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Northwest VEG is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Portland, OR that works to educate and encourage people to make vegan choices for a healthy, sustainable, and compassionate world.
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What is Happening to the Rainforests?

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April 29, 2009

By Hannah Zellmer, NW VEG Intern

Thirty percent of the earth's surface is land; the other 70 percent is water. At one time, 14 percent of the land surface was rainforest; today it covers just six percent. Some estimates predict that the remaining rainforest will disappear within 40 years.

The causes of this massive ecological change are fairly well established, but what some people do not understand is that they themselves are contributing directly to a looming catastrophe through their food choices.

Forty to 50 percent of all the earth's species live in the rainforest, and it is estimated that 20 percent of the world's oxygen is produced in the Amazon alone. These forests are being destroyed daily at incredible rates and extreme costs to the environment. The 2005 Global Forest Resources Assessment Report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization showed that Brazil led the world in terms of clearing the greatest area of forest, 104 million acres, an area the size of California, during the period from 1990 to 2005.

People, animals and vegetation are all endangered by this ongoing destruction. As the trees are felled, indigenous people and native species of animals lose their land. As the canopy comes down, climate change is brought on due to lower moisture capacity. This negatively affects the growth of crops, and greenhouse gases are increased.

The causes of deforestation vary. The ones in which humans have a hand include the following:

  • logging for hardwood, charcoal, and paper products
  • cattle ranching
  • agriculture, both subsistence and commercial
  • highway construction and other infrastructure projects
Determining which of these does the most damage is tricky business. Many of the causes are interlinked and some only occur after others have "paved the way." For example, loggers selectively log or clear-cut vast areas of the forest, which degrades the immediate and surrounding areas. Much of this land though ends up being used for cattle ranching by farmers who slash and burn the surrounding areas. A major report released in April 2009 shows that over 80 percent of the land cleared in the Amazon region of Brazil is now being used for raising cattle. Brazil is the leading exporters of beef, producing more than 30 percent of the beef exported around the world.

When you add to that the fact that cattle account for 18 percent of earth's greenhouse gases, cattle ranching begins to look like it might take the prize for most damaging. Other components of livestock operations tied to deforestation are erosion, leaching, oxidation, decomposition, and the rooting of highly tolerant and toxic weeds.

Closely connected to cattle ranching is another industry—soybean production. One of the major uses of soy is as cattle feed around the world. This is a huge industry. For example, Brazil is the second-largest soy producer in the world behind the U.S., and most of this soy is grown on land that was once covered by rainforest. The connection between deforestation and beef quickly begins to solidify. Being conscious of what you eat, and where it came from, may be the best thing you can do on behalf of the environment and the welfare of animals.

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