Forests cover almost one third of the Earth's land, directly provide food, fresh water, clothing, medicine, or shelter to 1.6 billion people, and produce the oxygen we need to breathe - and they're disappearing at a rate of 19 million acres per year.
Deforestation is caused by four major operations: cattle ranching, palm oil production, soy bean farming, and logging.
Cattle ranching - Due to increased demand for beef, forests are being cleared to provide more land to grow cattle. This activity mainly occurs in Brazil, where 80% of cleared forest is used as pasture.
Palm oil production - Palm oil is an ingredient in nearly half of all products in any given supermarket. Food (bread, ice cream, chocolate), cosmetics (lipstick, etc.), soaps, and many other items use palm oil. Avoiding it is nearly impossible.
Soy bean farming - Connected to the beef industry, nearly 75% of soybeans end up as animal feed for chickens, pigs, cows, and farmed fish, with only 6% resulting in direct human consumption.
- Logging - Many laws regulate timber harvesting and trade, but are often broken: harvesting in protecting areas, taking more than permitted, and harvesting protected species. Forests in the Amazon, Congo Basin, Indonesia, and far east Russia are threatened by this activity.
Why Does it Matter?
Forests are massive ecosystems and have a huge impact on local and global climates. They are home to 80% of Earth's land animals and plants, they mitigate climate change as a giant carbon sink, and are key in managing local / regional water cycles.
- Palm oil production is a significant cause of deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia, where carbon-rich peatlands and forests are drained and burned. This process destroys the habitats of uncountable animals - and only 15% of these species are able to adapt. Among those who are most affected are orangutans, tigers, rhinos, and elephants.
- As forests are destroyed, they are typically cut down and burned, releasing all of their stored carbon as carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a well known greenhouse gas, which is the main driver of climate change.
- Forests are crucial for managing the water cycle and returning water vapor to the atmosphere. With the loss of forests come changes in precipitation and river flow, local ecosystem damage, and desertification. Lush habitats turn into arid wastelands. As soon as the soil is no longer suitable for crop growth, farmers abandon the land and clear additional forest.
What Can I Do?
Deforestation is mostly a result of increased consumption - so the strongest solution is to use and buy less. Specifically, address each of the 4 main causes:
- Eat less beef. Not only has 17% of the Amazon been lost for cattle ranching in the last 50 years, cattle have an enormous impact on climate change and pollution. Don't assume you have to stop eating beef altogether - just try to eat less of it. If you have beef a few times a week, try cutting down to once or twice per week.
- Palm oil is everywhere, and it has many different names: vegetable oil, vegetable fat, palm kernel, glyceryl, stearate, stearic acid, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate... You may see RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) labels, but the standards for this are not very high. The Rainforest Action Network has a scorecard for many of the larger companies and what their palm oil standards are: https://www.ran.org/sf20scorecard
Companies with good current standards include: Kellogs, Mars, ConAgra, and General Mills
Companies to avoid: PepsiCo, Kraft, Heinz, Unilever
- Eat less meat in general, and be mindful of the labels. Try looking for "grass-fed" or "soy free" beef, chicken, etc. It will cost more, but the alternative is actively contributing to forest destruction.
- Look for paper products certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and Rainforest Alliance