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What is the link between meat and deforestation?

26 July 2023

What is the link between meat and deforestation?

How does meat affect climate change?

Meat affects climate change because the production and consumption of meat significantly contributes to the climate crisis. The meat industry is responsible for a large share of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), primarily carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, mainly caused by land use change (including deforestation), emissions from cattle and manure, feed production and transportation.

Meat production also requires vast amounts of land, water, and energy to sustain its entire process - from clearing land for grazing and feed production to transportation and processing – contributing to deforestation, water scarcity and biodiversity loss.

Does eating less meat help the environment?

The environmental footprint of the food you eat is very much linked to how it is produced. It is therefore better to eat more plant-based foods, which generally take up less land to produce, than meat and dairy. Animal-based food is responsible for 57 per cent of all food production emissions - twice the amount produced by plant-based food - but it provides only 18 per cent of the world’s calories and 37 per cent of total protein. It is, however, still important to ensure that plant-based food is locally produced and not grown on land that has been recently deforested. Choosing such plant-based alternatives or organic and locally-produced meat over imported processed meat also supports local family farmers.

How does the meat industry contribute to deforestation?

Beef production is the biggest agricultural driver of global forest loss, accounting for 36 per cent of all tree cover loss associated with agriculture. In Brazil, where one-third of global tropical deforestation takes place, 72 per cent of forest loss is driven by cattle ranching.

Cattle-driven forest destruction is mainly focused on South America, notably Brazil, but also Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and other countries.

The meat industry also drives deforestation through the expansion of soybean cultivation to export as animal feed. The constant expansion of cattle and soy onto new areas of land is also driving land-grabbing, with small farmers and communities across South America losing out.

Is EU consumption of soya causing deforestation?

Although soya beans cultivation is one of the world’s biggest drivers of deforestation, industrially produced soy is rarely used for milk and meat replacements: about 75 per cent of the world’s soy is used for animal feed. To meet this growing demand, vast areas of forests and other ecosystems, are cleared to make way for soybean plantations. Often this land has been stolen from local communities who had depended on it for their livelihoods.

In the EU, about 90 per cent of soy is used to feed animals for the production of meat, eggs, fish and dairy products. It could be replaced by grazing on local pastures and supplemented with more locally produced corn.

Is meat production decreasing?

Total global meat production is five times greater today than 50 years ago, amounting to 352 million tonnes each year, despite a slight decrease in per capita meat consumption in the last few years.

Europeans and Americans consume respectively 80 and 110 kilograms per person annually, in Latin American, meat production is responsible for massive deforestation, but much is consumed locally, such as in Argentina, where consumption is also 110 kilograms per person, per year. Meanwhile, in the last 50 years, there has been a 15-fold increase in meat consumption in China.

Global meat consumption is expected to grow by 14 per cent by 2030, increasing meat sector emissions by five per cent. This rapid increase is partly due to swift population growth worldwide, but meat production has grown twice as fast as the global population since 1961.

How can the EU help to reduce meat production and protect forests and communities?

The EU is the world’s second biggest importer of agricultural goods causing deforestation, most of which are linked to the meat and dairy sector. The EU Regulation on deforestation-free products (EUDR), adopted in 2023, forbids agricultural goods tainted by deforestation from being imported into the EU market, including soy, beef and most of the products derived from them.

The EU needs to complement this with policies and laws regulating agriculture and food systems that could potentially help reduce meat consumption as this would positively impact the environment, small farmers’ livelihoods, and EU consumers’ health.

Up to now, EU policies mainly focused on agricultural production via the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which takes up one third of the EU’s total budget and mainly offers subsidies to industrial  farmers across the EU. More could be achieved through other policies such as the Farm to Fork Strategy (F2F), which includes different policy initiatives such as the Sustainable Food Systems Framework Law (SFSL), for which a legislative proposal is expected in 2023; the EU Code of Conduct, which came into force in 2021; the Carbon Farming Initiative: and new rules for harmonising EU labelling on nutrition, sustainability, and animal welfare.

Categories: FAQs, Meat consumption

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