Nearly 80 percent of terrestrial species live in forests, and the world experiences its sixth mass extinction mainly due to agriculture. With nearly 8 billion mouths to feed, agricultural industries have rapidly expanded to keep up with the growing population. This week, new research highlights the dangers of unregulated agriculture, claiming that between 90 and 99 percent of all deforestation in the tropics is attributed to agriculture.

The review, published in Science by Chalmers University researchers, found that the global agricultural sector is significantly driving mass extinction and other major environmental damages. The immense deforestation, however, only results in marginal active agricultural expansion, estimating between half to two-thirds of the devastated land. Half of the deforested area is allocated to soy, palm oil, and pasture land, revealing that a handful of commodities contribute to most of the environmental damages.

"Our review makes clear that between 90 and 99 percent of all deforestation in the tropics is driven directly or indirectly by agriculture. But what surprised us was that a comparatively smaller share of the deforestation – between 45 and 65 percent – results in the expansion of actual agricultural production on the deforested land. This finding is of profound importance for designing effective measures to reduce deforestation and promote sustainable rural development," Florence Pendrill, lead author of the study at the Chalmers University of Technology, stated.

The Chalmers University research exposes how unchecked agricultural growth, especially within the meat and dairy sector, can present severe harm to the environment. These researchers also emphasized how land is often clear for speculative purposes alone, meaning that livestock or palm oil production never occurs on the cleared land. The researchers note that governments must take action to prevent speculative projects that fail to materialize.

“As our study shows, strengthening forest and land-use governance in producer countries has to be the ultimate goal of any policy response. Supply chain and demand-side measures must be designed in a way that also tackles the underlying and indirect ways in which agriculture is linked to deforestation,” Dr. Toby Gardner, Researcher of Stockholm Environment Institute and Director of the supply chain transparency initiative Trase said. ”They need to drive improvements in sustainable rural development, otherwise, we can expect to see deforestation rates remaining stubbornly high in many places."

Animal Agriculture Impact on Land Use

Despite only providing 18 percent of the world’s calories, meat and dairy products require 83 percent of global farmland. Currently, the animal agriculture industry is responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation worldwide, however, this sacrifice comes with little reward. For example, a plant-based Impossible Burger requires 78 times less land than a conventional beef burger due to a dependency on pastureland for livestock.

Within the agriculture sector, beef is the top contributor to agriculture-linked deforestation. According to the Global Forest Watch, beef production alone is responsible for 36 percent of food-related forest replacement.

One study found that replacing just 20 percent of conventionally produced beef with microbial-based alternatives could cut deforestation by 50 percent by the year 2050. Microbial fermentation uses microbes from sources including mushrooms to replicate the structure of cow protein. The study also noted that this land-use change could cut 56 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.

Eating Plant-Based for the Planet

Currently, 85 percent of the world's population is currently feeling the effects of climate change, according to Mercator Research Institute researchers. While the world is inching towards the tipping point, the United Nations emphasized that there's still time to combat the climate crisis, encouraging governments and consumers to adopt plant-based policies and practices. For example, choosing to eat plant-based twice a week for a year is the equivalent of planting 14 billion trees.

This November, the UN will host the COP27 climate change conference. Last year, the climate conference faced negative criticism for ignoring the agricultural industry's impact on the climate and failing to offer plant-based options amid worsening greenhouse gas emissions. This year, the conference will host a Food4Climate Pavilion to promote the benefits of plant-based eating and sustainable agriculture.

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