Brazil’s rainforests have become the plaything of agricultural corporations. Where fires rage today, cattle graze tomorrow – this makes consumers jointly responsible for the danger to the Amazon.
Although the fires are raging thousands of kilometres from Germany, the disaster on the other side of the Atlantic has to do with consumer behaviour in Europe. Especially the craving for juicy steaks and savoury chops fuels the deforestation and slash-and-burn of large areas in the Amazon.
“Of course, our actions in Germany have a lot to do with the loss of the rainforest,” says Matin Qaim, professor of world food economics at the University of Göttingen. “For example, we import large quantities of soya as feed for our cattle and pigs, and the increasing soya cultivation in Brazil contributes to rainforest clearing.”
Agriculture in the Amazon particularly profitable
The Amazon is a fascinating ecosystem and the green lungs of the world, but also a gigantic wealth of resources that arouses desires: in the rainforest, good money can be made with beef and soy, energy and gold. According to a study by the World Bank, farmers in the Amazon region, in particular, can be much more profitable than in other regions.
According to environmentalists, farmers have set the latest fires in the Amazon to create new pastures for their herds or fields for soy-growing. Usually already cleared forest areas are lit to burn the undergrowth and the tree stumps, as the conservation organization Greenpeace explains. Because it is currently unusually dry in the region, the fires spread to still intact forest areas and spread further and further.
Exports increased by more than 700 per cent in 14 years
The World Food Organization (FAO) blames the conversion into grazing land for 80 per cent of the losses of rainforest in the Amazon region. In recent years, meat production in Brazil has exploded – around 200 million cattle now live in South America’s largest country. Exports have increased by more than 700 per cent over the past 14 years, according to an analysis by the organization Foodwatch. Today, Brazil is the world’s largest beef exporter.
What is grown on the huge pastures and fields in Brazil also ends up on the plates in Europe? According to the European Commission, Brazil is the largest exporter of agricultural products to the European Union. Last year, Brazil sold EUR 14.5 billion worth of agricultural products to the EU. The recently agreed free trade agreement between the South American economic alliance Mercosur and the European Union could make it even more in the future.
Mercosur offspring could make the situation worse
“Germany and the European Union are complicit in the devastating forest fires with their signature on the free trade agreement with the Mercosur countries,” says Klemens, brazil spokesman for the Catholic Latin American charity Adveniat Paffhausen. “The promised lower tariffs on imports of beef and soya from South America will lead to more deforestation and more cultivated land.”
France and Ireland are now threatening to block the Mercosur agreement in the face of massive deforestation in Brazil’s rainforest. Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) demanded protection guarantees for the Amazon region. The European Commission also wants to put pressure on the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro through the Mercosur deal.
The main customers are not in the EU
The EU is the third most important market for Brazilian beef. According to the Association of Brazilian Meat Exporters (ABIEC), some 118,000 tonnes of beef worth €640 million went to the EU last year. However, Europeans lag far behind the main customers, China and Hong Kong. Only about 5,700 tonnes of beef from Brazil was last traded to Germany.
Even more important is the business with soy. Meanwhile, Brazil is the second-largest producer of green beans. Most recently, 117 million tonnes of soybeans were harvested in the South American country. Here, too, the lion’s share goes to China – and there could be more because of the trade dispute between Beijing and Washington.
In order to do something about the deforestation of rainforest for new arable or pasture areas, according to the climate researcher Richard Fuchs of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, consumers should be asked to pay. “Meat consumption must fall,” he recently told the German Press Agency. “EU countries could tax meat from animals fattened with soya from rainforest areas on a flat-rate basis. This would help to price in the environmental costs.”