There is a movie doing the rounds called Cowspiracy. The central proposition seems to be that the evils of climate change can be avoided if we can halt deforestation and that since deforestation is driven primarily by agriculture aimed at beef production for consumption by the US, we can avert catastrophe by all becoming vegan.
There seem to be a number of problems with that but I might be misrepresenting the movie so I will defer comment until I have seen it in full but I do want to take a look at a central plank of the thesis, which is that livestock farming, and specifically agribusiness driven by US consumption, is the primary driver of deforestation.
NASA is a wonderful resource for this sort of thing and I went to their Earth Observatory site for information: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Deforestation/deforestation_update3.php Their verdict is:
Direct causes of deforestation are agricultural expansion, wood extraction (e.g., logging or wood harvest for domestic fuel or charcoal), and infrastructure expansion such as road building and urbanization.
but in particular:
“The single biggest direct cause of tropical deforestation is conversion to cropland and pasture, mostly for subsistence, which is growing crops or raising livestock to meet daily needs.”
In other words, local people clearing land for their own use is responsible for the majority of deforestation. That seems to be a knockout blow to the idea that agribusiness is responsible but things are rarely so simple. Here’s another quote:
“Although subsistence activities have dominated agriculture-driven deforestation in the tropics to date, large-scale commercial activities are playing an increasingly significant role.”
So maybe it’s not so cut and dried. And I should say that they also identify some non-agricultural drivers, such as logging, as major factors second only to subsistence farming in the process of deforestation. So then, if industrial agriculture is a factor, however small, what products are driving the process?
“In the Amazon, industrial-scale cattle ranching and soybean production for world markets are increasingly important causes of deforestation, and in Indonesia, the conversion of tropical forest to commercial palm tree plantations to produce bio-fuels for export is a major cause of deforestation on Borneo and Sumatra.”
So there we see it: cattle ranching! Is it true? Are we really eating our species into an early grave? Right about now is a good time to introduce a graph:
It tells a depressing story; the amazonian rainforests lead the world in area cleared but wait: Indonesia? The cleared acreage is right up there with Brazil and looking back at the quote, we see that it has nothing to do with cattle ranching or even soybean production. The Indonesians are planting palm trees for biodiesel production; in other words, the culprit there is our old friend the internal combustion engine. Even worse, this depredation is caused by the noble intention to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
Taking another look at the graph, it’s easy to see that if we add together the deforested areas in Africa (that’s all the blue bars) the total is as great as Brazil and no-one is suggesting that agribusiness is a factor in that case: it’s all subsistence farming. So what are we left with?
In the amazon, which contributes perhaps a fifth to the total deforested area, there is a proportion which can be attributed to beef and soybean production. I lump those two into one because, as everyone knows, soy is grown to feed cattle. Or maybe not.
I took a look at this website: http://www.ncsoy.org/ABOUT-SOYBEANS/Uses-of-Soybeans.aspx – it’s a mine of information. They don’t seem to have any agenda, they just love to tell you what soy beans are used for; and what they are used for turns out to be amazingly diverse. They start off with this revealing statement:
“Nearly all soybeans are processed for their oil.
Soy processors (such as Cargill & ADM) take the raw soybeans and separate the oil from the meal. The oil may be refined for cooking and other edible uses, or sold for biodiesel production or industrial uses. The processors bake the high-protein fiber that is left after the oil is removed and sell it for animal feed.”
“Nearly all soybeans are processed for their oil” and once again we see the internal combustion engine in the background, with its insatiable appetite for hydrocarbons. So, sure, soymeal is fed to livestock, but not before the primary uses have been satisfied.
In fact, there is one report (admittedly old)
which identifies demand for soybean oil as a cause of a glut of soybean meal but goes on to say that that is no reason to curtail production. In other words, the demand for oil, not agribusiness aimed at feeding cattle, drives soybean production. And in any case:
“Over half of the soybeans processed for livestock feed are fed to poultry, about one-quarter is fed to swine, and the rest is used for beef cattle, dairy cattle and petfood.”
(that’s ncsoy.org again)
So where does this leave us? We have seen that the primary cause of deforestation is still population growth. Even where industrial agriculture is a major factor, logging takes first place, while biodiesel production, whether from soybeans or palm oil, is the next most important. Livestock agriculture comes in a distant fourth place. Even soybean production is driven by transportation needs and the residue feeds our pets as well as agribusiness.
US meat consumption is a factor only in Amazonian deforestation, which is 20% of the world problem. Of the factors in Amazonian deforestation, it ranks fourth, fighting for the last 10% in competition with soybean production and logging.
Should we go vegan, or should we fight the real enemies? Overpopulation is driven by lack of education, lack of womens’ control over their economic circumstances and a backward looking campaign by the religious to prevent women’s control over their own reproduction. Biodiesel might be a case of the cure being worse than the disease. Both of those are topics worth addressing; veganism? Not so much.