I remember back in the 80’s reading about an environmental assessment by a respected institution, the Union of Concerned Scientists. These were the early days of life-cycle analyses, and these Concerned Scientists were seeking the answer to the following question: Which behavior of the average US family had the most devastating environmental impacts, taking into account their full life-cycle impacts, from cradle to grave?
It was an interesting question and I obviously thought I had the answer: Suburban living and the reliance on the automobile, of course.
Just think of the dinosaur juice (oil) extracted thousands of miles away under some desert, transported by tankers to refineries that then process it, with enormous energy, into fuels, trucked to my gas station, so I can go from my house to the supermarket, spewing NOx, SOx, CO2, to buy groceries. Or the incredible cost of producing a car, that would require Brazilian iron from Pará to be transported and processed in China, then transformed into steel sheets sold to Mexico to build my car, and bought in the USA. This was the original sin, it had to be.
I was wrong. Suburbia came in second.
According to the UCS, eating red meat was the average American family’s worst environmental habit. How could that be? My Sunday steak worse than an SUV? My barbecued T-bone worse than suburban sprawl? I was intrigued; I read the UCS arguments about how the beef industry required huge amounts of land, water, energy, transport and feedstock to produce my juicy quarter-pounder, but I dismissed it as propaganda from vegan fundamentalists fiddling with data to prove their argument.
Until I got to Brazil, 30 years later, while posted as a country office specialist for the Bank. Brazil is a land of close to 200 million people and over 200 million cows. Getting to know my counterparts in office, I had fascinating meetings with EMBRAPA – “Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agricola” – the national research powerhouse in tropical agriculture and livestock, where I was told that agriculture in Brazil occupied about 66 million hectares (or 66 million soccer field) and that cattle required a hectare per head, or 200 million soccer fields, in order to satisfy our craving for a good “churrasco”.
And how much is 200 million hectares, I asked myself? That would be… 2 million square kilometers!
Nearly as big as Argentina! 3 times Texas! Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Italy and a few others more! Is this really what it takes for my future quarter pounder to graze in peace?
I remembered my UCS report, and started to think that they might have been on to something, beyond propaganda.
At that time, the then Minister of Agriculture declared that Brazilian Agriculture could essentially double in size, without cutting a single tree, by simply improving the management of pastures, improving productivity, rotating crops, recuperating compacted soils, fixing carbon along the way, supported by EMBRAPA’s competent scientific staff. I all but stopped eating churrascos, even though I did love beef, out of gastronomic protest against the inefficient use of land and natural resources.
I soon left Brazil, and by 2013 moved to Guatemala, from where I also work with Jamaica. In Guatemala, my work has to do with providing productive and sustainable alternatives to local communities of Petén, the largest tract of tropical rainforest in Mesoamerica, part of the “Reserva de la Biosfera Maya”, a World Biosphere Reserve. There, I was told that the average cow required 2 hectares of land, twice the land used in Brazil and that Petén had anywhere from half a million to a million heads of cattle. I was dismayed, and soon started plotting with my Climate Change colleague in Guatemala strategies to push for a happy cow and forest cohabitation, technically called “manejo silvo-pastoril”.
What got me convinced of the large indirect impacts of poor cattle farming management practices was Jamaica. I landed in Kingston in mid-2013 and was immediately struck on how forested the Blue Mountains were, considering that Jamaica has a human density of 252/km2 similar to a European country. How could that be?
One of Jamaica’s favorites dish is jerk chicken, and chickens have little impact on forests. A second local delicacy is ackee and salt fish and fish care little about forests; followed by curried goat, fried dumplings, pork…. few of these ingredients require cutting down forests, and therefore, I argue, forests do well in Jamaica. UCS, again.
This is not to say that cows and forest cannot cohabit, quite the opposite. We are starting to work in Guatemala to ensure exactly that. After all, I do enjoy a good churrasco and would love to eat it, guiltless.
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