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.

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