How Agriculture Fuels Deforestation

Forests, covering nearly a third of the Earth’s surface, are vital to the planet’s ecological balance and home to an immense variety of species. These lush expanses not only support biodiversity but also play a critical role in maintaining the global ecosystem. However, the relentless march of deforestation, driven predominantly by the agriculture industry, poses a severe threat to these natural sanctuaries. This article delves into the often-overlooked impact of agriculture on deforestation, exploring the extent of forest loss, the primary causes, and the dire consequences for our environment. From the vast tropical rainforests of the Amazon to the policies that can help mitigate this destruction, we examine how agricultural practices are reshaping our world and what can be done to halt this alarming trend.
Forests, covering‌ nearly a third of the Earth’s surface, are vital to the planet’s ​ecological balance and home to an immense variety‍ of species. These‌ lush expanses not only support biodiversity but also play a critical role in maintaining the global‍ ecosystem. However, the relentless⁢ march ⁢of deforestation, driven predominantly by the agriculture industry, poses ⁣a severe ‍threat to⁣ these natural ‌sanctuaries. This article delves‌ into the often-overlooked impact of ​agriculture on deforestation, exploring the extent of forest loss, ‍the primary causes, and the dire consequences ⁢for ⁢our environment. From the vast‍ tropical rainforests of the Amazon to‌ the policies that can help mitigate ⁢this destruction,⁣ we‌ examine how agricultural ‍practices are⁢ reshaping ​our world ‌and what can be done to ⁢halt this alarming trend.

How Agriculture Fuels Deforestation July 2024

Forests are some of the most biologically diverse, ecologically important places on Earth. Covering almost a third of the planet’s surface, forests are home to hundreds of thousands of species, and play several crucial roles in maintaining Earth’s ecosystem. Unfortunately, forests are also being systematically destroyed by the agriculture industry, and this rampant deforestation imperils the lives of plants, animals and humans alike.

What Is Deforestation?

Deforestation is the intentional, permanent razing of forested land. People, governments and corporations deforest for a number of reasons; generally, it’s either to repurpose the land for other uses, such as agricultural development or housing, or to extract lumber and other resources.

Humans have been clearing forests for thousands of years, but the rate of deforestation has skyrocketed in recent centuries: the amount of forested land that’s been lost in the last century is equal to the amount that was lost between 8,000 BC and 1900, and in the last 300 years, 1.5 billion hectares of forest have been destroyed — an area bigger than the entire United States.

A similar concept to deforestation is forest degradation. This also refers to the clearing of trees from forested land; the difference is that when a forest is degraded, some of the trees are left standing, and the land itself is not repurposed for any other use. Degraded forests often regrow over time, while deforested land does not.

How Common Is Deforestation?

Though rates have oscillated over time, the United Nations reports that humans destroy around 10 million hectares of forest, or 15.3 billion trees, every year. Since the end of the last Ice Age roughly 10,000 years ago, around one-third of all previously-forested land on the planet has been deforested.

Where Is Deforestation Most Common?

Historically, temperate forests in the Northern hemisphere were subject to more deforestation than their tropical counterparts; however, that trend reversed itself sometime in the early 20th century, and for the last hundred years or so, the majority of deforested land has been tropical, not temperate.

As of 2019, around 95 percent of deforestation occurs in the tropics, and a third of it happens in Brazil. Another 19 percent of deforestation takes place in Indonesia, which means that collectively, Brazil and Indonesia are responsible for the majority of deforestation in the world. Other significant contributors include countries in the Americas other than Mexico and Brazil, which collectively account for around 20 percent of global deforestation, and the continent of Africa, which accounts for 17 percent.

What Are the Causes of Deforestation?

Forested land is sometimes cleared by loggers, or to make way for urban expansion or energy projects. However, agriculture is the biggest driver of deforestation by leaps and bounds. The tally isn’t even close: Almost 99 percent of all land that’s been deforested over the last 10,000 years has been converted to agriculture. Nowadays, farmland expansion is responsible for “only” 88 percent of deforestation around the world.

What Role Does Animal Agriculture Play in Deforestation?

A huge one. The majority of deforested land is used for animal agriculture, either directly or indirectly, and the beef industry is the single biggest driver of deforestation.

Agricultural land is generally used for one of two purposes: crop-growing or livestock grazing. Out of all the land that was deforested and converted to agriculture between 2010 and 2018, about 49 percent was used for crops and about 38 percent was used for livestock.

But if we’re asking how big of a role animal agriculture plays in deforestation, the above breakdown is a bit misleading. While it’s true that most deforested agricultural land is used for crops, not livestock grazing, a lot of those crops are grown solely to feed livestock that’s grazing on other deforested land. If we include those crops in our count, then the share of deforested land that’s used for animal agriculture shoots up to 77 percent.

The beef industry in particular is an especially big driver of deforestation. Cattle farming accounts for 80 percent of all deforested land across the Amazon, and 41 percent of all tropical deforestation worldwide.

Why Is Deforestation Bad?

Deforestation has a number of terrible consequences. Here are a few.

Increased Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Rainforests — specifically the trees, plants and soil in them — trap enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the air. That’s good, as CO2 is one of the biggest drivers of global warming. But when these forests are cleared, nearly all of that CO2 is released back into the atmosphere.

The Amazon rainforest is a good, if depressing, illustration of this. It’s traditionally been one of the world’s biggest “carbon sinks,” meaning that it traps more CO2 than it releases. But rampant deforestation has pushed it to the brink of becoming a carbon emitter instead; 17 percent of the Amazon has already been deforested, and scientists predict that if deforestation reaches 20 percent, the rainforest will become a net emitter of carbon instead.

Loss of Biodiversity

Forests are some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on Earth. The Amazon rainforest alone is home to over 3 million species, including 427 mammals, 378 reptiles, 400 amphibians and 1,300 tree species. Fifteen percent of all bird and butterfly species on Earth live in the Amazon, and over a dozen animals in the Amazon, such as the pink river dolphin and the San Martin titi monkey, don’t live anywhere else.

Needless to say, when rainforests are destroyed, so are these animals’ homes. Every single day approximately 135 species of plants, animals and insects are lost due to deforestation. A 2021 study found that over 10,000 plant and animal species in the Amazon face extinction due to deforestation, including the harpy eagle, the Sumatran orangutan and around 2,800 other animals.

The mass loss of plant and animal life is bad enough by itself, but this loss of biodiversity poses a risk to humans as well. Earth is a complex, deeply intertwined ecosystem, and our access to clean food, water and air is dependent on this ecosystem maintaining a degree of equilibrium. Mass die-offs as a result of deforestation threaten that equilibrium.

Disruption of Water Cycles

The hydrological cycle, also known as the water cycle, is the process by which water circulates between the planet and the atmosphere. Water on Earth evaporates, condenses in the sky to form clouds, and eventually rains or snows back to Earth.

Trees are integral to this cycle, as they absorb water from the soil and release it into the air via their leaves, a process known as transpiration. Deforestation disrupts this process by reducing the number of trees available to facilitate transpiration, and over time, this can lead to droughts.

Can Public Policies Be Implemented to Reduce Deforestation?

The most direct ways of fighting deforestation are to a) implement policies that legally forbid or restrict it and b) make sure that those laws are being enforced. That second part is important; it’s estimated that up to 90 percent of deforestation in Brazil has been carried out illegally, which drives home the importance of not only passing, but also enforcing, environmental protections.

What We Can Learn About Environmental Policy From Brazil

Thankfully, Brazil has seen a dramatic reduction in deforestation since 2019, when Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva assumed the presidency. We can look to Lula and Brazil for an example of what effective anti-deforestation policies look like.

Shortly after taking office, Lula tripled the budget of the country’s environmental enforcement agency. He increased surveillance in the Amazon to catch illegal deforesters, launched raids on illegal deforestation operations and seized cattle from illegally deforested land. In addition to these policies — all of which are essentially enforcement mechanisms — he brokered a pact between eight countries to reduce deforestation within their respective jurisdictions.

These policies worked. In the first six months of Lula’s presidency, deforestation fell by a third, and in 2023, it hit a nine-year low.

How to Help Fight Deforestation

Because animal agriculture is the single biggest driver of deforestation, research suggests the best way for individuals to reduce their contributions to deforestation is to eat fewer animal products, especially beef, as the beef industry is responsible for a disproportionate share of deforestation.

One powerful way to help reverse the effects of deforestation is through what’s called rewilding, which means allowing land to return to what it looked like before cultivation, including plants and wild animal life. One study found rewilding 30 percent of the planet’s land would absorb half of all CO2 emissions.

The Bottom Line

The recent progress in Brazil notwithstanding, deforestation is still a serious threat. But it’s still possible to halt deforestation and reverse the trends of the last 100 years. Every person who stops eating beef, plants a tree or votes for representatives whose policies support the environment is helping to do their part. If we act now, there’s still hope for a future filled with healthy, strong forests brimming with life and abundance.

Notice: This content was initially published on and may not necessarily reflect the views of the Humane Foundation.

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