One of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss (a major element of humanity’s ‘war on wildlife’) is habitat loss to agriculture – in other words, enormous changes to natural habitats to grow our food. It’s estimated that as recently as 1000 years ago, less than 4% of the world’s ice-free and non-barren land area was used for farming. By the mid 1700s that figure had doubled. Just a few hundred years later we have taken nearly HALF of all habitable land on the planet for our agriculture. And where we now farm there used to be forests, wetlands, grasslands and the wildlife that used to call them home.
To feed and fuel our 21st century lifestyles, we are overusing the Earth’s biocapacity by at least 56% [Earth Overshoot Day 2020 was August 22nd]. It’s little wonder the WWF’s Living Planet [or as we suggested it should be called ‘Dying Planet‘] Report shows an average 68% global decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2016. A 94% decline in the Living Planet Index for the tropical subregions of the Americas is the largest fall observed in any part of the world.
That decline in the Americas is driven by landscape-scale changes to natural habitat, particularly forest clearance and loss of tree cover. In 2019 alone Global Forest Watch estimates that Brazil suffered the loss of 1,361,000 hectares of primary forest – more than a third of the total loss of humid tropical primary forests worldwide and equivalent to losing more than a 1/3rd of the UK’s entire forest cover in just twelve months. The vast Cerrado region of Brazil, home to 4000 endemic plant species, once covered an area half the size of Europe, but around half the native savannah and forest of the Cerrado has been converted to agriculture since the late 1950s. Converted mainly for beef cattle ranching and to grow soybeans.
The soybean is a natural marvel. Native to Asia, the soybean is 36% protein, is packed with amino acids, and a great source of fibre. It’s also low in saturated fat, cholesterol-free, and a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. It’s an important part of the global food supply, but since the 1950s global soybean production has increased 15 times over. That production has come at a huge cost to wildlife: the area of land just in South America devoted to soy nearly tripled between 1990 and 2010, from 42 million acres to 114 million acres. Much of that land has been converted from natural ecosystems rich in unique flora and fauna and has released vast amounts of carbon.
Soy production is wreaking havoc on the planet’s biodiversity. That much we probably all agree on (once we’ve looked at the facts anyway). What we don’t all seem to agree on, though, is who or what is eating all those beans? Are vegans and vegetarians really destroying the planet with their voracious appetite for tofu and soya milk?
That’s the question being asked and answered by a timely Greenpeace campaign targeting Tesco, which urges the major supermarket chain “to cut links with forest destroyers as the Amazon burns”.
If you don’t want to look at the Greenpeace video below, though, please just think about this for a moment.
There are over 7.8 billion people on the planet right now. As of September 2020, it’s estimated that the total number of vegans in the world is approx 78 million. Vegans, vegetarians, and ‘related categories’ made up just 8% of the world population in 2018 – about 624 million. The world soybean crop, according to agriculture.com, will be a record 364 million tonnes in 2020/21. That means each person in the ‘vegans, vegetarians, and related categories’ (many of whom have a far more frugal diet than the average European or North American) would need to be eating bowls and bowls of soybeans every day to fuel this growth…
No, whatever you may feel about personal ‘food choices’, the truth is just 6% of soya is eaten directly by humans, soya milk is typically about 94% water anyway, and it’s the meat industry that is behind the growing demand for soybeans.
Around 75% of soy worldwide is used for livestock feed. Europe’s intensive livestock sector, for example, relies on soy and demand for soy within the EU uses an area of 32 million acres in South America, out of a total of 114 million acres of soy production (equivalent to 90% of Germany’s entire agricultural area). Today’s fastest-growing soy importer is China, which uses the crop for animal feed and cooking oil. China used almost the same amount of soya as Europe, the US, and Brazil combined in 2017/2018.
Who eats all the soya? While many people still prefer to tell us that soy is eaten mainly by those pesky veggies, most of it is actually consumed indirectly in the form of soya-fed chicken, pork, beef and farmed fish.
If you’d like to help tackle the ‘war on wildlife’ the best place to start is to approach things with an open mind…