Global Agribusiness is Devouring the World’s Last Forests. We Need Local Food Systems, Now.

Gaurav Madan

An excavator works on an acacia plantation in Riau, the Indonesian province that lost 22% of its primary forest cover between 2002 and 2019.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Mongabay News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

It was the middle of the afternoon in one of the world’s largest metropolises when the sky went black. Thousands of miles away, tens of thousands of fires raged, plunging Sao Paolo into darkness. For some, the blackout of Brazil’s largest city was a sign of humanity’s destructive course. A month later, across the globe in Indonesia, entire villages were swallowed by blood-red skies. Reports likened the Mars-like scenes to something from an apocalyptic film.

Last year in Brazil, fires set by illegal loggers and ranchers – and encouraged by neo-fascist President Jair Bolsonaro – were the worst in a decade. The burning Amazon sparked international protests and condemnation. Over 40,000 fires ravaged the lungs of the earth, blazing the path for soy and cattle production to expand ever deeper into the forest.

In Indonesia, palm oil companies that routinely drain peatlands and raze forests were once again guilty of burning large swaths of land for plantations. One report stated that 900,000 people suffered respiratory problems caused by smoke from the blazes.

All told in 2019, nearly 10,000 square miles of forests were destroyed between the Amazon and Indonesia. The impacts have been dire: increased greenhouse gases emissions, greater encroachment on Indigenous Peoples’ lands, and further destruction of endangered species habitat.

Annual forest fires are driven by the industrial production of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soy, beef, and pulp and paper. These industries are responsible for 80% of deforestation worldwide – the second largest cause of the climate crisis. Agribusiness is also routinely linked to gross human rights violations. A 2019 study found that on average, more than three land and environmental defenders were murdered every week. Agribusiness was the second deadliest sector.

Unfettered access to an infinite supply of cheaply available goods has become a hallmark of modern Western life. We want all the things – and we want them now. We have become accustomed to buying disposable goods that we know won’t last, throwing them away, and then buying more. But is a steady stream of burgers, bath soaps, and body butter worth the price of an increasingly volatile and unlivable planet?

Deforestation for soy production in the Bolivian Amazon and Chaco. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

This photo shows deforestation for soy production in the Bolivian Amazon and Chaco. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)

Scientists recognize the need to stem deforestation. They give us a decade more to take decisive action to avert the worst aspects of climate crisis. Unfortunately, corporate voluntary commitments and attempts at reform have fallen short.

In 2010, the Consumer Goods Forum – a consortium of the world’s largest retail companies – pledged to achieve zero-deforestation in their supply chains by 2020. Ten years later, some of the world’s most recognizable consumer brands will fail to meet their own deadline, while deforestation continues at an alarming pace. From 2014-2019, global tree cover loss increased by a disturbing 43% with an area of tree cover the size of the United Kingdom is lost annually. At this rate, the world’s rainforests will be wiped out within a century.

With the world’s population set to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, there is a very real need to ensure universal access to healthy food, while also reducing poverty. Agribusiness has proclaimed itself essential to meeting these needs. But the reality is 80% of the world’s food is grown by individual or family farmers – not mega-corporations producing palm oil for junk foods or soybeans for cattle feed. In the Global South, agribusinesses regularly promise local communities the moon in exchange for their land. But plantation companies’ guarantees of development are often fleeting and false.

Last month, palm oil company Golden Veroleum Liberia laid off a tenth of its workforce due to unsustainable losses” and the falling price of palm oil. In Indonesia, Indofood, a supplier of palm oil to international brands such as PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble, laid off hundreds of workers amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. Both plantation companies – like much of the sector – have long histories of human rights abuses.

If this wasn’t bad enough, this year’s fire season may be worse in the Amazon and will hit the forests of Southeast Asia once again. And with the world fighting a pandemic, there are legitimate fears that the resulting haze from these fires will complicate respiratory illnesses linked to Covid-19.

The industrial model of agricultural production has failed. This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising for a system predicated on environmental destruction and human rights abuses. Industrial plantations demand access to hundreds of thousands of hectares of land, which are overwhelmingly owned and managed by local communities. These ancestral lands are often forcibly – and violently – grabbed to produce the ingredients for the everyday goods we casually buy.

If the ongoing pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that we cannot remain beholden to broken systems. Voluntary corporate commitments have failed. It’s time to rein in the industries devouring the world’s last standing forests. This requires regulation: halting agribusiness expansion and transforming our food systems away from monoculture plantations toward local, regenerative models of agroecology.

As for us? If we want to avoid blackouts and blood-red skies, it’s time we end our addiction to endless consumption and realize our future is tied to the fate of the planet.

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