A narrative has sprung up on the Internet, largely fueled by mainstream media organizations like Vice, CNN, etc., that meat consumption in the developed world is causing deforestation of the Amazon.

This narrative is false.

In this blog, I will cover two issues:

  1. Brazilian beef and who consumes it
  2. Brazilian soy and who consumes it

It is true that the Amazon is being deforested for wood, soy, and livestock. The soy in turn is being fed to livestock, so the Amazon is being deforested, more substantially, for wood and livestock.

But who is buying that soy? Who is buying that livestock? Who, in other words, is economically (and morally) responsible for environmental devastation that these commodities are a product of?

According to CNN, the breakdown of Brazilian beef exports is as follows:

Source: https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/23/americas/brazil-beef-amazon-rainforest-fire-intl/index.html

So far, this is true.

Now, total production of beef in Brazil is ~22 billion pounds. 1.64 million metric tonnes or ~3.61 billion pounds is exported.

This means that 3.61/22 or 16.4% of Brazilian beef is exported. In turn, this means that Brazilians consume 84% of Brazilian beef domestically.

64 million pounds are exported to America, according to USDA:

This roughly confirms the CNN figures: 64 million is a little less than 2% of 3.61 billion. This amounts to ~0.3% of total Brazilian beef production.

On the other hand, the amount exported to China and Hong Kong combined amount to 43% of exports, which is 43% of 16%:

Or 7% of total Brazilian beef production.

This means that together, Brazilians and Chinese consume about 91% (84% + 7%) of Brazilian beef. So the narrative that the “world” is driving the fires in the Amazon is just wrong. The Brazilians and Chinese are driving the fires. And largely the Brazilians.

Europeans by the way consume about 7% of Brazilian exports, mainly Italians. This amounts to 1.1% of total Brazilian beef production.

So together, the EU and USA consume about 1.4% of Brazilian beef.

Brazilians and Chinese consume about 91%.

So we should definitely stop Brazilian beef importation completely, but we aren’t the main problem.

There is also a narrative about Brazilian soybeans, i.e. because Americans don’t send their soybeans to Brazil, we are somehow responsible. How do Americans and Europeans fit in there?

Almost 80% of Brazilian soybean exports are to China, and exports to China from the United States actually increased in 2019, while Brazilian exports to China dropped by almost 15%. (Source.)

But it gets worse, because while 80% of Brazilian soybean exports are to China, about 80% of Brazilian soybeans are NOT exported, probably mainly to feed Brazilian livestock. (Source.)

This means that about 96% of Brazilian soybeans are either consumed domestically (i.e. by livestock) or exported to China (also to feed livestock). I’m not sure that America and Brazil trade soybeans at all.

So if the Amazon rainforest fires are driven by beef and soybeans, and we want to blame anyone this, again, it’s overwhelmingly China, Hong Kong, and Brazil.

Together, China, Hong Kong, and Brazil consume about 91% of Brazilian beef and 96% of Brazilian soybeans.

Indeed, emissions from animal agriculture in the advanced world have declined for the past 30 or 40 years. However emissions from developing countries have massively increased, fueled by their own domestic production and importation of beef.

Source: https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2019/03/12/animal-gene-editing-breakthrough-bringing-angus-beef-raised-from-us-cattle-to-brazil/

Industrialized countries should set an example and stop consuming so much beef. They should also help developing countries use more efficient means of production, and penalize countries that are high emitters.

But while about 15% of total global emissions are from livestock, in industrialized countries like America, only 4% of American emissions are from agriculture, and we have little role in the emissions from developing countries.

This is because about 92% of beef consumed in the United States is from American-produced beef. We simply don’t import very much beef, and the beef we do import is mainly from Canada and Mexico.

What this means is that if Americans want to combat global emissions from themselves, they should use less transport energy and less electricity. That is the bulk of emissions from Americans.

If they want to combat emissions and deforestation from China and Brazil, they should support economic and foreign policies that penalize China and Brazil for their bad and worsening environmental records and incentivize better behavior.

There is a notion that if Americans consumed less beef, we could send our soybeans to other countries so they could avoid deforestation. This is really questionable, though, because it implies that Americans should change our behavior to stop bad behavior from others–as if by being held hostage.

The fact is, Americans should consume less beef and reforest. And Brazilians and Chinese should also consume less beef and also reforest and stop deforestation.

Everyone should do something, but Americans are responsible for their own bad behavior, not the bad behavior of others. The bad behavior of Americans is mainly in using too much electricity and too many cars. The bad behavior of Brazilians is in burning down their own forests, largely for production of beef that they themselves consume.

Not every bad thing is linked to Americans eating meat. When you want to make everything about One Thing, that is called an ideology. Ideologies are bad because they distort and prevent behavior that can actually achieved the desired outcomes.

— Kevin

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