Agriculture is one of the largest drivers of deforestation and is causing a devastating impact on the animals and plants which depend on forests to survive. Large farms provide little habitat for wildlife and cause fragmentation which isolates animal populations.
Increasing demands worldwide are resulting in more farmers cutting down forests to provide larger areas to graze cattle, develop plantations and expand agricultural land. Poorly implemented environmental regulations, cheap land and labour, the intimidation of local communities and government incentives are all creating an increasing supply of agricultural goods.
Contributions to deforestation caused by agriculture vary by region but the most significant drivers include soy, palm oil, biofuels and cattle ranching.
Originally native to East Asia, soy beans are now most largely produced in the USA, Brazil and Argentina which comprise of 80% of all global soy production between them. It’s predominantly farmed as feed for poultry and livestock which equates to 67% of all global soy consumption. Demand for soy continues to rise as cattle ranching continues to grow, putting tropical rainforests at further risk of deforestation.
Strong expansion of soy has also facilitated inhumane labour conditions. Worker abuse is particularly prevalent in the Amazon where villagers are lured from their homes to work at soy estates. They are often forced to work long and difficult shifts, sometimes at gunpoint and if they fall sick may be abandoned and replaced. Even children are forced to work under these conditions with no chance of escaping.
Increasing household incomes have increased purchases of meat for consumption. After forests are cleared for timber the ranching of cattle, Sheep, alpacas etc usually follows. In South America ranching has contributed heavily to deforestation. Between 1990 and 2003 record levels of deforestation were reached after cattle herds increased 140%. This wakeup call encouraged governments to enact restrictions reducing their deforestation rates. However, cattle ranching continues to be the greatest driver of deforestation in every Amazon country accounting for 80% of their deforestation rates.
As previously mentioned, livestock are primarily fed on a diet of soybean, but they also have a habit of over spilling onto protected forested land. These both increase the impact of cattle on deforestation even further. In addition to this, other environmental issues also arise. Long term grazing contributes to soil erosion and can degrade land to the point that it doesn’t regenerate plant life. Plus the methane that cattle produce is a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
Palm oil is harvested from oil palms and used in cosmetics, food and biofuels. These plantations cover over 27 million hectares across Central and Western Africa, Central and South America and Southeast Asia and global production continues to increase by 9% every year. Palm oil is the primary driver of forest conversion in Southeast Asia with Indonesia and Malaysia supplying more than 85% of all exports globally. In these countries huge areas of tropical rainforests have been cleared to make room for palm oil plantations which has had a dramatic impact on their wildlife.
Palm oil plantations may look like plush green forests, but they don’t support biodiversity. Currently one third of all mammals in Indonesia are considered critically endangered as a direct consequence of palm oil development. Up to 5000 orangutans are killed every year during the deforestation process or after they enter villages and existing palm oil plantations searching for food. Thousands of species are affected by this situation but if it continues at the current rate orangutans could become extinct in wild within the next ten years and Sumatran Tigers in even fewer years.
The replacement of forests not only contributes to fragmentation and habitat loss but also to greenhouse gas emissions through the draining of peat soils and reduction of trees to absorb CO2. Additionally, fertilisers and pesticides can affect other habitats particularly when they are washed into natural waterways.
Sustainable palm oil is an approach which aims to prevent deforestation caused by palm oil plantations. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a not-for-profit organisation which formed in 2004 and is the largest sustainability organisation within this sector. However, only 20% of all Palm oil production is certified as sustainable by the RSPO which demonstrates a drastic need for further improvement and development within the sector. Globally, 70% of all palm oil is used by processed food industries and the biofuels market. Sustainable palm oil products are marked with an RSPO logo making it easy to identify those which are sustainable and those which are not.
Biofuels are a renewable alternative to fossil fuels in the form of ethanol produced from fermenting plants and biodiesel created from plant oils (particularly palm oil). Biodiesel is widely used in Europe which accounts for more than 80% of all biodiesel consumption worldwide. However, despite its potential as a clean renewable energy source it poses a great threat to forests which are cleared to create space to grow these plants. In addition to this most biofuels aren’t considered to be ‘green’.
While burning biofuels releases considerably less CO2 than non-renewable fuel sources, gasses released from clearing and cultivating land for biofuel plantations are immense. This makes it difficult to calculate if biofuels are much cleaner for the environment than previous methods.
Slash and Burn Farming
Slash and burn farming is one of the most destructive behaviours that humans practice. After removing any valuable timber most forms of forest conversion rely on slash and burn practices. It’s an easy way to clear large areas of land without interference from authorities. Additionally, burning releases nutrients locked within the trees to produce nutrient rich soil for agriculture, supporting vigorous growth for a few years after.
However, slash and burn farming leads to a dramatic loss of habitat, increases accidental fires and air pollution, contributes to global climate change and soil erosion. Clear cutting forests and fires facilitate greater access for hunters to kill or take animals from their remaining habitats for food, trophies and the pet trade. It is also only a short-term solution to creating large yields. After the first few years of strong growth the nutrients released from burning the forest are used up requiring large amounts of fertiliser to be used instead. This then threatens marine life as fertilizers often wash into streams, lakes, rivers and oceans. When it is no longer efficient to continue, the land is abandoned, and a new area of forest is targeted.