- Ranching and beef production have put great pressure on the Brazilian Amazon, resulting in significant deforestation which harms biodiversity, could add to the destabilization of the global climate, and even lead to future pandemics. While much Brazilian meat is consumed domestically, a large portion is exported to China.
- With the pandemic raging out of control in Brazil, meat plants have become viral “hot spots” and helped to spread COVID-19 in several places around the country. Meanwhile, the global pandemic has, for a variety of reasons, now reduced meat consumption in both Brazil and China.
- Meat and dairy are responsible for public health problems and for 18% of global greenhouse emissions, so any reduction in consumption could be good for the health of the planet. Though the pandemic has led to untold human suffering, could cratering demand for meat lead to a new environmental consciousness?
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
To be sure, Coronavirus has caused disruptions in trade and global supply chains, but should we necessarily mourn such instability? Not, in my view, if such changes lead to beneficial environmental consequences. Hopefully, the pandemic may ease pressure on the Amazon rainforest, which has been squeezed by ranching. In Brazil, the largest share of cattle-related deforestation is linked to the domestic market, though the South American nation has also sought to satisfy voracious global demand, particularly from China. The pandemic, however, may lead consumers to reconsider their dietary choices, which would not only make a dent in climate change but also help safeguard public health.
As humans move into and displace wildlife through tropical deforestation, we risk coming into greater proximity to exotic wildlife and getting exposed to so-called “zoonotic” diseases. Indeed, scientists warn that pathogens like COVID-19 could become more common as people convert natural habitats into agricultural land. Already, we have turned over almost half the world’s land into agriculture, with tropical forests suffering most. In the Amazon, a full eighty percent of deforestation is linked to cattle ranching, and unfortunately markets have not moved decisively to address such deforestation within supply chains. Experts are particularly concerned that a new pandemic may spring from the Amazon rainforest, which is considered a possible “hotspot” for emerging disease.
In the midst of battling COVID-19, any thought of future pandemics might seem overwhelming. And yet, the public health threat associated with tropical cattle ranching has flashed onto the political radar screen due to Washington’s mistaken policies: Recently, the Department of Agriculture announced that previously banned Brazilian beef products would be approved for export to the U.S. Such moves, however, are highly problematic since Brazilian meat companies had earlier procured cattle raised on illegally deforested areas, and future U.S. imports may be linked to such deforestation as a result.
The China link
While the Trump administration should certainly reverse its trade policies towards Brazil, China bears an even greater responsibility. Indeed, Beijing is Brazil’s largest trade partner, and the Asian nation is driving the South American country’s cattle boom. Last year, in fact, Brazil exported $3.7 billion in cattle and veal to China and Hong Kong, the largest overall share far outstripping shipments to the U.S. and European Union.
Researchers have shown that exports to China and Hong Kong drive associated deforestation. Most of this deforestation occurs in the Amazon — an area which is critical to fighting climate change due to the forest’s capacity to store large amounts of carbon — as well as the Cerrado biome, a large tropical savannah. Needless to say, cattle ranching also gives rise to significant amounts of methane, another potent greenhouse gas.
For years, climate advocates have called for lower meat consumption. Hardly an insignificant lifestyle choice, meat and dairy are responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse emissions. Nevertheless, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, a staunch foe of the environment and a key ally of the country’s agribusiness sector, has sought to clear land for soy fields and cattle pasture in order to boost exports to China, a policy which he regards as his country’s “manifest destiny.” And yet, such reckless deforestation has led to recent fires in the Amazon and alarmed the international community.
JBS and Coronavirus in Brazil
Perhaps, however, the Coronavirus crisis may finally lead to an easing of cattle exports. With the pandemic raging out of control in Brazil, meat plants have become “hot spots” and helped to spread COVID-19 in several places around the country. As in other nations, meat processing laborers work closely together, which creates ideal breeding grounds for the virus to spread. In addition, low temperatures and refrigerated areas within plants allow viruses to survive in the air for longer periods of time. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has downplayed the threat from Coronavirus, and Brazil’s agribusiness sector has done little to protect its workers, with many factories remaining open during the pandemic.
Reportedly, nearly one quarter of the workforce tested positive at one of the meat plants owned by JBS, the world’s largest beef processing firm. A notoriously corrupt company, JBS has been fined for bribing officials to look the other way while the firm engaged in questionable practices such as selling rotten meat. Amnesty International, meanwhile, has reported that JBS conducts business with farms that illegally log the Amazon to raise cattle, a surreptitious practice known as “cattle laundering.” Moreover, within the Brazilian beef industry, JBS is responsible for the largest share of CO2 emissions caused by deforestation.
Nadir of meat consumption?
Ironically, even though Coronavirus originated in Beijing, Chinese authorities have become increasingly leery of Brazilian meat, and recently officials halted meat imports from some Brazilian plants, including those operated by JBS, over concerns that Coronavirus had spread to the workforce at local meatpacking facilities. Even without the suspension, however, Brazilian meat exports would have hit a snag, since Coronavirus has impacted China’s domestic growth, and popular demand for overseas food commodities such as expensive beef has already begun to wane amidst the closure of restaurants and fresh markets.
Though the pandemic has led to untold human suffering, could cratering demand for meat lead to a new environmental consciousness? “The coronavirus pandemic is poised to usher in the biggest retreat for global meat eating in decades,” notes The Boston Globe. Meanwhile, there are signs of a structural shift in people’s diets, as millions more turn toward plant-based proteins for environmental and health reasons. The newspaper goes on to say that in China, there’s increasing concern over animal products ever since the government linked imported protein with a viral outbreak in Beijing.
It’s not just a matter of Chinese skittishness toward meat imports, however, but a growing recognition that a meat-based diet could simply put people at greater risk for Coronavirus. Indeed, researchers report that during the initial outbreak in Wuhan, patients who suffered from diabetes or coronary heart disease were more likely to die from the virus. The World Health Organization, meanwhile, points out that a healthy lifestyle makes all bodily functions work better, including immunity. As part of such a healthy lifestyle, such experts advise eating a diet which is high in fruits and vegetables.
Ripple effects of new health consciousness?
Could changing dietary practices help to alleviate pressure on the Amazon rainforest, then? Even before the pandemic, some U.S. localities had grown concerned about wildfires and deforestation in the rainforest. Take, for example, New York City officials, who late last year introduced a resolution calling on municipal agencies and the private sector to cut ties with food companies associated with Amazonian deforestation. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, a local city councilmember introduced a companion proposal.
One of the boosters of the New York resolution, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, cited companies like JBS as being the “main culprits” behind deforestation. Adams himself became a vegan to deal with his own underlying health challenges, and after making the switch to a plant-based diet, he was able to reverse his diabetes. More recently, he has promoted veganism in the community and has sought to inform millions of constituents about how to counter diabetes. In the midst of the pandemic, Adams has pushed his health campaign into overdrive, urging more of his constituents to become vegan.
Saving the rainforest
Whether or not such public health campaigns will have a ripple effect on the rainforest remains to be seen, however. Even if Adams and others succeed in changing hearts and minds, New York is a relatively insignificant market for Brazilian meat exports when compared to the overall volume of global trade. On the other hand, there are indications that China too may be changing, which would have a much more serious impact: recently, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference urged his organization to go meatless in response to the pandemic.
Such pronouncements follow upon a previous set of dietary guidelines released by the Chinese government, advising the public to reduce meat consumption so as to counteract diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. In addition, veganism is already growing in popularity in China, and in Hong Kong nearly one quarter of the population has limited its meat intake and almost three quarters has stated a willingness to eat meat-free meals once a week. Moreover, in the midst of the pandemic, vegan food orders are on the rise with a number of companies rushing to address growing demand for plant-based products.
Perhaps, changing dietary consciousness at the international level could also exert a ripple effect on Brazil, which would be highly consequential since internal meat consumption still far outstrips exports. There are already signs that change is under way: though Brazilians are renowned for their love of barbecue and so-called churrascarias, concerns have been mounting over food safety and sustainability. In addition, the country has been hit hard by Coronavirus and a deep recession is expected, which could in turn lead consumers to purchase less meat. In tandem with such trends, a Brazil-based startup recently raised more than $20 million in capital to promote its vegan meat business, which is designed to supplant destructive animal agriculture.
While devastating on so many levels, the Coronavirus epidemic could offer an opportunity to alleviate pressure on the Amazon rainforest. If anything, the pandemic has revealed the underlying connections between public health, diet and climate change, which have become so intertwined that it’s a little difficult at this point to distinguish one issue from the next.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan).