Europe’s food imports devour rainforests

Europe’s food imports swallow large amounts of tropical deforestation. Image: By Sander Dalhuisen on Unsplash

Human appetites drive global rainforest destruction. Now science has measured how Europe’s food imports leave scorched tropical soils and greenhouse gases.

LONDON, 5 April, 2019 − European scientists have worked out how European consumers can reduce tropical forest loss and cut down greenhouse emissions in other countries.

One: stop buying beef, especially from Brazil. And two: be sparing with the oil from tropical palms and soybean plantations.

In theory, this should be news to nobody. Forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slow global warming. But forests that have been felled for cattle-grazing or burned and cleared for oil plantations are net emitters of carbon into the atmosphere to accelerate global warming and precipitate yet more dangerous climate change.

But in two related publications, researchers have looked beyond the theory to identify the responsibility of one geopolitical grouping for precise volumes of greenhouse gas emissions in faraway places.

First they report, in the journal Global Environmental Change, that they looked at the loss of tropical rainforests, and then at the ways in which the felled or scorched forests have been used, for food production.

“If you give tropical countries support . . . to protect the rainforest, as well as giving farmers alternatives to deforestation to increase production, it can have a big impact”

And then, in the journal Environmental Research Letters, they took the measure of carbon dioxide emissions that might be linked to food production from the destroyed rainforest, and then worked out from world trade data where that food went.

The European Union as a whole is a huge importer of food. And the conclusion is that one-sixth of the emissions from a typical EU diet can be traced directly back to deforestation in the tropics.

“In effect, you could say that the EU imports large amounts of deforestation every year. If the EU really wants to achieve climate goals, it must set harder environmental standards on those who export food to the EU,” said Martin Persson of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

And his co-author Florence Pendrill, also at Chalmers, said: “We can see that more than half of deforestation is due to the production of food and animal feed, such as beef, soy beans and palm oil.

Food exports rising

“There is a big variation between different countries and goods, but overall, exports account for about a fourth of that deforestation which is connected to food production. And these figures have increased during the period we have looked at.”

The principles are clear: like the shift away from dependence on fossil fuels, the preservation and growth of the world’s forests is one of the priorities in slowing greenhouse gas emissions and limiting climate change.

Researchers have repeatedly stressed that a shift away from a meat diet could reduce emissions; a global switch to crops rather than cattle would mean greater output from existing farmland and help save forests everywhere.

In general, many developed countries have begun to enlarge the space covered by forest canopy. But the tropical rainforests remain at risk: from drought and wildfire linked to climate change, and from direct human invasion in pursuit of yet more space to exploit for cattle ranches and oil plantations. Greenhouse gas emissions from rainforests are on the increase.

Extending the rules

The European Union already has strict rules about the provision of timber and wood products from exporting countries: these have already helped protect some areas of the vulnerable tropical rainforests. The next challenge is to see whether such regulation can be effectively tailored to food imports.

The scientists found that between 2010 and 2014, around 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide escaped from ranches, croplands and plantations on cleared forest land. Of this, 900 million tonnes of carbon dioxide came from cattle meat, much of it from Brazil, and 600 million from palm oil and soybean plantations, almost half of this from Indonesia.

“Now, as the connection between food production and deforestation is made clearer, we should start to discuss possibilities for the EU to adopt similar regulations for food imports. Quite simply, deforestation should end up costing the producer more,” said Dr Pendrill.

“If you give tropical countries support in their work to protect the rainforest, as well as giving farmers alternatives to deforestation to increase production, it can have a big impact.” − Climate News Network