The planet’s vital ecosystems of forests and soil are being trashed by the meat and dairy industries without a second thought
It is hard to imagine anywhere more awe-inspiring than rainforests. They are worlds in perfect balance and harmony.
Every leaf, twig, branch or tree that falls; every animal or insect that dies; every fruit, seed or prey that is eaten; every squirt of urine or dollop of excreta eventually finishes up on the forest floor. Here it decays and crumbles to join the existing litter where any nutrients it contains are reabsorbed by trees and shrubs to spur new growth or are the lifeblood of a myriad of insects.
So perfect is this natural recycling that the top soil on the forest floor is remarkably lacking in depth – there is no need for it.
It is impossible to quantify how many different plants and animals inhabit these places but they are so lush and productive that they provide a home for 60 per cent of the world’s different species – its biodiversity.
Every layer of the forest – the floor, the large shrubs and smaller trees and the towering canopy, provide a different habitat for different species whose interdependency has evolved over millions of years.
And what is humankind doing with these wondrous places? Destroying them at an unimaginable pace for animal farming and the short-term, economic advantage of a handful of landowners and multinational corporations.
The large trees are logged, the scrub and shrubs burned and the thin forest soil sown with grass on which hamburger cattle are turned out to graze. When their hooves destroy the soil’s structure, more trees are chopped down and they are moved elsewhere. The soil is saturated with fertilisers and pesticides to grow fodder – soya in particular – for the world’s other farmed animals.
Eventually that too fails and the land becomes barren and lifeless. Gone are the jaguars and the panthers, the howler monkeys and the sloths, the birds of paradise and the flamboyant macaws. Gone is almost everything.
Just one hamburger can result in the eradication of one large tree, 50 saplings, seeds from 20 or 30 different species and hundreds of species of insects, mosses, fungi and micro-organisms. The outcome is that species are disappearing 100 to 1000 times faster than they should, judging by fossil records. One-third of all amphibians, a fifth of mammals and one in eight birds are now facing extinction.
Deforestation is another of humankind’s bequests and the outcome will not be to our benefit. Valuable sources of sustainable timber, food, clothing and potential medicines are being eliminated and the essential processes of recycling nutrients, pollination, seed dispersal, climate control and purification of air and water are being trashed without a second thought.
Loss of forests and loss of biodiversity are one and the same thing. The primary cause is cattle ranching and growing soya for fodder and the scale is breathtaking. During the 1980s, an area 40 times the size of Belgium was torn down each year (15 million hectares). By 2005 it had slowed to half that figure – a mere 20 Belgiums! In the year to 2004, Brazil can claim one Belgium of cleared Amazon forest all to itself and it’s still chopping. As elsewhere, all its cleared rainforest is used for one purpose – farmed animals. Seventy per cent is grazed and the other 30 per cent grows soya fodder. Europe imports 18 million tons of the stuff every year and so every chicken nugget, burger, bacon rasher or turkey twizzler can claim a direct hand in rainforest destruction.
But it isn’t just ex-rainforest land that is inexorably turning to desert. Topsoil across the world is under attack from hard hooves and over grazing and is degrading or disappearing. The denaturing continues on arable land, too, with the use of excessive pesticides and fertilisers in an attempt to artificially boost the productivity of fodder crops.
Forty per cent of all agricultural land has been degraded in the last century but in some regions the situation is even more dire. In the drier regions – the arid and semi arid lands which girdle one third of the world – the figure is as high as 73 per cent. In other words – one third of the world’s land surface is remorselessly turning to desert.
There are so many reasons to change your diet but this is one of the biggest.
Read more about loss of Biodiversity here.