A Burning Desire for Beef: Amazon Wildfires and the Brazilian Cattle Industry

As fires continue to burn in the Amazon Rainforest, celebrities express concern and top government officials pledge financial support. The Amazon has an utmost importance to the planet; it’s earth’s largest rainforest and home to a fifth of the world’s plants and birds. Environmentalists worry that the fires will lead to further species extinction and will contribute to climate change. As trees burn, they release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere (a scientifically proven fact that Scott Pruitt and his EPA attempted to deny).

Yet, for many who are local to the Amazon region, the fires are a necessity for their livelihoods. The cattle industry is a massive employer for the country, generating 360,000 jobs. Brazil is the number one exporter of beef worldwide. In 2018, the Brazilian Beef Exporters Association reported 1.64 million tons of beef exported from the country — the largest volume ever shipped by an exporting country, accounting for 20% of total global beef exports that year.

The beef industry accounts for 80% of deforestation in the Amazon. Currently, 12% of land in the Amazon — a 93-million-acre swath the size of Montana — is dedicated to cattle farming. In order to have space to farm cattle, land must be cleared for grazing through “slash and burn agriculture,” a centuries-old practice that razes forested land by cutting down and burning existing vegetation, making way for pastureland.

Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, prioritizes economic development over environmental protections, with many of his supporters arguing that fire and deforestation “are essential to keep small farmers and large ranches that export beef and soy to the world in business.” Since assuming office at the beginning of 2019, Bolsonaro has relaxed enforcement of environmental laws, giving the agricultural sector room to grow — a pledge he made on the campaign trail that helped him win the presidency with 52 percent of the vote.

While it is evident that President Bolsonaro’s loosened environmental protections contributed to the rampant fires in the Amazon region, the world’s reliance on beef has also played a significant role.

Though the United States has significantly decreased its Brazilian beef imports in recent years due to “public health concerns, sanitary conditions, and animal health,” Donald Trump, known for his administration’s rollbacks on environmental protections and blatant ignorance toward science, jointly announced with President Bolsonaro in March 2019 that the USDA would be “expeditiously” conducting an audit on Brazil’s beef inspection system. If the audit comes back clean and the U.S. subsequently increases imports of Brazilian beef, Americans’ high meat consumption would further threaten the Amazon rainforest.

As we continue lamenting the burning Amazon, it’s important to keep in mind the role that the United States and other high-consumption countries play in the global food economy. It’s also important to examine the role that we, as individuals, play in climate change and wildlife species loss. In order to protect biodiversity and slow climate change, we must commit ourselves to the lifestyle changes which make that possible.

Here are a few suggestions for making small changes in your life that can have a positive impact around the world:

  • While it may be unrealistic to go from having a steak a few times a week to eating a vegan diet, making a concerted effort to cut down on meat consumption goes a long way!
  • If you choose to continue having meat in your diet, make sure that you are eating responsibly-produced meat. Look for terms like “pasture raised” and “grass-fed” on packaging. If possible, shop at your local butcher or market.
  • Lawmakers can have a huge impact on environmental regulations and global trade. Vote for candidates who have a proven interest in fighting climate change.

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