The world’s lungs are on fire. The Amazon ablaze dominates front pages. Inaction from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is centre stage at this weekend’s G7 in Biarritz. Heart-breaking videos of indigenous peoples running from their homes and of animals fleeing for their lives have spread over social media.
According to Brazil’s Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, 74,155 fires have been spotted in 2019 so far – an 84 per cent increase from the same period last year. Around one million indigenous people from up to 500 tribes are at risk.
Blame for the increase has been laid at the feet of Bolsonaro, with his support for the clearing of the rainforest by cattle ranchers and logging concerns. Stories are emerging of ranchers organising “fire days” to clear land for cattle pasture.
In the UK we look on, desperate to know what we can do. Our anger is directed at the Brazilian government, its support for the cattle ranchers coming above the rights of indigenous peoples and protection of the planet. That’s why today activists from Extinction Rebellion and its sister movement Animal Rebellion have joined indigenous groups outside the Brazilian Embassy in London to make their protests heard.
If it is the Brazilian beef industry causing this devastation, is there another way we can protest? If we stop eating beef, will it make a difference?
Brazil is home to around 200 million cows, and is the largest exporter in the world, supplying one quarter of the global beef market. Cattle ranching and soy cultivation are often linked as soy replaces cattle pasture in a yearly rotation, pushing farmers further into the Amazon.
Agriculture is the driver for around 80 per cent of deforestation worldwide. In the Amazon, around 450,000 square kilometres of deforested land in Brazil is now cattle pasture. That’s almost a quarter of the rainforest, which produces 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen supply. Comparing today’s rainforest to World Bank data from 1970, over 90 per cent of the cleared land in the Amazon region has been converted to cattle ranching.
So if we want to send the message that we won’t let deforestation in the Amazon continue, the answer to the question – should we boycott beef? – is yes. But sadly it’s not straightforward for consumers to make those decisions.
According to the British Meat Industry, the UK currently imports around 35 per cent of the beef and veal it consumes. Beef makes up nearly half of all meat imports to the UK. While the main supply comes from Ireland, over the last few years improvements in preservation and transportation methods have seen a rise in products from Brazil.
This year Brazilian beef became a weapon as the UK government threatened Ireland in Brexit negotiations. The minister in charge of no-deal planning, Michael Gove, suggested he would consider introducing non-tariff quotas on Brazilian beef if the Irish did not “drop the backstop”.
But it’s not just the British who are considering increasing Brazilian beef imports. The proposed EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement also poses the threat of an influx. As part of this agreement the EU will receive lower tariffs on its exports to South America, notably cars and wine; and in return, Brazil and other South American countries will increase their exports to Europe, with a new 99,000-tonne quota for beef and a new low 7.5 per cent tariff.
And a recent investigation proved that meat farmed on illegal pasture in the Amazon had made its way into tinned meat such as corned beef found on the shelves of five major British supermarkets.
Do veggies and vegans share the blame? With the increase in demand for soy milk, shouldn’t they also make changes in their diet? Yes, probably – although the vast majority of soy crop globally, over 70 per cent, is still fed directly to livestock.
In the UK, it’s British pork eaters who need to take note as much as vegans; a third of all soy imported into the UK is used to feed livestock, mainly pigs.
Soy is also used to feed British cows – especially dairy. So if you’re eating beef, pork, or drinking milk, it’s likely to be linked to those flames on your screens.
All in all, this a complicated situation for British consumers. One simple answer, being demanded by Animal Rebellion, is for the UK government to lead the transition to a plant-based food system, with investment in the UK’s arable crop production, environmental stewardship, and rewilding.
This will stop the food miles involved in importing Brazilian beef from deforested land, while increasing the UK’s food sovereignty in an uncertain future threatened by climate breakdown.
In the meantime it’s best to cut the Amazon out of your diet completely, and there are plenty of healthy, and ecologically sound, alternatives to choose from.
Look again at those videos of indigenous peoples running from their homes and the Amazon’s wild animals running for their lives. Is the meat on your plate worth it?
Alex Lockwood is a freelance journalist and campaigner for Animal Rebellion. Animal Rebellion is an organisation that uses methods of non-violent civil disobedience to end the animal agriculture and fishing industries
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