This year we shook our heads, shocked and appalled at the burning of the Amazon rainforest, condemning President Bolsonaro and his arch anti-environmentalist regime for turning a blind eye. Whilst Amazon torching has all but stopped since the outcry, the problem has magnified and spread in the Amazon’s less-Hollywood neighbour, the Cerrado Savannah, a biodiversity nirvana bigger than Mexico. A cradle for over 5% of world life, including over eleven-thousand flowering plants, many unique to the Cerrado, it is difficult to see how anyone could justify the level of destruction being waged there for agricultural “needs”. With more fires than the Amazon, surpassing 144,000 in early October, the question is why? And how can we help?
Our unsustainable diets are at the heart of this destruction. The Cerrado is being ravaged by livestock and soy crops, to feed the Western world’s voracity for meat, fed primarily with soy feed. A hundred years since the introduction of soy to Brazil, crops haunt an area the size of the UK, with UK imports of soy representing a Yorkshire-size portion of this. Carbon emissions from the conversion of the Cerrado sum up to about half of the UK’s emissions.
Outside of environmental issues, the deep unsustainability of our soy habit damages the 25 million-deep local population, with the benefits and consequences of agriculture spread asymmetrically. The neo-colonial imposition of our Western ways of living have led to soy-fed, meat-based diets expanding in Brazil, degenerating health, and are upheld by a remnant of Portuguese colonial days, with modern slavery rife in, supported by and heavily skewed towards agricultural industries. An estimated 67.5% of modern slaves in Brazil are based in the agricultural sector.
The root of these circumstances begins, undoubtedly, in the colonial past, through the organisation of the slave trade and the systemic inequality and injustice that followed. The current situation, however, can be traced back most notably to the economic development of Brazil, beginning in the 1960s. Alongside heavy investment in agriculture, academic and government research came the advent of no-till farming, revolutionising the way the country could exploit its natural resources for mass production. No-till farming grew from 3% in 1990 to 50% of all farming today in Brazil. The Cerrado region has been devasted by this. The natural biosphere of the Cerrado has been diminished by 47% since the mid-1960s, an area of ~100million hectares, with the average deforestation at 14000km per year, double that of the Amazon. While the Soy Moratorium curbed work in the Amazon, this has created further pressure on the Cerrado, with the Brazil Forest Code allowing Cerrado landowners to set aside 65-80% of their land for soy production.
This unsustainable farming is driven by unsustainable meat-oriented diets, with 80% of soy produced used for animal feed worldwide. Global soy production has expanded tenfold between 1961 and 2009, with Brazilian agricultural exports surpassing USD 403billion at the end of this period. Livestock escalates the damage from deforestation through its own emissions, whether its methane emissions from animals, the dangerous effects of nitrous oxide from fertiliser, urine and manure, or even carbon dioxide itself caused by draining peatland, ploughing grass, fodder production, and the consumption of fossil fuel energy on farms. Food production amounts to a quarter of all GHG globally, with animal products responsible for 58% of this, and yet are only 20% of calories consumed.
At this point in its development process, Brazil is becoming a contributor and inevitably a victim of a meat-hungry world built from the soy up. The modernisation process involved a policy of “Zero Hunger”, which is almost successful in eliminating undernutrition, but unfortunately has exasperated malnutrition on the other side of the spectrum, obesity. In 1975, 19% of men, and 29% of women were overweight, which has ballooned to 54% of men and 48% of women in 2014. This is part of what is called a “nutrition transition”.
- Local food produce, malnourishment is rife
- Over-consumption (many developers, including Brazil, are at this stage)
- Sustainable diets (future)?
The growth boom has allowed many developers to shift from stage 1 to 2, with the side effect of obesity and overconsumption.
This is not true for all countries – South Korea is a nation that is “anti-fat”, so to speak, with government campaigns and culture chastising gluttony. Brazil and China, on the other hand, comprise 28% of the developing world population but are responsible for 56% of developing world meat consumption. South Korea, again to compare, has above average eating disorders in young people, reflecting a different form of malnutrition, but as crucial and damaging. This demonstrates sustainable food futures are only possible through an individual cultural lens, and that a one-size-fits-all world diet is not possible.
To understand why Brazilian people would allow for such destruction of their land and bastardisation of their diet and culture requires an understanding of inequality in Brazil. There are 4.4 million family farms, which comprise 70% of national agricultural production, and 77% of rural employment, and yet the massive exporting sector mentioned earlier is dominated by huge corporate agribusiness, which extracts almost two-thirds of all value from exported produce. From the days of rampant slavery, with a small, European elite owning almost all property and ruling over a predominately black and indigenous population, there has been a highly unequal distribution of resources and land. This is a worsening problem in the age of corporations. Land concentration is increasing, with the poor having even less access, creating land tenure insecurity. This is a process that fuels deforestation, creating a cycle of unsustainable practice which feeds onto itself and only rises in scale, with constant pressure on smaller-scale farms.
Giving priority to agribusiness, who are the great-great-grand-relatives of the colonial European elite in Brazil has a much darker side. In 2003 twenty-two enslaved workers, including one heavily pregnant, were freed from forced labour at a soy export production farm. This was far from an isolated case, as evidence exists that mass soy exporters actually create these environments. In 2008, forty-one people were freed from slavery on a farm that produces 5% of all Brazilian soy, cotton and maize. Horror stories detail no protective wear, and pesticides poured from aeroplanes with workers underneath.
Above is an ILO diagram demonstrating slavery in the worldwide soy production chain. They state that “as the limit of land advances, so does the industry of modern slavery”. This, in no uncertain terms, means the unsustainable nature of our diets, through its third-person destruction of the Cerrado, is aided and abetting slavery in the 21st century.
How does this relate to us?
It is clear at this stage the UK needs to address its burden of shame and culpability, and therefore responsibility for this crisis in unsustainable diets. The UK imports 50% of its livestock feed, with the majority coming from Brazil, which itself is a low estimate because of re-exporting through middlemen countries such as the Netherlands. DEFRA justify this on the basis that the “soy commodity chain is of low visibility to consumers”, which is a formal way of saying the average British citizen isn’t aware of the death, destruction and duplicity involved in the production of soy. The regulation covering Brazilian soy producers exporting to the UK only covers 2% of the industry, and so creates and reinforces continued opacity.
Soy comes to the UK in two main avenues, food and feed. This is your soybeans, soybean meal, oil, but primarily soybean oil cake, which are used for their high protein levels, to fatten up our food. With each bite of that bacon buttie, burger or bolognese, we step closer to the obliteration of the Cerrado, estimated (at the current rate of decimation) to be 2030, a mere 10 or so years.
What is to be done?
The governments of Brazil twist and turn regarding preservation, but the trend is wholly negative. We must act in the UK to manage our contribution through realigning and following sustainable eating practices. Some British supermarkets are already looking to act – Tesco, M&S and Sainsbury all promise zero-deforestation products by 2020. Here are the top tips for individual action:
- Reduce meat consumption: the biggest impact
- Increasing intake of locally grown produce
- Ask companies how they are tackling deforestation and buy from those who are (look for those who follow standards! RTRS for Soy)
Cutting out meat reduces the individual carbon footprint by two-thirds, and reduces the land needed for individual food by three-quarters, and should lead to healthier and more sustainable diets for all, consumers and producers, averting ~11million deaths worldwide. With the UK impact on the crop-related climate change majorly abroad, it’s the responsibility of British consumers to make sure we are not complicit in the Cerrado’s destruction, amongst other irreparable oases of life.