Three key industries threaten rainforests around the world: agriculture, cattle ranching, and logging. Note, however, that housing, roads, dams, etc. also have an impact on deforestation – I am just not planning to talk about those in this series. A recent NYT editorial highlighted that we are losing the equivalent of 50 soccer fields’ worth of forest every minute, and that while the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon had actually dropped in the last decade, it has now increased again. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll discuss agriculture, with a particular focus on soybean production. As a reminder, future posts will discuss logging, ranching, and finally what you can do as a consumer to change the world!
Deforestation for agricultural purposes has a big impact on rainforests around the world. Rainforests in Cameroon, Borneo, Australia, and South America are affected by a growing agricultural industry and demand for food products. Brazil is now one of the world’s largest soybean producers, second only to the United States. This has had a tremendous impact on the Amazon rainforest since the massive growth of agriculture in the 1960s. In particular, China, which represents the largest demand in the world, has gone from a net producer of soybeans to a net importer of soybeans. As the demand for soy increases, Brazilian farmers have strived to improve their crop yields by clear cutting more land for farming. The industry has flourished and the country now exports soy for food, biodiesel production, and even as a supplement for animal feed.
The cost of soybeans continues to rise globally. This demand puts the sustainability of the Amazon rainforest at risk, as more and more of the rainforest is burned or clear cut for farming. Burning the forest is a quick way to clear land, but at the same time destroys ancient forest, drives cattle ranchers and settlements further into the forest, and releases massive amounts of CO2 that has been stored naturally over the years. The carbon debt of clearing the forest for soybean-based biofuel is 80+ times that saved through that same biofuel.
When rainforests are converted for agriculture, they are only fertile for a short period of time throughout the year. Without foliage, the soil quickly loses its nutrients. This is a common problem in Australian rainforests, but it is also seen in the Amazon. When forests are cut down, the salinity of the soil increases. This can affect water quality and inhibit agricultural growth. This prevalent problem has led to many farmers relocating and razing even more land for agriculture. In places like the Brazil, this practice actually lowers the overall soybean yield and simply creates a vicious cycle that results in less standing forest land.
While Brazil’s soybean industry is profitable, the many economic and environmental problems with clear cutting the rainforest for farmland make it a lose-lose proposition. When you think of large soybean plantations, you also need to think about the people and small farms that were displaced, the increased hard surfaces and roads, railways, and river transport systems that go along with cultivation.
Stay-tuned for Part 3, where we’ll talk about cattle ranching and logging. Meanwhile, I am off to have a cup of shade-grown Brazilian coffee grown on a small farm…
Click here if you are interested in checking out Part 1.