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Eating the Amazon

NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview – Public Domain

Catastrophic fires have been burning all over the world, not just in Amazonia, but also in Siberia, Indonesia, and the Congo basin. These fires are ecological weapons of mass destruction and displacement resulting in habitat destruction and extermination of other species, violent land grabs from Indigenous peoples, murder of forest protectors, and climate refugees. Most of the disastrous fires in the Amazon are the result of clearing forests for cattle pasture or for crops to feed the cattle. In response to the intentional conflagrations in the Amazon, the actor Leonardo DiCaprio was chided recently for daring to suggest a way to significantly deal with the destruction: People can simply stop eating cattle.

The knee-jerk reaction to his common-sense statement makes clear that, though its harmful impacts are obvious, Big Meat is the great untouchable in America. One writer even accused DiCaprio of “blaming cows”. Cattle, however, are neither starting the fires nor voluntarily throwing themselves on the butchers’ blocks. Nor are the fires being set because people love cattle so much and want to provide them with habitat. No, the burning and looting are done to cater to those who eat the cattle. Mr. DiCaprio is not blaming cows.

He simply recognizes that much of the burning, land theft, and ecosystem destruction in Amazonia would not be happening if cows were not being eaten. Some defend this situation with a variation of the statement I saw in Georgia years ago: “Trees is jobs.” Well, so is cancer, and so was zyklon B. What he suggests is not the be all and end all, but it does buy us some time, and land and biodiversity, until we come to our senses (or not) and confront endless population growth and the paradigm of endless economic expansion on a finite planet; bringing an end to what Ed Abbey referred to as the ideology of the cancer cell.

Americans in particular, and humans in general, are not so exceptional that laws of thermodynamics do not apply to us. When plants are cycled through animals and then the animals eaten, only a tiny portion of the original plant-based calories are available. In addition, annexation of land to provide for feeding human populations means there is less habitat available for other species, an ecological process/principle called competitive exclusion that is now a global human phenomenon. This habitat loss is the most significant driver threatening a million species with extinction, with agricultural expansion being the most widespread form of land-use change. For example, the 2019 IPBES report estimated that cattle ranching caused the loss of 100 million acres of tropical forest in Latin America just from 1980 to 2000. A diet switch away from cattle and other animals also greatly reduces our health care costs and carbon footprint.

Globally, almost 80% of all agricultural land is dedicated to grazing or croplands for livestock feed, making it the largest user of land resources. In the US, around 75% of the grains and soybeans grown are fed to livestock. However, when the corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops currently fed to livestock are directly consumed by people, only a fraction of the acreage currently devoted to livestock feed would be necessary. This would free-up hundreds of millions of acres of land previously used to feed billions of Chickens, Pigs, Cattle, and Turkeys, that can instead be replanted with hemp, orchards, tree plantations, or allowed to recover to native habitat, all of which would significantly reduce deforestation.

Hemp can be used for paper, cardboard, and building materials, as well as medicines, oils, and plastics. And it requires little or no pesticides or fertilizers. Some of these lands currently devoted to animal feedstocks can be reforested, that not only can provide habitat for wildlife and sequester carbon, but also offer a multitude of other desirable benefits, conditions, and resources, one of which is reducing or even eliminating the need to cut natural forests, especially leaving mature forests intact. From a climate standpoint, reducing deforestation and forest degradation, plus accomplishing reforestation, are every bit as important as reducing emissions (see August 2019 IPCC report).

Livestock production now contributes nearly 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, even more than the transportation sector. IATP estimated that just the 3 largest meat and dairy companies were responsible for greenhouse gas emissions greater than that of France, one of Europe’s largest emitters. And consider the astounding amounts of water used and fecal waste and pollution generated by animal agribusiness.

Does the mass production of dead flesh involve respect and compassion for all those individuals involuntarily providing that flesh? In the USA alone, over 10 BILLION Chickens, Turkeys, Pigs, and Cattle are slaughtered every year, to say nothing of the billions of fish and other “sea food”. Day in day out, 32.9 million per day, 1.37 million per hour, 22,830 per minute, 380/second. Mass consumption by hundreds of millions of people demands the horrific abuses inherent in a system of mass imprisonment and mass destruction and mass disassembly. These will not and cannot be regulated away.

Most of us don’t want to inflict cruelty upon animals, we simply don’t know the reality of the situation or block it from our minds. But mass consumption begets mass cruelty; and those supplying the consumption know it.  Why else do the laws prohibiting cruelty to animals specifically exclude farmed animals? Why else have so many ‘ag-gag’ laws been passed that insulate purveyors of industrial-scale abuse from scrutiny?  Out of sight, out of mind. Those who expose the atrocities on the factory ‘farms’ and slaughterhouses can now even be charged as “terrorists”. As John Whitehead observed, “When exposing a crime is made a crime, we are being ruled by criminals.” In a truly just and compassionate world, the atrocious cruelty and suffering meted out to food animals daily would be considered intolerable and criminal. Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Isaac Singer summed it up perfectly: For animals, every day is Treblinka.

In contrast, there are certainly some positive things that governments can do — such as stopping the tax breaks, trade deals, and subsidies to Big Meat, which includes grazing on public lands. And stiff sanctions can be applied to Brazil and others for aiding and abetting the burning of the Amazon and other forests. But don’t hold your breath waiting for any of this to happen. Without all the externalized costs and direct and indirect subsidies, such as for petrochemicals and massive amounts of water, it is estimated that a hamburger could cost $14 or more.

In this case, personal action is essential given the empirical evidence — namely, the past and ongoing failures of governments and business to adequately respond to wretched situations; for instance, look at their decades of delay in addressing apartheid or divestiture.  Yes, as Dr. Pahnke wrote, it is important to identify and pressure the multinational actors behind the ongoing Big Meat smokescreen, such as Cargill, JPS, Tyson, and BlackRock. But don’t expect the corporations and their government pawns to take the lead on this. Even for those meat corporations that are moving into plant-based protein, their immense size and inherent economic constraints make change extremely slow at best. As usual, they will have to be dragged along in our wake.

Feeding people while fighting climate change and mass extinction means a transition to food systems that hinge on small-scale producers, agro-ecology, edible plants, and local markets. In other words, redirecting public money and personal decisions away from meat and huge agribusiness towards small-scale agro-ecological farms and plant-based diets. Of course, in most places this is not the current trajectory. As Big Meat promoter US Secretary of Agriculture Perdue recently told small farmers in Wisconsin, “the big get bigger and the small go out.”

Regardless of the impediments and resistance to sustainable biodiversity-based agriculture, there are now a multitude of flesh alternatives that are inexpensive and taste delicious. It is easier than ever for individuals to smoothly transition. To ignore this and accept the dictates of multinational corporate interests is to perpetuate the thoughtless exploitation and deprivation inflicted upon all the mere “meat” who share our world, be it through confinement and slaughter, extermination, pollution, or habitat destruction. Instead, we can embody a true reverence for life, expanding the sphere of our compassion and consideration beyond our particular nation, tribe, race, gender, and species (see the film “We Are One”.

Here on Earth, diet is a complex issue that involves differences in energy inputs, trophic efficiencies, ecological impacts, moral considerations, and ethical behavior. Nonetheless, there are positive actions that are practical and that we can take right now. One of these is as Mr. DiCaprio said. Be it eating less meat or stopping altogether, this option is open to all of us. Regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, political affiliation, nationality, religion, or age.

We can make a difference. And it doesn’t take an act of Congress, it doesn’t take a stack of regulations, doesn’t take lawsuits, doesn’t take lobbyists, more research or studies, the compliance of corporations, a team of attorneys, government subsidies, a billionaire trickling down on you, servile obedience to authority, special athletic or intellectual abilities, wealth or political influence, state-imposed austerity measures, or a technological breakthrough (although that is available now with cell-cultured meat), and it doesn’t take heavenly intervention.

It doesn’t take anything but an act of individual decision. That’s the beauty of it. You and I can just do it. Anybody can. We can make a difference. Right now. Hundreds of millions of us. One by one. We’re free! What are you waiting for?

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