Aug 14, 2016

Are cows eating the Amazon?

By Gunnar Rundgren
Garden Earth - Beyond sustainability

Land clearing in tropical countries for production of export crops gets a lot of attention, and rightly so. However, the understanding of the mechanisms involved and how to allocate the effects of deforestation in terms of environmental damage or carbon emissions, is still very low. While it is true that exports are important for this, most deforestation are driven by domestic factors.  A study by Henders et al (2015) show that in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea one third of deforestation was embodied in exports in 2011, up from a fifth in 2000. This means that two thirds of the deforestation is driven by domestic factors.

In the study beef was identified as the main driver of forest loss in the seven countries, accounting for nearly 60 percent of embodied deforestation and just over half of embodied emissions. Soybean production was the second largest source of embodied deforestation area whereas oil palm was the second largest source of embodied emissions.

But one can argue against how to allocate emissions and land use changes. For instance, pasture areas in Brazil have been stable in the last decade, while grazing has moved towards the forested areas because it is more profitable to plow and farm crops in the pasturelands than to graze them. It might be more correct to allocate impacts of land use changes based on the relative expansion of agriculture area for different crops or production in a country. In the case of Brazil, it would mean that soy production would still be a major cause of deforestation, but sugar cane cultivation would carry 20 % of the burden of deforestation and associated carbon emissions while beef from pasture would carry almost none of this, This would be the case despite that there is very little sugar grown in the recently deforested zones and a there are a lot of animals grazing there.