How does over-consumption of meat and dairy affect forests and communities?

Global meat consumption has sky-rocketed since 1961, and meat production has quadrupled to meet this demand. Much of this meat is raised on newly deforested land – mainly in South America. This land is also used to grow soy beans to feed animals in Europe and elsewhere.

The problem for forests is double, as deforestation releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which is compounded by the methane released by farmed animals. The vast emissions from the meat and dairy industry, estimated to account for around 16 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, is pushing up global temperatures – and many forests are not in a strong enough state to survive.

The meat industry also affects forests and rural communities. Indigenous Peoples and small farmers in South America often have their land grabbed to make way for industrial production of beef and soy. Major meat companies have been repeatedly found responsible for exporting products produced on stolen land to Europe, the United States and China. EU policies such as the EU Regulation on deforestation-free products (EUDR) should make it illegal for companies to import products responsible for deforestation and land rights violations into the EU market.

What do Fern and our partners want? 

Complex problems are not best solved by nudging individual action, but by delivering policies that lead to large-scale positive change. Fern and our partners therefore aim to reshape food environments to allow consumers to choose healthy and sustainable food – something EU consumers consistently show they want.

One clear example is the EUDR which aims to end imports of commodities that have caused deforestation – including many meat and animal feed products. Our beef briefing and our soy briefing outline the problem and solutions in more detail. It is important to remember, however, that as well as ending imports of deforestation-risk commodities, policies need to encourage EU citizens to reduce meat consumption to sustainable levels.

What is Fern doing? 

We are looking for affordable policy-solutions that will reduce meat consumption to levels that no longer threaten forests or livelihoods and that improve EU citizens’ health. Responsibility needs to sit with the large multinationals that supply much of the protein consumed in the EU. 

So far, we have found that the most viable policy levers are:

  • The Common Agricultural Policy
  • The Farm to Fork Strategy
  • The Framework for Sustainable Food Systems
  • The Carbon Farming Initiative

We will continue to monitor opportunities to have a beneficial effect on forests, the people who depend on them, and people producing and eating food in the EU.

What has been achieved so far?

Fern was the first NGO to call for the EUDR, a new Regulation which requires that products coming into the EU must be free from deforestation, forest degradation, and violations of law in the country of production. If the Regulation is properly implemented, it will mean that beef and soy (as well as other products) coming into the EU has not caused deforestation or land rights violations.

Although this is an important and hard-won step forward, it does not mean EU meat and dairy consumption will stop contributing to these problems. Firstly, the Regulation land rights protections are based on domestic rather than international law, leaving communities vulnerable to domestic problems such as those recently inflicted by the Bolsonaro regime in Brazil.

Secondly, because the EUDR does not cover other ecosystems like the Brazilian Cerrado – itself an important carbon stock and wildlife habitat—destructive production may simply move into these ecosystems, increasing carbon emissions and species extinction there.

Thirdly, if EU meat consumption remain high, the Regulation will mean deforestation-free areas are “commandeered” to supply the EU market, with production for other regions moving further into forest areas—a phenomenon known as “leakage”.

Julia Christian

Julia Christian

Forests and Agriculture Campaigner

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