The escalation of deforestation that the world has witnessed in recent decades is one of the greatest environmental challenges we are facing. World Rainforest Day, celebrated on June 22nd each year, is a chance to raise awareness about the urgent need to protect these ecosystems (which are vital for our existence on Earth) and a measure needed to prevent future pandemics.
In 2019, the world lost an area equivalent to a football pitch of primary rainforest every six seconds, according to data from the University of Maryland that was released on the Global Forest Watch platform. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) warns that 75% of all emerging human pathogens are zoonotic, meaning they are infections that originated in animals. Activities like deforestation, landscape fragmentation, and habitat encroachment increase the risk of disease transmission. 'If we are to "build back better" from the COVID-19 pandemic, the global recovery process will need to recognise the intimate link between people and nature,' declares the UN body.
Photo: Sentinel Hub
'We are destroying primary rainforests and putting our future at risk, for food products such as meat and industrial products made with palm oil, that aren't necessary for us to have a healthy and balanced diet,' says Carolina Galvani, Sinergia Animal's CEO.
Meat, soy, and palm oil are the main agricultural drivers of rainforest degradation.
Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Bolivia, Peru, Malaysia, and Colombia were the countries with the most primary forest loss in 2019 (in order). The common thing among all of them is that agriculture is the main driver of deforestation. In Latin American countries, 59% of the deforestation between 2001 and 2018 was driven by agricultural goods produced for trade, mostly beef and soy production.
The most worrisome case in the region is the Amazon rainforest, one of the greatest and richest tropical forests in terms of area and biodiversity, covering 25% of South America. The livestock industry is one of the leading causes of deforestation in all Amazonian countries, as cattle ranchers clear large areas to free space for grazing lands.
Photo: Joelle Hernandez
Large forest areas across the Amazon rainforest and Cerrado savannah are also being replaced with grain crops, such as soy, that will feed animals raised for meat, eggs, and dairy products worldwide. Around three-quarters of global soybeans are used for animal feed. 'Brazil is the largest soybean exporter in the world, responding for 44.5% of total exports. These grains are mostly used to feed animals raised for food; it means that when we eat animal products, we're probably contributing to the deforestation of the largest rainforest in the world,' states Galvani.
In Southeast Asia, an impressive 80% of the deforestation between 2001 and 2018 was driven by agricultural goods produced for trade, the highlight of which is palm oil. In Indonesia and other equatorial countries such as Malaysia, palm oil production is a major driver of deforestation with dwindling expanses of tropical rainforest. Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet, found in many industrialized products sold in supermarkets such as ice creams, noodles, chocolate, margarine, cookies, and bread.
The protection of rainforests is in our hands
The importance of rainforests is undeniable not only to prevent more pandemics from happening, but also because of many other factors that are crucial to our future existence. Although tropical forests cover only 7% of the Earth's land surface, they contain more than half of the world's species and are known as the most genetically diverse terrestrial communities on Earth. They provide a lot of the freshwater we drink; are the homes of many indigenous peoples; protect the land against flood, drought, and erosion; and support millions of livelihoods.
Besides that, they are key to mitigate climate change. The deforestation of primary forests generated at least 1.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of 400 million cars.
'Of course, public policies are essential at this critical moment. But it's also in the hands of consumers to make more conscious choices and avoid the decline of rainforests: ditching or at least reducing the consumption of meat, dairy and eggs, and avoiding products with palm oil on their compositions are some of the best ways to contribute,' suggests Galvani.