The Deforestation Process

Deforestation is too often reduced to what’s most conspicuous. But deforestation is complex and a lot more than raising beef cattle or growing soybeans.

To begin with, despite all the biodiversity especially of plant life, rain forest soil isn’t very fertile. Rain forest soils are actually oxalic. Oxalic soils are acidic. Acidic soils are full of iron, bauxite and other minerals.  So not only are trees in the forest chopped down for their precious hardwood, the soils these trees grow in are mined for minerals including bauxite (aluminum), zinc, copper, manganese, gold and iron.

Do you know where the aluminum in your water bottle came from?

What’s one of most electricity intensive things to do? Convert bauxite into aluminum. It’s an electrostatic process to remove oxygen from the alumina (Al2O3) to make aluminum and aluminum alloys. This electricity is also one of the largest costs of producing aluminum. So that’s why hydroelectricity is often used to reduce the costs of refining bauxite to alumina to aluminum. And this is why huge dams have been built in rain forest regions where a lot of bauxite is located. Per a recent article in the NY Times by Dr. Philip Fearnside, over 158 dams have been built or in the process of being built in the Amazon region. To build all those dams, a lot of roads were (and more are) required to bring in people with CO2 emitting concrete. All those roads also made and make it easier to access different portions of the forest for land grabbers to grab land, find minerals to mine and chop down precious hardwood….plus then get that hardwood to mills and ports to export to the US and other countries. As noted in Amazon Besieged, 80% of all deforestation has happened and happens within 30 miles of roadways.

So all the land is grabbed and deforested BEFORE the titles are fraudulently cleared. Then the already deforested land is sold for 100 to 200 times profit to ranchers for beef cattle. Deforested land is worth a lot more than land with trees on it. With the reduction of federal agencies to enforce laws, land is being grabbed with impunity. This is especially true with Bolsonaro in charge, but this was also happening in prior administrations. Regardless, ranchers then burn all the twigs, clear stumps and apply lime to raise the pH and apply phosphate to grow grasses for forages for their cattle. The land can’t be converted to soya for two years due to the soya moratorium implemented in 2006. All the large soya growers and buyers comply with this moratorium. Though after two years, the land is no longer considered newly clearly land. So, then the flat areas of this cleared land are planted into soya. Soya is a lot more profitable than beef cattle.

As I noted in a prior blog post  Soy 101, most of the soya is exported to China. About 30% remains in Brazil. Soya has two main products, meal and oil. The oil is 20% of the volume of the crop but 40% of the value of the crop since the oil is worth more than twice the meal. The oil is used for exclusively human uses mainly for cooking, processed foods, industrial solvents, and biofuel. The meal is fed to chickens, pigs, pets, humans and dairy pretty much in that order. Brazil has a HUGE chicken industry, Chicken meal from this huge industry also ends up in pet food (along with the soybean meal). Beef cattle eat mainly the husks in pellet form. Beef cattle eat very little meal. So beef cattle consume less than 2% of the soya crop, and a portion of the crop that’s a by-product of meal and oil production. Or, in other words, beef cattle don’t eat much soy.

Thus, with deforestation in Brazil, soya is the end game in a long process that includes dam building for bauxite refinement, roads, land grabbing, timber extraction, cattle ranching until the soya moratorium expires (in two years), and…then soya. After about two to three years of agrochemical intensive farming (with lots of pesticides), the soil gets depleted of what little nutrients it had or were added. This land is then abandoned. There’s a lot of abandoned land. It cost less, and is more lucrative, to just grab more land than try to rehabilitate any of the abandoned land. So, as more roads are built deeper and deeper into the Amazon, more land is grabbed, mined and or cleared of timber before being flipped to ranchers and then flipped again to soya or other crops. The whole grab, clear, mine, burn, ranch, farm and abandon process repeats itself deeper and deeper into the Amazon. In this Q & A with Sue Branford, I go into this process with Sue in some of the questions I posed to her. If you don’t know who Sue Branford is, please click the hyperlink to find out.

Though some of the dynamics do change as global markets provide different opportunities. For example, since the soybean oil is worth more than twice the soybean meal, more palm fruit plantations are now being planted in the Amazon. Why? Palm fruit produces five times the oil yield of soybeans on the same amount of land. Plus there’s no two year moratorium. So grabbed land can go straight into palm trees after all the exotic hardwood trees have been removed and sold into global markets (timber is”laundered”). Thus cattle aren’t the place holders any more. Cattle isn’t anywhere near as lucrative as soya or palm fruit. So this is more similar to deforestation in Malaysia and Indochina, where beef cattle aren’t a significant driver in deforestation. Mongabay Bay discusses some the dynamics with palm oil production n the Amazon in this recent article: Déjà vu as palm oil industry brings deforestation, pollution to Amazon  

Global markets and investments drive deforestation. So some of the bigger underlying issues, the drivers behind the drivers of deforestation, in the Amazonian revolve around land grabbing, corruption, non-enforcement of laws, reduction in power and scope of regulatory agencies, commodity markets, and maximizing short term gains from land. Preservation isn’t a concern. The sovereignty of indigenous people is routinely ignored. So whether it’s bauxite, gold, timber, beef, soya, cotton, sugar cane, palm fruit, or whatever, there will still be deforestation as long as there’s an economic incentive to do so. Agroforestry isn’t as lucrative. Much of the attitude in Brazil isn’t dissimilar from what existed in the United States during the 1800’s with Manifest Destiny where land was taken (or swindled) from First Nation people for westward expansion, exploitation and development. So, somewhat justifiably, there are people in Brazil who point to the hypocrisy of people in developed nations. Not to mention, many of the corporations extracting resources from the Amazon are multi-national corporations like Alcoa (aluminum), Cargill (soya), Wilmar International (palm oil), JBS (beef) and Wallmart (retailer)

So, in other words, the dynamics aren’t as simple as just pointing a finger solely at animal agricultural or more specifically at beef cattle and soybeans. Though that’s not to claim that neither are a problem. Both obviously are. They’re part of the process. And neither beef, or soya production should be done in this rain forest ecosystem.

But it is also worth noting, only approximately 7% to 8% of beef cattle production is done in rain forest ecosystems. The way deforestation and beef cattle is discussed, you’d get the wrong impression that most beef cattle is raised in rain forest ecosystems. It’s not. Most beef cattle production occurs in grassland ecosystems where it should be done. Preservation and restoration of grasslands are a large issue as noted in this Union of Concerned Scientists article: Why the Loss of Grasslands Is a Troubling Trend for Agriculture. So groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace should be working together with US ranchers, including organizations like OCM and the AGA, on real and meaningful COOL (country of origin labeling laws) to further limit and disincentivize the importation of any beef from countries deforesting land for any beef production.

These groups should also be working together to preserve and regenerate grassland ecosystems in the US and across the globe. There are over five billion hectares of grasslands on this planet. All could be used to sequester carbon. Unfortunately, though environmental groups and conservation minded ranchers are often antagonistic to one another. This is unfortunate because these different entities could find common ground and work together to establish best practices in the appropriate ecosystems for all foods produced whether that’s beef from well managed grasslands (and integrated systems), meats and specialty crops from silvopastures, and nuts, acai, palm fruit, etc from diverse agroforestry systems where cleared, slashed, burned and depleted rain forest has been abandoned.

Though getting back to beef cattle, most beef consumed in the US is domestically raised where beef cattle inventories on cow-calf and stocker operations help to preserve and restore grassland ecosystems. Contrary to prevalent mistaken beliefs, even with feedlot finishing in the US, most (85%) beef cattle inventory in the US is on grass on cow-calf and stocker operations. Most imported beef currently come from Mexico, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Since the US exports a lot of beef, there’s not too much reason to import beef from anywhere else, especially Brazil. Only recently has beef from Brazil been allowed to be imported into the US again. Imports were restricted primarily due to concerns over hoof and mouth disease. However prior and current laws allow any beef from beef cattle raised in another country to be labeled as a product of the United States if that beef is processed here in the US. This relabeling chicanery has to stop. Existing anti-trust laws also need to be enforced so large multi-national meat packing corporations don’t control the marketplace particularly with processing and distribution.

Furthermore other countries importing beef from Brazil should require more thorough record keeping from Brazilian based multi-national corporations as to how and where beef cattle is being produced in Brazil. Why? Because right now those Brazilian multi-national meat-packers- like JBS and Marfrig- only track the cattle at the end from feedlots even though prior steps in the chain (cow-calf and stocker operations) occurred on deforested land. So like with everything else in Brazil, there’s a lot of fraud and corruption. Here’s another recent article from Mongabay Bay detailing this fraudulent tracking of Brazilian beef:  World’s biggest meatpacker JBS bought illegally grazed Amazon cattle: Report

Finally, with better grazing management, grasslands in Brazil (and elsewhere) can significantly increase their carrying capacities (more cattle on the same amount of land) sufficiently to reduce the need for any further deforestation of land to increase herd sizes. Brazil has huge expanses of grasslands below the Amazon region. This is even more apparent when you look at a map that accurately reflects the size of continents in the Southern hemisphere (see map below). These grassland regions were where most cattle production traditionally was done in Brazil and Argentina. But a lot of these grasslands have been converted to crop land causing displacement of beef cattle production further north into the Amazon. Moreover none of the other regions of Brazil have a soya moratorium including the Cerrado. So a lot of land that’s suitable for grazing is planted in monocrops of soya, sugarcane, etc. So poor land utilization has also been a factor in deforestation… has the expansion of biofuel and ethanol use. In Brazil, soybean oil is used for biofuel and sugarcane is used to produce ethanol.

So, again, there are many drivers causing deforestation, and drivers behind drivers. Thus any belief that if people just stopped eating meat, deforestation would magically stop… just very naive and wishful thinking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s