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March 1998
Rainforest Destruction: What's Meat Got to Do With It?

By Steve Best



Everyone knows the rainforests are disappearing, but few realize how rapidly and how their food choices play a key role. Steve Best explains.

Since 1945, half of the world's rainforests have been burned, bulldozed and mined into oblivion. Each day, 140,000 acres of tropical forest are demolished--eight acres every few seconds--and 50 to 150 different species become extinct. In 50 years, mining, logging, oil, cattle and banking interests have destroyed what has taken nature hundreds of millions of years to create. At the current rate of devastation, the rainforests of the world will be completely leveled in another 50 years.

A world without rainforests is unsustainable for complex life forms. The rainforests deliver oxygen to the air, stabilize climates, and they regulate humidity, wind and convection patterns. Although only seven percent of the earth's total area, the rainforests provide a lush habitat for 50 percent of all animal and plant species, and a home for many indigenous peoples. They yield a rich bounty of fruits, nuts, spices, gums and medicinal compounds; while rainforest plants have already provided cures for many diseases, only one percent of them have been studied. The rainforests are the oldest and the most diverse ecosystems on this planet.

Left standing, trees absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Burned or chopped down, they release concentrated amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, undermining the ozone layer. There is a growing consensus among the world's scientists that we are indeed in a new epoch of earth history: the Age of Global Warming. The evidence of global warming is visible everywhere: unprecedented heat waves and drought, super-ferocious storms, a dramatic rise in skin cancer rates, the breaking up of the Antarctic Ice Shelf, and increased numbers of pests and diseases.

All Those Cars

While corporations like Mitsubishi, Arco, Texaco and Honshu Paper are the main culprits in deforestation, every person who consumes meat also plays a role. One of the principle reasons for deforestation is to provide grazing ground for cattle. In terms of global warming, this means that enormous amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. The grazing of cows and other ruminant animals also causes the emission of two other major ozone destroying gases: nitrous oxide (in fertilizer) and over a hundred million tons of methane a year--which some scientists see as becoming the primary global warming gas in the next 50 years.

Americans eat more beef than any other country in the world, consuming 32 percent of the total production. Meat-eaters are not only destroying their own health by consuming these toxic products, they are contributing to numerous other problems such as world hunger (the land needed to feed cattle is 20 times the amount needed to feed people), the expropriation of people from their lands (used to graze cattle), the destruction of human animal habitat, and the aggravation of global warming. Experts estimate that every person who switches to a pure vegetarian or vegan diet saves an acre of trees every year.

Before biting into the next hamburger, one might consider the real cost--55 square feet of rainforest, 12 pounds of grain and 2,500 gallons of water. I, for one, believe that the earth and its teeming life forms are worth more than fast food chains and Big Macs. The best way to care for the environment is to become a vegetarian; to be consistent in one's beliefs, an environmentalist must also be a vegetarian.

Steve Best is a professor of Humanities and Philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso.


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