Europe’s hunger for land is driving deforestation around the world, and makes the EU complicit in the Amazon fires. To save the Amazon and fight climate breakdown, EU farming policy has to change, writes Marco Contiero.
Marco Contiero is Greenpeace EU’s agriculture policy director.
People around the world have been shocked by the images of pristine Amazon rainforest in flames, and the dire warnings from scientists of the severe consequences that this destruction has – for local biodiversity, Indigenous Peoples and the global climate. All over the world, young people are taking to the streets, asking for immediate political action to avoid the worst effects of climate breakdown. Many are demanding protection for the world’s forests, our best line of defence against climate chaos, and are asking our society to stop gorging itself on meat and dairy.
Because they know: these fires and their impacts are not natural disasters, they are very much man-made – forests in South America are purposefully cleared to make way for cattle farms, or to grow animal feed. More shockingly perhaps, although others poured the petrol and lit the matches, Europe shares the responsibility for these forest fires.
Overloaded land in Europe
The EU produces and consumes much more meat and dairy than its own farmland can safely support. We’ve seen the direct impact of this at home, as Europe’s countryside is starting to drown in manure.
The coast of Brittany, in France, is coated in toxic algae, boosted by manure run-off from pig, poultry and dairy farms. Last year, the Court of Justice of the EU ruled that Germany breached EU law by allowing manure runoff from farms to pollute water. All in all, nitrogen pollution like this costs the EU between €70 and €320 billion per year.
By over-producing and over-consuming animal products, Europe is not only overloading the land within its borders, but also putting pressure on land around the world.
Fires in the Amazon driven by Europe’s insatiable hunger for land
Over 71% of the EU’s farmland is used to feed farm animals, but even this is not enough for all of the meat and dairy that Europe produces and consumes. If the EU were to meet the massive demand for soy used to feed its own animals, it would require an estimated 15 million hectares of land, larger than the total surface area of Greece.
As a result, most soy is being shipped in from overseas, leaving behind a massive carbon and deforestation footprint.
Imports of food (meat and dairy included) or animal feed from overseas increase pressure on land, ultimately leading to forest destruction, like the fires in the Amazon or the clearance of the Cerrado savanna and the Gran Chaco region.
Some of Europe’s imports of meat, dairy or animal feed come directly from deforested areas, but more drives deforestation indirectly, by increasing global demand for these products. Even if the EU only bought soy or beef from areas that haven’t been deforested, European over-consumption would still keep driving up the demand for land around the world.
European money funding destruction
It is time for European governments and the EU to hear the urgent message of the young people marching in the streets and act on it. We need to radically shift Europe’s farming policies: governments must stop subsidising industrial meat and dairy producers with public money. Instead, they should support farmers willing to raise fewer animals, according to ecological principles, and encourage farmers growing plant-based, ecological food – food that is good for people and good for the planet.
As it is, the EU’s common agricultural policy is in danger of doubling down on the broken system of over-production and over-consumption of meat and dairy. Not only does this system contribute to worsening climate breakdown, but it is also particularly vulnerable to climate impacts that are now unavoidable.
As a first step, governments must stop giving public money to factory farms which keep animals in cramped conditions, heat the climate, pollute our rivers and coasts, and drive forest destruction overseas. Taxpayers’ money should not support farms that import animal feed linked to deforestation or forest degradation, since this subsidises the overloading of European farmland, and the destruction of ecosystems elsewhere. Instead, public money should support ecological production of fresh fruits and vegetables and extensively farmed meat and dairy that doesn’t smother our countryside with too much manure nor rely on industrial feed production or harmful imports.
The climate crisis will only get worse unless we do something about it. Europe needs farming that works with nature, not against it – and farming that can survive the climate impacts we’re already facing.