This Earth Day, Help Fight Deforestation and Climate Change One Hamburger at a Time

Cattle ranch in the Brazilian Amazon via Shutterstock

Building on the momentum of the Climate Accord in Paris and the upcoming meeting of global leaders on Earth Day to sign a historic climate change agreement, the Earth Day Network is launching a campaign this April 22 nd about trees and their critical role in combating global warming. The campaign, Trees for the Earth, calls on the public to help the organization achieve the ambitious goal of planting 7.8 billion trees over the next 5 years.

But, you may wonder, why trees? First, trees help combat climate change by absorbing excess and harmful CO2 from our atmosphere. In fact, in a single year, an acre of mature trees absorbs the same amount of CO2 produced by driving the average car 26,000 miles. And second, trees help us breathe clean air by trapping pollutants and toxic airborne particulates on their leaves and bark. Working together, Earth's rainforests act like an enormous set of lungs for our planet, turning carbon dioxide into clean oxygen.

Unfortunately, the ability of Earth's forests to absorb all the excess greenhouse gases and pollutants humans create is being hampered by expanding meat production around the world. The growing demand for beef is negatively impacting tropical rainforests and accelerating climate change, but  the good news is that there are choices you can make today to help.

Beef Production and Deforestation in the Amazon

In 2016, Americans will eat an estimated 54.3 pounds of red meat each - the first increase since 2006 and nearly half a pound more meat per person than last year. According to the Meat Atlas published by the Heinrich Boll Foundation, global demand for meat is growing just as quickly, especially in China and India, which could see an 80 percent rise in the meat sector by 2022 due to a new (and expanding) middle class. Meat consumption is also up in Africa, but supply and demand on the continent is still relatively smaller than it is in other regions.

Unfortunately, a lot of the new land used for meat production, principally beef, to meet this global demand has come from clearing tropical forests ordeforestation.  Deforestation comes in many forms, including clear-cutting for agriculture, ranching, development, unsustainable timber logging, fires and climate change. South America's rainforests have been especially impacted by the expansion of meat production over the last 20 years. In the Brazilian Amazon alone, 2,251 square miles of forests are destroyed every year- the equivalent of about 2 football fields a minute.

But why is so much land required to raise cattle? The answer: Cows eat lots of soy and grass.  You may not have realized it, but according to the World Wildlife Federation, most of the world's soy crops go to meat animals as feed. Unfortunately, because huge amounts of land are needed to grow the crop, the expansion of soy farming to feed the growing global demand for meat is contributing to the destruction of fragile tropical rainforest ecosystems like the Amazon, where 80 percent of the world's documented species can be found.

In the Amazon, around 17 percent of the forest has been lost in the last 50 years, mostly due to forest conversion for cattle ranching. Researchers estimate that between 62.2 to 75 percentof deforested land in Brazil is currently used for cow pasture. This isn't surprising given the fact that there are more cows than people in Brazil; at the end of 2012, there were over 40 million cattle in Brazil's Amazon rainforest.

Deforestation and Climate Change

Today around 13 percent of Earth's land is covered with tropical rain forests. The largest unbroken stretch of rainforest is found in the Amazon basin, nearly two-thirds of which is in Brazil. Rainforests play a critical role in mitigating climate change because they act as a carbon sink -soaking up carbon dioxide that would otherwise be free in the atmosphere, trapping heat and creating the greenhouse effect. Deforestation in the Amazon undermines the rainforest's ability to absorb excess carbon dioxide for the planet and, as a result, it's estimated that tropical deforestation is responsible for about 10 percent of the world's global warming emissions.

What You Can Do

Fortunately, there are lots of things you can start doing today to help combat tropical deforestation and climate change.

  1. To help cut your ecological footprint, the World Wildlife Fund suggests eating more fruit, vegetables and whole grains.You can also reduce how much meat you eat by going Meatless on Mondays, and when you do eat meat, choose  pasture raised from local farms
  2. To find restaurants and farmers markets selling local seasonal produce and sustainably raised meat in your area, check out the Eat Well Guide.
  3. You can also reduce your impact on the Earth's tropical forests by choosing  Rainforest Alliancecertified products.
  4. Finally, you can join Earth Day Network's Trees for the Earth campaign and go plant a tree!