Deforestation Myth Busted and Palm Oil’s Link to Deforestation Debunked
The FAO has published a landmark report entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow”. With the report, the myth on the major cause of deforestation has been busted. According to the report, it is cattle that are responsible for massive global deforestation, threatening wildlife habitats and emitting up to 18% of global Green House Gas (GHG) emissions that cause climate change. The world’s 1.5 billion cattle and other livestock require 3.5 to 4 billion hectares of grazing land representing 70 to 80 % of global agricultural area of 4.9 billion hectares.
According to the FAO, the huge number of cattle are responsible for a host of other environmental problems, including causing acid rain, loss of biodiversity, introduction of foreign plant species, desertification and creating “dead zones” in the ocean by polluting rivers and destroying coral reefs. It is this scale of devastation, through past and present deforestation and loss of biodiversity by the cattle industry, that is raising major concerns among international experts who are keen to conserve biodiversity, reduce global warming and pursue a sustainable development agenda. Direct emissions from cattle from flatulence, nitrous oxides etc can range from 3 to 6 tonnes CO2eq. per cattle per year. This is higher than the per capita emission of people of many developing countries with emissions per capita of 2 tonnes or less, though still not as high as the per capita emissions of those from developed countries such as the USA, where emissions stand at about 20 tonnes CO2/person/ year.
The cattle industry’s contribution of direct emission for the 1.5 billion cattle, assuming a conservative emissions figure of 3.33 tonnes/year per cattle, is 5 billion tonnes of CO2/year. Indirect contributions through centuries of deforestation and land use change for cattle grazing have cumulatively released an estimated 838 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Although this is a one-off release of CO2 spread over many centuries from land conversion into cattle farming, the CO2 that was emitted remains in the atmosphere unless the same land is reforested to capture the carbon that was emitted. Together with emissions from the burning of fossil fuels from centuries of western industrialization, it is not a surprise to see the global CO2 concentration increasing from 280ppm in the 19th century to over 400 ppm currently. These combined emissions of CO2 from both the cattle industry and burning of fossil fuel have been the main driver of global warming and climate change. Future projections that the cattle industry will expand by 100% by 2050 – to supply adequate beef and livestock products for the projected 9 billion people of the world – will certainly contribute additional green house gas emissions through more deforestation and direct emissions from the cattle/ livestock industry. On top of this, we must add additional emissions from the continued burning of fossil fuels. With 100% expansion, the land area for cattle alone will reach 7 billion hectares by 2050, far in excess of the 5 billion ha of total agricultural land at present. The oil palm industry, in comparison has a global planted area of only 15 million hectares or 0.4 % of the land area occupied by the cattle industry. While the 1.5 billion cattle emit 5 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, the 2.25 billion oil palm trees from the 15 million hectares of plantation remove or sequester 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2.
Developed countries represent the biggest share of deforestation that has resulted from cattle farming, as cattle farming has been well developed to adapt to temperate climates. That means most of the deforestation for cattle grazing has taken place at the expense of temperate forests. It is no coincidence that developed countries like the USA, France (Western Europe) and Australia, have lost 99% of their virgin forest. Australia, with a land area of 769 million hectares, uses 400 million hectares of its land for cattle grazing for its 28 million cattle. The US has 100 million heads of cattle, and even if some are reared through efficient feedlot systems, the land needed to grow fodder, grains and soyabean for animal feed can be estimated at more than 120 million hectares for the US alone. Fossil fuel use by developed countries is well documented. These countries are net recurrent emitters of CO2 and they are responsible for a huge historical ‘debt’ of CO2 emission from past burning of fossil fuel. The increase of global CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has also resulted from forest fires that occur regularly around the world as a result of droughts induced by climate change and global warming.
The forest fires of 1997/98 in central Kalimantan decimated some 3 million hectares of forest alone, with huge loss of biodiversity. In that fire alone, it was reported that 49 % of an orang utan population of 12,000 perished. Despite the enthusiastic campaigning by ENGOs to stop deforestation and partly blaming oil palm for forest loss, the real culprits for the loss of orang utans are forest fires, which have been exacerbated by the effects of historical CO2 emission from cattle industries and the burning of fossil fuel.
The ENGOs have attempted to blame the palm oil industry for the global sins of deforestation, CO2 emissions and high consumption of saturated fats. They have been able to influence green politicians in Australia, France, and Belgium to make palm oil an issue that is linked to the problems of deforestation, CO2 emissions and saturated fats consumption. As discussed above, it is clear that the cattle industry is responsible for massive deforestation in the past and will be responsible for more deforestation in the future. Direct and indirect emissions from deforestation by the cattle industry must carry the blame for excessive past and present emissions of CO2. The burning of fossil fuel has also made a significant contribution to emissions of CO2 and the West accounts for a major share of these emissions . The destructive cattle industry is also the cause of high consumption of saturated fats in the developed countries. France for example obtains 32 kgs per capita of saturated fats from meat, milk, cheese, butter, tallow, lard and bacon mostly from cattle and only 2 kgs from imported palm oil. It is hard to fool the consumers with falsehoods against palm oil when the facts point to the cattle industry as the culprit for massive deforestation, CO2 emissions and source of saturated fats in Western diets. On the contrary, palm oil will be providing part of the solution to mitigate deforestation and CO2 emissions while offering better nutritional fats (trans fat-free) for the world. It would be a missed opportunity for the world if the current anti-palm oil campaigns by ENGOs are allowed to mask the beneficial role of palm and conceal the true culprit, the cattle industry, from being blamed for massive deforestation, CO2 emissions and its major contribution to saturated fats consumption around the world.