Biggest Threat to Tropical Forest Now Comes From Global Demand For Food Products

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Biggest Threat to Tropical Forest Now Comes From Global Demand For Food Products

Urban Growth Will Likely Increase Pressure to Destroy Rain Forests

WASHINGTON - Demand for everyday products, from hamburgers to cookies to soap, is now the biggest threat to tropical forests, according to a new study released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The peer-reviewed report, “The Root of the Problem: What’s Driving Tropical Deforestation Today?,” concludes that large international businesses producing items such as palm oil, beef and timber have become the most destructive drivers of deforestation—a shift from the past when local populations were thought to be responsible for much of the damage to rain forests.

“Not that long ago the conventional wisdom was that deforestation was due to farmers clearing land for crops they needed for food or wood they needed for fuel,” said Doug Boucher, director of UCS’ Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative and a co-author of the report. “Everyone thought the forests were declining because rural populations were growing. But that’s just not the case anymore.”

The report focuses on the commercial drivers of deforestation, which vary from continent to continent—soybean farming and cattle pastures in Latin America, timber and palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia—particularly Indonesia and Malaysia—and charcoal production in Africa.

It also points out that government pressure can effectively control destruction of tropical forests, citing moratoria on buying soybeans and beef from farms and ranches that have cleared forests. By 2010, Brazil had reduced its deforestation rate by 67 percent, while still expanding its cattle and soy production. Those efforts, however, could be undermined by a proposed bill weakening the country’s law protecting the rain forests and granting amnesty for illegal logging that occurred before April, 2008.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, the biggest threat to forests comes from large-scale agricultural and timber plantations, and in recent years much of the damage has been tied to a boom in the palm oil business. Palm oil was responsible for 80 percent of the expansion of Asian plantations in the 1990s and today Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s largest producers of the increasingly popular vegetable oil.

One big reason for the spike in palm oil demand is its role as a substitute for trans fat in processed foods. Recently, media attention has focused on a campaign by a group of Girl Scouts to have palm oil removed from the famous cookies they sell, but the product is also used in crackers, popcorn, frozen dinners, candy, soap and cosmetics.

While palm oil plantations still represent a limited proportion of global deforestation in terms of area, the report points out that they are a disproportionately large source of global warming emissions because they are often grown on land converted from swamp forests. When these wetlands are drained, their carbon-rich soils decay, releasing large amounts of both carbon dioxide and methane.

Overall, deforestation is estimated to be responsible for 15 percent of global warming pollution.

As the planet becomes more urbanized, the report notes, pressure to tear down tropical forests and use the land to produce food instead, is expected to increase. Demand for processed foods and resource-intensive products, such as beef, grows as people move into cities. At the same time, since much of the deforestation today is driven by international corporations, there’s more likelihood that it will simply move from one region to another, according to the UCS analysis.

“In a globalized world the drivers of deforestation are mobile and the forces of the market will move them around the world,” said Boucher. “It’s like a balloon. If you squeeze in one place, there will always be pressure for it to move and pop up in another place.”

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The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world. UCS combines independent scientific research and citizen action to develop innovative, practical solutions and to secure responsible changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices.

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