By: Chloe Benzer
What’s worse for the environment than cars, ships and airplanes combined? Turns out, it’s agriculturally-driven deforestation, which accounts for nearly 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Not only does the act of deforestation and the ensuing use of the land emit greenhouse gases, but by decreasing the number of trees available to absorb carbon emissions, deforestation is an environmental double-whammy. Agricultural deforestation is the tearing-down of forests in order to use the land for agricultural purposes, such as raising cattle or growing soybeans – currently the largest perpetrators of this type of deforestation.
In 2014, the New York Declaration on Forests – a voluntary non-binding agreement to halt global deforestation – was endorsed by the UN and now has over 190 endorsers ranging from national governments to multi-national companies and non-governmental organizations. The basis of this agreement is to halt and reverse both agricultural and non-agricultural deforestation. The 10 goals of the agreement aim to reduce deforestation as well as decrease the financial dependence of producers on the cash crops that incentivize deforestation. In order to achieve part of these goals, big agricultural companies promise to source their products from farms that aren’t involved in deforestation.
However, measuring the effectiveness of this promise is proving difficult. It is arduous to track back from consumer products through the various channels to a farm, and then deduce whether or not that farm was the result of deforestation. Furthermore, the lack of firm commitments by the companies – who procure “certified” products when available – leaves an easy out. Overall market share is also important to consider, if the companies who have made the pledge may not be making too big a difference.
While the reduction in demand from a combination of large companies can certainly influence the amount of agricultural deforestation, the root of the problem is consumer demand for an abundance of products such as cattle and soy that lead to deforestation.
The way that we eat has an enormous impact on the environment around us; the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that “if all Americans eliminated just one quarter-pound serving of beef per week, the reduction in global warming gas emissions would be equivalent to taking four to six million cars off the road.” Not only does reducing beef consumption decrease the direct amount of pollution caused by cattle, it decreases the demand and alleviates some of the pressure to supply beef, reducing the incentive to cut down trees for grazing space.
Though changing our diets is both healthier for us and the environment, modifying behavior as ingrained as diet can be nearly impossible. Vincent Réquillart of Toulouse School of Economics and the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique argues that the best step would be aiming for smaller changes rather than substantial shifts between food groups – such as swapping red meat for white meat. Shifts like this could be accomplished with the implementation of a carbon tax, similar to other pollution-reduction polices.
While health-consciousness is a beneficial derivative of an eco-friendly diet, it is also important to consider where the food we eat comes from and how it gets to us, as an overall means to an altruistic end. There are around 500 million “smallholder farming households” that depend on agricultural production for income, most living on $2 a day. Because these households depend to such an extent on the crops they produce, the motive behind agricultural deforestation becomes clear. Thus, in order to eliminate such environmental degradation, it is necessary to create sustainable means for these farmers’ sustenance. For example, as Danny mentioned previously, microfinance is a viable way to support low-income families in poverty-stricken areas.
With the goal of pollution reduction in mind, it is important for both policy-makers and the average person to understand the links between so many of the choices we make, such as what we eat or how we get from one place to the next, as well as the processes involved in making those choices available. Not only should we consider the method in which the food we consume was produced and transported to us, we should also consider the motivations of the farmers. As we become more conscious about the environment and the situations of those in poorer countries, it becomes evident that the policies that affect food need to be consistent with each other as well as across nations. While the NYDF is a step in the right direction, commitments to improving the environment must become unanimous and more integrated. As we saw with the Paris Accord, it is evident that any action aimed at pollution reduction should be global, because a clean environment is a public good that can be tread upon by people from any nation.
Charles, Dan. “Deforestation Opponents Enlist Powerful Ally: Big Food. But There’s A Catch.” NPR. November 3, 2016.
“Forest Declaration.” Forest Declaration. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
Natural Resources Defense Council Eat Green Food Facts February 2010
Réquillart, Vincent. “Small changes in diet can make a big difference to greenhouse gas emissions.” The Economist. November 26, 2015.