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What comes first: the beefburger or the cow? Four lessons for protecting forests.

Written by Will McFarland


Consumption of meat, cereals, and vegetable oils is set to soar over the next 30 years, according to ODI’s Future Diets report.  Clearly, this is a massive health issue, which could lead to a huge increase in the number of overweight or obese people. But the food we consume also has ramifications for those working to protect forests. What lessons can we learn from the report, both in terms of what the future holds, and also the kinds of policy responses that made be needed to combat global problems?

First, forests will be threatened by our changing diets.

Beef, soy (used as animal feed) and palm oil (a vegetable oil) are three of the five primary drivers of deforestation. The FAO predicts a 26% increase in global meat consumption by 2050, and a 33% rise in vegetable oils: concerning figures for deforestation rates. Future Diets also shows that we no longer live in a calorie-constrained world, so (if we can solve distributive issues) we don’t need to make impossible decisions between providing food or protecting the environment. We simply all have a responsibility to ensure that these calories come from sources that don’t lead to further climate change and negative local impacts through the destruction of forests.

Second, supply (cows) and demand (beefburgers) can be tinkered with to reduce deforestation.

This is the famous causality dilemma: is it best to influence either supply or demand? There are rare examples from South Korea and Mexico of demand-side policy measures (including regulations, fiscal policy and public information campaigns) that directly attempt to curb consumer appetite for unhealthy foods, and the World Cancer Research Foundation has a framework that lays out a range of policy possibilities. In reality, however, policies to influence diets have been rather timid, with little impact.

For deforestation, take Brazil as an example, where deforestation dropped by about 80% from a 2004 peak. This reduction is mainly attributed to supply-side policy changes, from clamping down on illegal timber, removing low-interest credit for deforesters and enforcing minimum levels of forest cover on farmland. However, with a 28% increase in deforestation from 2012 to 2013, Brazil appears to have reached a plateau in the face of underlying demand for the commodities that threaten forests, primarily beef and soy. As Daniel Nepstad, Executive Director of the Amazon Research Institute, put in a review of the recent increase - ‘the “command-and-control” measures that have been implemented in the Amazon to reduce deforestation are reaching their limits’. This isn’t to say that many other countries don’t still need to improve their regulatory frameworks, but highlights that there are limits to this approach alone.

As we reach the limits of these supply-side approaches, it is necessary to consider the alternatives, including thinking big about what a low-to-no-deforestation supply of meat looks like in the face of high demand. For example, policy-makers could explore whether a higher-value, lower-volume and -impact beef industry could replace the current system without harming the economy; just as certification schemes for timber have started to do. Undoubtedly, given the negative impacts of deforestation, and the profitability of the industries that drive it, affected countries and communities should be deriving greater income and rent when they do licence forest conversion for these activities.

Since an oversupply of beef will have disastrous consequences for habitats and biodiversity across the whole world, national governments must not shirk away from attempts to influence demand: for example, by claiming that demand is solely exogenous (an externally factor ‘we’ don’t control). Supply and demand are of course intrinsically linked through prices, although it is as yet uncertain whether demand can be driven down to environmentally optimal levels by pricing alone. However, with consumption increasing as it is, any plans to seriously dent the rates of deforestation (caused by supply of cows) must also start to deal with the growing demand (for beefburgers).

Third, demand-side measures to reduce deforestation tend to be fraught with political problems.

It is not surprising. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) pays lip service to the issue, ‘encouraging all Parties to find effective ways to reduce the human pressure on forests… including actions to address drivers of deforestation’. The language is touchy because meat consumption is often associated with development, and diet is a part of cultural identity – and, what multilateral institution has the appetite to meddle with that? The global producer values for beef and soya were an estimated US$ 64 billion in 2011. No country can be expected to support plans that reduce the demand for products that generate so much cash, without confidence that income levels can be maintained. The EU and the US have introduced legislation that begins to shape demand for timber) but little is currently in the pipeline with regard to the other forest commodities.

Fourth, governments and regional associations need to accept that demand is influenceable, and look to combine the expertise in different sectors.

Looking at availability and prices is a first step. Policy measures such as restricting increases in agricultural land or, better, taxing transport fuels, could limit supply of the commodities and pass fuller costs onto the consumers, increasing prices and lowering demand. If governments, regional bodies and the international community do want to tackle the linked issues of poor diets and environmental destruction seriously by influencing consumer demand more directly, then there are a few lessons to learn from the health industry; health sector specialists could begin to pursue their agendas in tandem with environmental specialists, and vice versa. Having more reasons to back the same policy measures would certainly add weight to them. There are also examples of public-private partnerships that have simultaneously addressed supply and demand to further environmental and social objectives.

The political feasibility of such steps is of course challenging. Rather than agonising over a global dietary health crisis and the degradation of forest environments separately, however, we can instead see their linkage as a window of opportunity to influence supply and demand together, potentially through those multinational organisations involved in multiple stages of the food supply chain. If we are going to make the changes necessary to divert a public health crisis at the same time as protect our remaining forest habitats and biodiversity, we need to use all the tools in the box.