It’s not often that powerful activist rhetoric has to be put out to pasture. But that’s exactly what has happened with one of the legendary campaigns industry haters used to embrace.
One of the highest profile issues animal activists seized upon in the 1990s was the notion that the beef procurement practices of the major U.S. fast-food chains were responsible for wholesale environmental destruction.
When you eat a burger, you’re killing the rainforest, the sloganeering went.
The argument was that entire tropical swaths across Central and Latin America were being slashed and burned so that cattle could graze among the stumps. Then, those cattle were rounded up, slaughtered, turned into ground beef and shipped north. Next stop: The drive-thru at your local McDonald’s or Burger King.
Such accusations represented an egregious conflation of several intersecting trends. Yes, many countries were either promoting “development” of rainforest regions and/or were unable to control poaching, illegal logging and unregulated subsistence farming — and yes, livestock production was part of that process.
At the same time, both foodservice operators and grocery retailers in North America were having to import serious quantities of 90/10 beef trim, due to the growing demand for lean and ultra-lean ground beef, an unfortunate by-product of the nutritional-industrial complex’s misguided demonization of dietary fat.
But there was no straight line from Americans ordering Big Macs and Brazilian government neglect, multi-national corporate rapacity and rogue bands of peasants hacking out farmsteads and feedlots in the Amazon River basin acreage — all of which drove horrendous amounts of deforestation — as way too many activists declared.
However, one positive consequence of all that hysteria has now come to light — clothed in bad news, no doubt, but encouraging nevertheless.
First, the bad news.
A new study published in Science Advances estimates the number of globally threatened plant and tree species could increase by 22% to 36%, with deforestation threatening more than half of all tree species in the Amazon, according to a The New York Times article on the study.
The research involved more than 150 scientists from nearly a hundred institutions trekking into the Amazon basin to measure tree diameters and collect leaves, branches, flowers and fruits. By comparing maps of projected deforestation with their data, the researchers determined that between one-third and one-half of the Amazon’s tree species qualified for the so-called “Red List,” an endangered species catalog maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Yeah — not good, since the world’s tropical rainforests account for a monumental percentage of the global oxygen produced by photosynthesis, without which humans would have to learn how to breathe CO2, and that’s not something our physiology’s very good at doing.
It starts with awareness
But here’s the good news: According to the research team, deforestation rates in Brazil’s portion of the Amazon River basin — almost two-thirds of the total area — have decreased by about 75% since 2005, as Timothy J. Killeen, a botanist at Agteca-Amazonica in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, told reporters at a news conference detailing the study’s findings. Killeen added that current estimates showed the Amazon was “doing better than the researchers’ best-case scenario had predicted.”
Now here’s the key question: What happened to reverse researchers’ dire predictions from 10 or 20 years ago? Millions of fast-food customers turning away from eating burgers to protect the rainforests, so that the market for Latin American beef dried up?
Hardly. Truth is, the research team credited the improvement to more recent efforts to expand national parks and establish protected areas that are exempt from development.
Turns out that America’s appetite for burgers versus chicken had little to do with slowing the pace and the extent of rainforest deforestation. Awareness of the environmental importance of maintaining these hugely important swaths of incredible biological diversity helps in that regard of course, but lack of awareness was never the problem.
Everyone from consumers to scientists to policymakers already knew that wiping out the world’s rainforests would be very, very bad for humanity. But the fact that much of the best farmland in the United States has been paved over in just the last 40 years underscores how challenging it is to set aside land that otherwise could support short-term economic activity to ensure the long-term health and security of the larger ecosystem on which we all depend.
And therein lies the heart of the matter: Preserving rainforests — or farmland — is one thing. Keeping it preserved is quite another.
“It’s very easy for governments to draw a line on the map and declare an area protected,” said Kenneth J. Feeley, a tropical ecologist at Florida International University. “It’s much harder to make that area effectively protected. This is a major problem in conservation.”
It is more than an issue of conservation. It’s an issue of survival.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.