As the world looks on in horror at images of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest engulfed in flames, many are asking why this important ecosystem is on fire, and what we can do to put out the flames once and for all. The situation is complex but there is one simple action we can take: we need to dramatically cut our meat consumption.
Most people are by now well aware of factory farms and the cruelties animals trapped within them suffer. Pigs confined in tiny gestation crates, chickens packed wing-to-wing in massive warehouses, animals slaughtered in cruel and archaic ways — we see these images of animals living and dying in misery and we rightly feel pain and outrage. But factory farming doesn’t just hurt the animals; it hurts our environment as well. This is why we need to support a shift from the cruelties of factory farming to more humane and sustainable agriculture.
Take feed production, for example. Most of the roughly 80 billion animals raised for food around the globe are typically fed corn or soy, and it takes lots of land to grow these crops. One study found that an average American’s diet requires more than 150,000 square feet of crop and pasture land annually—that equates to nearly the area of three football fields used to produce meat, eggs and dairy for just one person each year.
There are many theories about why the Amazon is and has been burning for many years, but one thing is clear: the rainforest is being destroyed for meat. And while we cannot participate in direct relief and suppression of the fire, we can help through the power of the plate.
Seventy percent of previously forested land in the Amazon is now used for raising cattle, with animal feed crops covering a large part of the remainder. There’s no example in earth’s history of old-growth and primary forestland being more quickly converted to human land use. In the southeastern Amazon, more than half the woodland savannah ecosystem of the Cerrado has already been converted to agriculture, mostly for the production of meat and animal feed.
Three countries away, in Costa Rica, roughly half the small nation’s tropical forest land is now being used for meat production. In Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere across the globe we’re losing rich, diverse ecosystems on account of our meat-heavy diets. We cannot afford to stand by and let that happen.
“The consumption of animal-sourced food products by humans is one of the most powerful negative forces affecting the conservation of terrestrial ecosystems and biological diversity,” reports a study published in journal Science of the Total Environment. That’s a lot of habitat loss for wild animals and native plant species, soil loss, water and nutrient pollution, and other negative effects.
Unless our diets change, things will get worse. Some countries, that same report found, may even require up to 50 percent increases in land used for meat production.
A change in our diets can have a substantial positive impact. It couldn’t be easier today to eat an eco-friendly diet based on plants. Plant-based products like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are making waves on fast food menus worldwide. We were an early investor in Beyond Meat and couldn’t be happier with their successes. KFC announced this week that it is testing “Beyond Fried Chicken.” One can find almond or oat milk at almost any café and grocery store. And of course, there’s a diverse array of nuts, grains, vegetables, and proteins like tofu, tempeh and plant-based meats that can be easily prepared at home.
At the HSUS and Humane Society International, we have long stood for the premise that individuals who do eat meat should consume animal proteins that come from traditional, small-scale family farms that practice better animal husbandry with higher welfare outcomes. The situation in the Amazon is a reminder that every one of us — no matter where we are on the food spectrum — should be able to agree that there is a strong case for eating less meat and more plants, and for ensuring that whatever meat (and other animal products) we eat comes from farms that provide their animals better lives than what’s provided inside factory farms.
Millions of Americans and countless individuals across the globe are adding more plant-based foods into their diets as a way to help curb environmental destruction (not to mention, spare animals from a sad and sordid life and death on a factory farm). Whether it’s one plant-based meal a day or simply eating much smaller portions of meat, every little bit helps. We’ll be healthier, animals will be happier, and the Amazon will be safer—for our generation and for future ones.