about their purchase of cattle from suppliers who were illegally clearing land. The following year, yet another JBS supplier was found using environmentally protected land for cattle ranching.
Leather, a common byproduct of Brazilian meat production, is shipped around the world to make shoes, upholster cars, and create fashion accessories. Bertin, a Brazilian company that has been found to use illegally deforested land, was linked to brands such as Nike, Adidas, Timberland, Clarks, BMW, Volkswagen, Ford, Toyota, and GM. Daniel Brindis, Senior Forest Campaigner for Greenpeace, stated: “A lot of that leather comes from slaughterhouses in Brazil and then is directly exported to the US.” So far in 2019 over 121 million square meters of Brazilian leather have been exported around the world. China is the leading importer of Brazilian leather, with the United States close behind.
If the world wants to stop deforestation, we have to stop supporting the industries that are profiting from it. Being a conscious consumer can help to reduce deforestation around the world. By choosing local, plant-based food options instead of resource-intensive meat or dairy products, by using natural fibers instead of leather, and by purchasing paper products from sustainable sources, you can make a huge personal impact.
Supporting reforestation initiatives, like Eden Reforestation Projects, is another major way to make a difference. Organizations around the globe are planting trees to restore forests and help plant and animal species thrive again. Donating money or time can accelerate the restoration process.
Additionally, supporting foundations like the Wildlife Justice Commission will assist in reducing poaching and trapping, as well as improving biodiversity by restoring wildlife communities.
Is Going Vegan Better for the Environment?
Persuading the entire planet to go vegan overnight to combat climate change is not feasible. What is feasible is the shift to a diet heavily focused on plant-based foods.
If every American reduced their meat consumption by only a quarter, 82 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions would be saved per year. Removing meat from the American diet completely would quadruple that number.
If every person on the planet reduced their meat intake, especially those purchasing meat from deforested land, our global GHG emissions would reduce drastically. Even if we all just participated in a Meatless Monday program one day a week, we could save the emissions equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road.
Veganism is not just about food choices. It carries over into our personal care products, clothing, and even furniture and cars. By supporting companies that do not use leather or animal-derived products we will make a statement, and reduce cruelty and environmental destruction.
What You Can Do
Meat production is a leading cause of deforestation. It destroys animal habitats, cripples biodiversity, and increases GHG emissions in our atmosphere. Consumers often unknowingly support deforestation by purchasing foods, animal byproducts, and wood products sourced from unsustainable operations.
Fortunately, conservation groups around the world are working hard to restore our diverse forests. On an individual level, we can make a difference with every dollar we spend. Purchasing from sustainable suppliers will take custom away from those that destroy our planet. Opting for plant-based foods can save precious forests around the world.
The forests need our help, but we need them even more.
Taylor Meek is the Community Manager and a Contributing Author at Sentient Media. She manages the Social Media Volunteer team and Social Media Fellowship program. Follow her on Twitter at @taylorthemeek and Instagram at @crueltyfreecravings