This is bad news for biodiversity, the Amazon being one of the richest areas of the world in terms of wildlife. It’s also bad news for climate change. The Amazon is the world’s largest carbon sink, and the cooling effect can be felt in weather patterns around the world. As things currently stand, we’re not only losing that carbon capture capacity, but contributing inordinate amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere as well. 20% of global CO2 emissions are from deforestation.
While some Amazonian deforestation is for timber, the primary cause is cattle ranching. Brazil’s beef industry is really quite formidable, as a Greenpeace report exposed earlier this year. They are the world’s largest exporters of beef and leather, an industry worth $7 billion a year. With that kind of money being made, cattle ranching enjoys full government support. The Brazilian government is a key investor in cattle products, and they intend not just to continue, but to expand production. A third of the world’s internationally traded beef already comes from Brazil, and it is their stated aim to raise that to two thirds by 2018.
To feed this massive industry, ranchers burn off sections of the forest. The newly exposed land is either used for grazing, or to plant soya for use as a feed crop. Cattle ranching itself is a polluting business – around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions (pdf) are from livestock, a fact often overlooked because the emissions are methane rather than CO2. If deforestation carries on at this rate, the Amazon will be leveled and climate change will be unstoppable… for hamburgers.
The driving force behind all of this is the world’s growing appetite for meat. In the West, meat was reserved for special occasions, Sunday lunch and so on. As standards of living have risen, so too has meat consumption. It has gone from luxury to necessity, and you can now enjoy meat products in every meal, and even snack on it in-between. At the same time, countries that have not traditionally eaten meat are westernizing. In 1980, the average Chinese person ate 20kg of meat a year. Today that figure stands at 54kg, and across the developing world meat consumption is rising at around 5% per year. To those two factors we need to add a rising global population – 28.5 million new mouths to feed per year. Put it all together and you have a runaway meat wagon.
Our only real option then is to eat less meat, but we could also eat different meats. Chicken and pork are both more efficient sources of protein than beef, but we could a step further than that, and that brings me to the turtles. I know what you’re thinking – aren’t turtles endangered already? But there’s more than one kind of turtle. I’m talking about Amazonian river turtles. Already eaten by local people, river turtle is considered very tasty. They can grow up to a metre long and weigh 50kg a full size, and while they are currently hunted unsustainably, they can also be farmed.
Kept in ponds or large concrete tanks along the Amazon’s floodplains, there is no reason why turtle farming couldn’t become a pretty large-scale industry. Biologist E O Wilson, in his book The Diversity of Life, estimates that turtle farming could yield 25,000 kg of meat per hectare (22,000 pounds per acre). That’s 400 times more meat than beef in the same amount of space.
Will turtleburgers save the Amazon? No, not really, but it illustrates the kind of solutions that we will need to solve our unsustainable meat-eating habits. Farming the turtle would protect the wild ones and conserve the seven different species. It would also work with, rather than against, local customs. People need jobs, and limiting cattle ranching and making the forest off-limits would be met with serious opposition or encourage illegal activity. It’s better to create attractive alternatives, and work in partnership with existing communities and their traditions. Thirdly, it would diversify exports, which is good for the economy, and good for global food security too.
There’s no one answer to how we will provide the world’s growing population with enough protein, but dozens of potential solutions. We don’t all need to be vegetarians, but eating less meat is a good starting point. Then there are uncommon meats that can be scaled up to commercial production, such as kangaroo. Community chicken farms could become more common, or the small-scale fish farming of species like tilapia. Fans of wild meat often say there is spare capacity in the game market, if more people ate rabbit or pheasant. If consumers can be persuaded, locusts are eaten across Africa and Asia, and insects could be a useful food source. One thing’s for certain - the menu of the future looks pretty interesting. One McTurtle to go please.
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