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Dismantling the world's greatest rainforest

News Section Icon Published 31/03/2015

International Day of Forests and World Water Day got us thinking about the world’s largest rainforest and river: the Amazon, which is under fire. Factory farming isn’t helping, driving deforestation to grow feed. Here’s the problem in a nutshell.

Evidence of deforestation in Brazil

The “Lungs of the World”

The sprawling Amazon, which occupies parts of nine South American countries, is the largest rainforest in the world. This amorphous green carpet measures a staggering 5.5 million square kilometres and, thanks to its hundreds of billions of trees, has the well-founded nickname the “Lungs of the World”.

Unsurprisingly, this great forest is home to a dizzying array of plant and animal species. In fact, it protects the largest collection of wildlife on earth, comprising around 10 percent of all known wildlife species. Its enormous, meandering river is the very lifeblood of the region, carrying the biggest volume of water of any river in the world.

A jaguar - just one of the Amazon's amazing species

Beyond value

The value of the Amazon, with its unparalleled biodiversity, is incalculable. Not only is there an intrinsic value in the existence of its many plants and animals, but this pristine ecosystem performs other functions that are vital for our health and our planet, from the medicinal qualities of its plants to its ability to regulate our climate.

It’s this latter role that’s arguably the most important of all. Like the oceans, the Amazon absorbs carbon dioxide in vast quantities. Until now, its trees are estimated to have taken in about 2 million tonnes of the gas every year (a quarter of our annual carbon emissions), which has been fundamental in helping to curb climate change.

A forest in peril

But the Amazon is being destroyed, and it’s having the most disastrous knock-on effect. Whether it’s the spiralling rate of deforestation across the region, which releases carbon into the atmosphere in colossal quantities, or the shorter lifespan of its trees as they take in a surplus of carbon emissions, the forest’s ability to absorb this gas is on the wane, leaving the entire planet at the mercy of a warming climate.

Factory farming fuelling the problem

So what part is factory farming playing in this planet-wide catastrophe? Here are just a few challenges:

  • Society’s taste for “cheap” meat is driving the demand for soy, which is used as feed for factory-farmed livestock all over the world. The “Big Soy” industry, as it’s known, fells large tracts of forest across South America every year to create space for crops, including in the Amazon.
  • On top of this, the increase of single-crop farming, particularly of soy (for feed in factory farms), has had the effect of pushing cattle herds further and further into forests, thus accelerating the deforestation process.
  • And finally, there is a growing industry for feedlot beef, which crams animals into barren, grassless, crowded pens, and creates problems for surrounding landscapes. As the United States Environmental Protection Agency says, this way of farming "…can pose a number of risks to water quality and public health, mainly because of the amount of animal manure and wastewater they generate."

Hope for the future

There’s no denying that if we allow the continuing destruction of the Amazon, not least from runaway agricultural expansion, the results will be calamitous. But this wanton destruction can be halted, if people everywhere come together to make a stand.

One of the best protests anyone can make against the ruin of one of our planet’s greatest natural assets is to stop eating “cheap”, factory-farmed produce and buy better-quality, higher-welfare meat instead. Couple this with a long-term flexitarian diet – in other words, eating more veg and less meat – and you’ll be doing your bit to help save the Amazon.

Find out more about upgrading your food choices and download an exclusive Compassionate Food Guide.

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