Saturday, December 31, 2016

Leonardo and the hamburger connection

0.06 percent of the beef Americans consume originates in the Brazilian rainforest. To claim that Americans or Swedes contribute to tropical deforestation when they eat beef is akin to saying that you contribute to deforestation when you buy a plank at the hardware store.

In Leonardo di Caprio’s new movie, the Before the Flood we are told that beef is the main driver of deforestation and that by eating beef you contribute to that. The story has its origin in the 1980s as the ”hamburger connection” a causal link between deforestation in Central America and American beef imports. But how is it today:
- How much of the world’s beef comes from pasture established in the rain forest?
- How much of that meat ends up on American or Swedish plates?  
- Can one really claim causation between beef consumption in the North and tropical deforestation?

In the whole world 129 million hectare of forest has been lost since 1990, most of it in the tropics. This corresponds to 3 percent of the global forest area. But the figures mask that forests have increased in size in most of the richer countries and shrunk more in poor ones (see map). 

As Brazil plays such a big role in these discussions, let’s focus on Brazil. It has 493 million hectares of forest, 12 percent of all forest in the world. Since 1990 the forest area has shrunk with around 1 million hectare per year. There is no doubt that cattle grazing has played some role in this, even if it is often exaggerated. In many cases, the primary driver is logging. In Brazil, land policies play a big role in deforestation as it has been easier for the government to settle poor landless people in the Amazon than to anger the country’s big landlords by pursuing a land reform. Read more about the deforestation in Brazil here.

But let’s stick to the perception that grazing is the major driver of deforestation in the Amazon and assume that if cattle graze land which was formerly rain forest that this change was caused by the ranchers.

Let’s do the math!
According to calculations by Christel Cederberg et al.* 2010, 6 % of the beef from Brazil originated in areas in Legal Amazonas, which had been deforested the last twenty years. A reason for this rather low share is that the productivity is very low in former rainforest areas.

The global beef production 2013 was 68 million ton, i.e. around 9 kg per capita. Of this some 9 million ton was produced in Brazil and a bit more than half a million ton came from rainforest pastures. That means that less than one percent of the beef in the world originated in Brazilian rainforest lands. Assuming that in the rest of the world there is an equal quantity also produced on former rainforest lands (which is most likely a big exaggeration), two percent of all beef in the world would come from rainforests.

The consumption of beef in Brazil has increased very much, so that Bazilieros now eat more meat than Americans, per capita. The consumption went from 1.3 million ton 1961 ot 7.5 million ton today. Some 16 percent of the Brazilian production is exported. It is less than 6 percent of the exported beef that originates from the Amazon, as the distance is huge and the infrastructure is less likely to be on export standard there. But for now, let’s stick to the 6 percent.

The USA consumes some 12 billion kg of beef annually and exports some 1 billion ton while it imports between 100 and 200 million kg from Brazil. The import represents around 1 percent of the American consumption, and 0.06 percent of the beef Americans consume originates in the Brazilian rainforest.

Doing the same calculation for Sweden, who is a net beef importer, makes little difference. Sweden imported 1 600 ton of beef from Brazil 2015, and the imports from rainforest areas in Brazil represent 10 gram per person a year. And Sweden doesn’t import from any other country where rainforests are razed for grazing.

The quantity of beef from former rainforests is simply to small to have any particular importance for global beef consumption. To claim that Americans or  Swedes contribute to tropical deforestation when they eat beef is akin to saying that you contribute to deforestation when you buy a plank at the hardware store.

Tropical deforestation is a big problem. But the solution is found in the countries where it takes place, by planning, proper policies and enforcement. The effect of this can be seen in countries which have managed to curb deforestation. Also Brazil has been relatively successful in reducing the rate of deforestation, even if there is more to be desired.

Of course, global market demand can contribute to deforestation. Palm oil and cocoa are crops where very big shares of global production originates from land that has been recently deforested (but who calls for a global boycott of chocolate?). Most rubber, coffee and tea also comes from chopped down rainforests, even though most of them where cut already long ago.  

Almost all farming takes place in land which previously had huge natural values. The global draining of wetlands or the plowing of the prairies and steppes were ecological disasters on par with tropical deforestation. The share of fertile grasslands that has been converted to wheat, corn or soybean fields is higher than the share of tropical rainforest being converted to farming or grazing. This is not an excuse for continuing the rampage, but it puts it in an understandable context of an ongoing human appropriation of nature.   

There are of course many other aspects of meat production and consumption which can be discussed from various perspectives.  The expansion of soybean cultivation to feed the worlds pigs and chicken is one such issue, which I will discuss in a later post.  

DiCaprio’s movie is good, but the Hamburger connection is not of any particular relevance for global warming.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Grace, the Organic Revolutionary

The organic movement has managed to change the food debate quite a lot. It has been less susccessful in converting farmers than consumers though. The rise of the ”organic industry” also demonstrates the process by which the prevailing paradigm manages to defuse a theatening revolution and how the forces of competition and market adaptation transform a underground movement to a gentrified lifestyle and a government code.

Grace Gershuny was in the middle of this development for decades and she recently wrote Organic revolutionary, a memoir of the movement for real food planetary healing andhuman liberation. The book is not only about the organic movement. It blends the development of the organic sector in the USA, Grace’s family, marriages, child and other interests of Grace, including Social Ecology and Buddhism.

In 1994 Grace Gershuny accepted a staff position at the USDA’s newly formed National Organic Program (NOP). The job was to transpose the 1990 Organic Food Production Act (OFPA), into manageable rules for organic production, certification, accreditation and oversight. From that time I remember that many of my US colleagues believeed that most of the job was already done with the OFPA, but it took ten years to bring the NOP to implementation. Grace was one of the principal authors of the NOP and much of the book is about her efforts to steer the development of the rule between the demands for purity from self claimed organic grass-roots, the realities of farming, recalcitrant bosses, US government politics and the interests of businesses. 

When the proposed rule was published 1997 it was met by a virtual shitstorm. The proposed rule had the highest number of public comments ever and almost all of them were damning based on the belief that the proposal had been corrupted by agri-business.  Grace Gershuny took it hard, especially as some of the vocal criticisers were people she had been working with for years.  

Her roots were not in the humongous United States Department of Agriculture which has more than 100,000 employees. She came from a “back-to-the-land” and social activist background. Grace Gershuny and her first husband bought a derelict Vermont farmstead in 1973, and she lost 35 pounds in that first season of gardening, and was hooken on it. It is one thing to grow, another to sell and Grace ended up organizing a farmers market in 1975.

Step by step she was pulled into the job of organizer, advisor and advocate, a fate shared with many early organic acvtivists. But she didn’t cease to reflect and wanted understand how things came to be and soon enough she realised that how we farm is not determined by ideas of farming but that:

“How we treat the soil is bot a function of lack of knowledge, but of social, political and especially economic factors that demand exploitation of the earth and most humans for the sake if enriching a privileged few”.

Her quest to develop the understanding of both the human self and the human society lead to the Institute for Social Ecology, which was founded by Murray Bookchin, one of the few socialists of this time which tried to integrate the lessons of ecology into human society and political thinking; he wrote about global warming already in the sixties. But the work with the Institute as well as with the organic farmers’ organization convinced Grace Gershuny that “the greatest obstacles to our cause were an egocentric lack of empathy and compassion”. She found answers to those concerns in Shambhala Buddhism.  

But back to organic. The early organic people were strongminded people swimming against the tide. They were mostly sticky on their particular view on what was good and what was bad organic. Before the National Organic Program there were many organic organizations which certified their members as organic according to their own standards and requirements. When the market grew from local to national and international the fact that the different organizations didn’t accept the others guarantees became a major impediment for trade and an issue for constant battles about who had the higher standad. There were efforts within the movement to sort out the differences within various initiatives, but in the end, a law was needed to bring them all to the same table. This development was mimicked also in Europe, where an organic regulation was put in place in 1992.

The allure of purity, of “higher standards” has remained. And high mostly means strict, difficult and with no flexilbility, no consideration to the actual conditions.  Those advocating flexibility will often be branded collaborators with big business, the ones supposedly benefiting from lax standards. Grace Gershuny goes a great length to explain why the quest for a perfect standard is dangerous and also that it seldom is to the benefit of the small farmer or food producers. It also threatens to box in organic as an eternal niche:

“the push for higher standards has actually made it easier for the large, professional business organizations than for small owner-operators. They are simply better equipped to deal with the increasingly finicky and paperwork-heavy demands of organic certification. So the demand for higher organic standards has helped create the very situation that organic activists feared the most: intensified bureacratization of organic certification, increased barriers to acces to the organic market by small producers, and near elimination of the possibility that organic production systems might become any more than a small niche in American agriculture”

Meanwhile, she agrees with those that think thar the organic soul was lost in the effort to convert it to a market claim represented by a governmental logo, but she claims that the ”organic watchdogs” are at least as much to blame for this as the corporations.  She concludes that she has ”lost hope that this situation can be redeemed”. But she sees a bigger role for organic outside the regulations and certification as a lever for change of the food system and of the whole society.

The book provides a much needed perspective on the process of reconciliation of radical politics with the world of the government administration and the growing organic market increasingly dominated by big companies. The form of a “memoir” makes it easy to read. Ocassionally, the personal matters take over the story, but that is what they do in most peoples’ life. It adds flesh and blood to the book.

The book can be ordered at

A shorter version of this review was published in the organic standard 182