Forests provide a home to millions of diverse flora and fauna around the world. But, the benefits of forests extend far beyond the wildlife who live there. They play a vital role in the world’s carbon cycle by balancing greenhouse gas emissions, making the air in our atmosphere breathable, and protecting against climate change. But, as companies cut down more and more of our forests to make room for agriculture and industry, the whole planet suffers the consequences. Deforestation threatens our environment, impacts human lives, and kills millions of animals every year.
Deforestation destroys ecosystems that are vital to wildlife and humans alike. Lush green forests offer a home to some of the world’s most iconic wild animals, from the jaguar to the panda, along with countless diverse species of vegetation. But the importance of forests doesn’t stop there. Like the ocean, forests absorb excess atmospheric carbon dioxide, serving as a much-needed buffer against irreversible climate change. In short, forests help sustain life around the world—far beyond where their tree lines end.
However, if humans continue to destroy forests at the current rate, forests may reach their breaking point. We cut down more than 15 billion trees each year. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that humans—or, more specifically, the corporations and industries they manage—converted 420 million hectares of forested land for other uses since 1990. That’s over 1 billion acres of forest cleared to make way for strip mines, cattle grazing, and industrial sprawl. And, out of all the industries that drive global deforestation, animal agriculture is one of the biggest culprits.
The meat industry routinely destroys forests to make way for cattle grazing and livestock feed. Since 1970, cattle ranching drove the vast majority of the deforestation in the Amazon. In other words, animal-centric diets are one of the main reasons we are losing our rainforests. “The biggest transformational change is needed in the way in which we produce and consume food,” warns the FAO, which calls agricultural expansion “the main driver of deforestation.”
What is Deforestation?
Deforestation is the mass removal of trees over a wide area. The term most often refers to the clearing of trees by humans, but natural processes such as flooding or fire can take down trees, too. Most frequently, deforestation occurs to clear land for other purposes, like farming, or collecting timber from the fallen trees.
Regardless of what drives deforestation, the result is always the same: the destruction of an ecosystem that once played a vital role in protecting our planet.
The connection between factory farming pollution and deforestation
Every year, the factory farming industry raises and kills billions of animals for human consumption. Sadly, this process doesn’t just harm animals—it harms our planet, too.
Factory farms force thousands of animals to live together in extreme confinement. These facilities generate so much waste that they poison the surrounding air, water, and land, causing widespread health problems in nearby communities. And, the negative impacts of factory farm pollution extend far beyond just the surrounding area. Animal waste emits greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change and pose an existential threat to communities around the world.
Forests defend against the threat of climate change by serving as a “carbon sink.” The trees absorb carbon dioxide, removing excess greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and turning it into the oxygen we breathe. The “greenhouse effect” occurs when too many greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere, trapping heat from the sun and raising global atmospheric temperatures. Scientists attribute most human-driven climate change to the greenhouse effect. When humans cut down forests, more greenhouse gas emissions from industrial agriculture remain in the atmosphere, further contributing to the climate crisis.
Humans can survive without factory farms, but we can’t survive without healthy, breathable air. If deforestation and factory farming continues unabated, our planet, and our species, are headed for disaster.
What are the Causes of Deforestation?
In general, human activity is the driving force behind deforestation. Several industries clear and develop forested land for their own purposes, including agriculture, paper, mining, and logging.
1. Animal Agriculture
To feed the global demand for meat, meat producers convert ecologically important forest habitats into land for grazing livestock and growing animal feed like soy and corn. The FAO reports that large-scale commercial agriculture was responsible for 40% of tropical deforestation from 2000 to 2010, with animal agriculture largely to blame. Tropical rainforests are the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, providing a home to species of vibrant orchids, tiny amphibians, and majestic great apes. Their destruction threatens thousands of these unique plant and animal species with permanent extinction.
“The quest for more land to graze cattle and grow livestock feed has been a driving force behind the destruction of tropical forests, particularly in Latin America,” the agency said. And the damage doesn’t stop at the destruction of forest: “In a few short years, overgrazing, compaction and nutrient loss turn cleared forest lands into eroded wastelands.”
2. Livestock Ranching
Out of all forms of agriculture, cattle ranching claims the most forested land. Meat producers have cleared over 45 million hectares (or 111 million acres) of lush forests to create room for their cattle to graze. That’s something like 84 million football fields.
Cattle ranching has already wiped out millions of acres of the Amazon rainforest in South America, the world’s largest tropical forest. Whistleblowers called out JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, for illegally clearing protected lands in the Amazon rainforest into land for cattle grazing. The Brazilian company pledged to remove deforestation from its supply chain by the year 2035, but these promises may be too little, too late. Environmentalists argue that the corporate pledge is “grossly insufficient,” with deforestation accelerating rapidly and the threat of irreversible climate change growing closer every day.
3. Growing Animal Feed
Soybean production accounts for vast amounts of deforestation. While food companies process some of these soybeans into tofu, soy sauce, and other products for human consumption, a majority of soy production—around 75%—goes toward feeding farmed animals.
As soy production took over previously forested land, Brazil’s Cerrado savannah lost half of its forest to agriculture. Investigations into meat industry supply chains reveal the link between deforestation in Cerrado to factory farms the world over. Industrial farms in the UK import soy grown in this region to feed their chickens, which in turn supply meat from factory-farmed chickens to food companies like McDonald’s and Tesco.
4. Palm Oil
If you look at the ingredients of many common household products and processed foods, you’re likely to find palm oil on the list. In fact, according to the World Wildlife Fund, it’s in close to 50% of the packaged products that you’d find at the grocery store, from frozen meals to cosmetics. Derived from the fruit of the palm tree, companies add colorless, odorless palm oil to their products to lengthen their products’ shelf life.
Although companies use palm oil because of its relatively low cost, the growth and harvest of palm oil comes at a high price for the world’s tropical rainforests and the animals who call them home. Palm oil plantations cover 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface. These plantations destroy lush forests and replace them with “green deserts”: areas with no biodiversity whatsoever. This takes away the habitats of several endangered species, such as the orangutan, the pygmy elephant, and the Sumatran rhino, pushing them even closer to extinction.
While there are some efforts to harvest palm oil more sustainably, causing less harm to endangered species and their habitats, we can make the biggest difference by avoiding products with palm oil entirely. The Rainforest Action Network offers several resources for avoiding products and businesses that contribute to palm oil-driven deforestation.
5. Forest Fires
Wildfires occur naturally in untouched forested land. While seemingly destructive, natural blazes promote the health of the ecosystem by clearing out dead organic matter and making room for new growth. However, when humans start forest fires, forest ecosystems can suffer from irreversible damage.
While some human-caused forest fires are accidental, farmers and other land developers sometimes intentionally start fires as a way to clear forested land. In a practice known as ‘slash and burn’ agriculture, farmers slash down acres of forest and burn the remnants in hopes of reviving the health of the soil. However, these uncontrolled fires can do more harm than good. Fires can eliminate entire populations of plant and animal species in an area, throwing off ecological balance and decreasing biodiversity. Research has shown that the biodiversity loss resulting from slash-and-burn agriculture can have the opposite effect on soil health, resulting in decreased crop yields and profits.
Agriculture-driven fires have taken a large toll on Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. A record number of fires turned the once vibrant, lush forests of the Amazon to ash in 2019. Investigators found that fires were three times more likely in beef-producing zones in the Amazon, pointing to the clearing of land for cattle ranching as one of the main culprits of forest fires.
Forest fires in the Amazon devastate animals and humans alike. Breathing the smoke from these fires is already harmful, but Indigenous communities suffered even further during this year’s fire season. The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacts the Indigenous peoples, as their immune systems may be less equipped to fight off the virus. In Brazil, the combined threats of COVID-19 and air pollution from wildfires have led to increased hospitalization rates for their populations.
6. Illegal Logging
Around the world, logging companies harvest timber and wood from fallen trees. In some regions, national or international laws protect forested areas from logging operations. However, companies continue to illegally harvest and sell timber from these protected areas.
Economists value the illegal logging industry at almost $150 billion, and 15–30% of all timber comes from illegal operations. In a shocking 2016 investigation, US trade representatives found that 90% of the timber imported to the US from Peru came from illegal logging operations. Timber trafficking continues to harm forests, as countries fail to enforce the laws meant to protect the Amazon and other forested lands.
Mining refers to the extraction of minerals and other natural materials from the earth. The mining industry is notorious for subjecting workers to extremely dangerous conditions, while also harming forests and the environment.
Just as ‘slash and burn’ methods clear forests for agricultural use, the mining industry slashes and burns forests to clear land for its operations. While mining causes deforestation at a much smaller scale than agriculture, it generates high amounts of air and water pollution that contaminate surrounding environments.
Paper is one of the most obvious culprits of deforestation—after all, paper is made from trees. In 2019, the US paper industry produced 78 million tons of paper and cardboard. Making one ton of paper requires 24 trees.
The problem with paper doesn’t end at the production process, however. A staggering 17.2 million tons of paper and cardboard ended up in landfills in 2018. As paper and other trash break down in landfills, they release methane—a harmful greenhouse gas that further contributes to climate change.
While it doesn’t mitigate the problem, recycling your paper and buying recycled paper certainly helps reduce the impact of paper on deforestation.
As people move from rural areas to urban areas, cities grow and populations increase in a phenomenon known as “urbanization.” When people live in cities, their incomes and consumption habits tend to rise, putting even more pressure on forests.
To build structures for a growing population, urban developers turn to the logging and mining industries for wood and metals—encouraging these industries to cut down more forests for their operations. And, when people move from villages to cities, they consume more animal products and processed foods. Large-scale industrial farmers convert surrounding forests for farmland to meet the new demand. Overall, the rapid, increased consumption and development associated with urban growth can spell disaster for forested ecosystems.
10. Desertification of Land
Desertification occurs when land with fertile soil becomes an infertile desert. Desertification can happen in response to natural phenomena, such as drought, but human activity can also play a role in accelerating the process. This happens when farmers over-cultivate land—excessively farming one tract of land to the point where the soil degrades completely.
Trees maintain nutrient-rich topsoil by protecting it from wind, rain, or other harsh weather. Therefore, the removal of trees through deforestation drives desertification. And, in a vicious cycle, desertification contributes to deforestation. When land is no longer fertile for natural vegetation, industries further encroach onto once-fertile areas and exploit them.
What are the Effects of Deforestation?
Forests don’t just provide a home to millions of wild animal and plant species—their ability to capture greenhouse gas emissions makes the earth livable for us all. When humans harm forests for short-term economic gains, we harm our species’ chances for survival in the long term.
People who live near forests suffer the most immediate impacts of deforestation. These marginalized and vulnerable communities depend on forests for their livelihoods, as forested land provides resources like fertile soil for food and clean, freshwater for drinking.
When humans destroy their forest habitats, animals and insects seek shelter in the populous villages surrounding forests. Animal migration into human territory leads to an unprecedented amount of contact between humans and wildlife that’s not only unnatural but dangerous. This is because animals can spread pathogens to humans. These pathogens cause illnesses known as zoonotic diseases. “Zoonotic Diseases: Disease Transmitted from Animals to Humans”). A 2021 report from the Harvard School of Public Health cautioned that, to prevent the spread of zoonotic disease, we must change our agricultural practices and protect our forests.
Sadly, zoonotic diseases are already more prevalent in areas experiencing deforestation. Mosquitos spread malaria to humans, and mosquito populations flourish when biodiversity drops. A 2020 study found that “deforestation is associated with increased malaria prevalence, suggesting that in some cases forest conservation might belong in a portfolio of anti-malarial interventions.” A 2019 case study in Indonesian villages further solidified the connection between malaria and deforestation: researchers found that a 1% loss in forest cover increased the incidence of malaria by 10%.
Malaria is not the only zoonotic disease that arises from deforestation. A 2017 study linked outbreaks of ebola in Central and West Africa to the recent loss of forests, citing “more frequent contact between infected wild animals and humans” as a probable cause.
Though its origins are still unclear, scientists have hypothesized that the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV2, jumped from animals to humans. Our immune systems can’t handle these new, emerging pathogens, leading to the rampant spread of infectious diseases that can grow into a global pandemic. The FAO warns that “habitat loss due to forest area change and the expansions of human populations to forest areas” increases the risk of wildlife spreading disease to humans. If we want to avoid future pandemics caused by the spread of zoonotic disease, we must protect habitats from deforestation.
2. Food Insecurity
Forests provide surrounding communities with clean drinking water, food, and jobs. Indigenous peoples harvest food and medicine directly from plant species in the forest or cultivate crops in the fertile soil. When companies cut down forests, these communities lose resources to cultivate the food they need to survive, pushing them into food insecurity. Hundreds of millions of people rely on tropical forests for food, and the highest concentrations of food insecure populations live in regions with tropical forests.
Deforestation perpetuates another vicious cycle when it comes to food insecurity. Industrial agriculture companies convert forests into land for cattle grazing, palm oil, and soy production to feed growing populations of city-dwellers. This process destroys the biodiversity and fertility of the land, making it unsustainable for feeding populations in the long term. As the FAO stated in a recent report, “forest degradation can be a threat to food security but also a product of efforts to obtain it—the costs of degradation need to be weighed against the value obtained.” To produce more food, the industrial agriculture industry is clearing forests—which, in turn, further exacerbates world hunger.
3. Local People and Their Livelihoods
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that nearly 25% of the global population relies on forests for their livelihoods, including many of the world’s poorest communities. The world’s Indigenous populations suffer some of the worst impacts of forest destruction, with deforestation displacing entire Indigenous communities.
In the Amazon regions of Brazil, deforestation is forcing thousands of Indigenous people off their land. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stripped protections for these communities entirely, allowing big industries to encroach even further on forested land. Bolsonaro also removed power from agencies meant to safeguard their rights, pushing Indigenous Brazilians to come together and fight the threat of deforestation on their own.
Effects of Deforestation on the Environment
Deforestation’s environmental impact extends far beyond the edges of the woods. When we remove forests, we lose out on the vital protection they provide against climate change, soil erosion, and natural disasters like flooding.
1. Soil Erosion
The roots of trees stabilize the soil and keep it in place. Removing trees loosens the soil and leaves it exposed to damaging rains and wind. Removing trees on a mass scale through deforestation significantly speeds up soil erosion.
Researchers examined the impacts of deforestation on loess, a soil layer of dust and silt that’s rich in minerals. They found that a combination of agriculture, cattle ranching, and demand for wood drove deforestation on the loess in northeastern Iran, increasing the loss of soil and nutrients.
Developing countries pay an especially harsh price for soil erosion, especially when they lose topsoil, the nutrient-rich layer of soil that is essential for growing crops. The Island of Java in Indonesia lost 770 metric tons of topsoil per year in the late 1980s as a direct result of deforestation. Farmers in the region lost out on an estimated 1.5 million tons of rice, which had the potential to fulfill the nutritional needs of almost 15 million people. These farmers, and the local populations they work to feed, experienced firsthand how detrimental deforestation can be to human life.
2. Climate Change
Trees balance the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) levels as the gas cycles through the atmosphere and into the oceans, soil, and other living organisms.
Cutting down trees releases their stored CO2 back into the atmosphere. And, when we don’t replant the fallen trees, we lose out on their continued removal of excess carbon from the atmosphere. This leads to the excess carbon emissions that contribute to the greenhouse effect and accelerate climate change.
Removing trees on a mass scale through deforestation takes away one of the most important buffers we have against climate change. If we put an end to deforestation, our annual greenhouse gas emissions would drop by 10%. This action could prove crucial in the fight against climate change, with climate scientists estimating we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% in the next decade to mitigate the crisis at hand.
Trees help to control flooding. Their roots hold soil firm in heavy rains, and the trees themselves absorb some of the rainwater. Their absence can cause disastrous floods.
In 2004, floods killed hundreds of people in Haiti. Reports from the aftermath of the disaster revealed that the removal of 98% of the island nation’s forests caused the flooding—deeming the floods a “man-made ecological disaster.” On the other side of the world, deforestation for illegal harvesting also intensified floods in Kashmir, claiming the lives of 18 people in 2015. Researchers are clear that “(w)hen the trees are removed from the environment, the rainy season can have devastating effects.”
Effects of Deforestation on BiodiversityForests are home to thousands of unique flora and fauna that can’t be found in any other ecosystem. Because they house such a diverse variety of life, the destruction of forests can have a devastating impact on the earth’s biodiversity.
1. Habitat Loss
The earth has lost an estimated 80 million hectares of forest since 1990, as industries clear forested land for farming, grazing, mining, drilling, and urbanization. This number doesn’t just represent fallen trees—it represents the decimation of millions of animals’ habitats.
Habitat loss is among the greatest dangers to plant and animal species worldwide, and agriculture is “the major cause.” When animals lose their habitats, they lose the shelter they need for continued survival. Researchers have observed the decline of entire species’ populations in response to deforestation-driven habitat loss.
2. Wildlife Extinction
Rainforests are home to an estimated 50% of life on land. The FAO reports that forests offer habitat to 80% of the world’s amphibious species, 75% of bird species, and 68% of mammal species.
The habitat loss associated with deforestation doesn’t kill animals directly—instead, their populations die out slowly as “their breeding rates fall and competition for food becomes even more intense.” The habitat destruction caused by deforestation drives 135 plant, animal, and insect species to extinction every day. That’s 50,000 species per year, lost forever.
3. Acidic Oceans
Ocean acidification occurs when the ocean absorbs CO2, lowering the water’s pH level and making it more acidic. Deforestation, along with other human activities such as industrial agriculture and the burning of fossil fuels, accelerates this problem.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the ocean absorbs around 30% of all atmospheric CO2. As levels of atmospheric CO2 rise, so do levels in the ocean, resulting in further ocean acidification.
Just like the oceans, forests act as a carbon sink, with trees absorbing and storing atmospheric carbon. Deforestation forces our oceans to take on more of the strain of excess greenhouse gases.
Ocean acidification harms ocean biodiversity and ecosystems. When water becomes more acidic, it can dissolve the shells and skeletons of organisms like oysters, clams, sea urchins, shallow water corals, deep-sea corals, and calcareous plankton. The negative effects of this reverberate through the entire ecosystem, as bigger fish rely on these calcified organisms for food. If deforestation and other human activities continue to drive ocean acidification, the chemistry of the entire ocean may be altered forever.
What Animals are Affected by Deforestation?
Deforestation pushes entire species from their homes, driving them to the brink of extinction. One of the most heartbreaking examples of this is the plight of the orangutan. Orangutans only live on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, where palm oil production has leveled entire forests. Orangutans suffered a population decline of 25% in a single decade, largely due to deforestation of their homes.
Deforestation impacts all great apes. Between human-caused threats like hunting and deforestation, species like chimpanzees and gorillas also face a “very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future, probably within our own lifetime.”
Sadly, so many more iconic and beloved species are suffering the effects of deforestation. The world’s largest eagle species, the harpy eagle, relies on forest cover to locate their prey. Without forests, several harpy eagles have died of starvation. Research also links deforestation to the loss of pandas, monarch butterflies, and jaguars.
How Can We Stop Deforestation?
Researchers warn that, if deforestation continues at current levels, the planet will face an extinction crisis that will “jeopardize the health and wellbeing of future generations.” To avoid irreversible damage from habitat loss and climate change, we need to both halt the loss of forests and promote their restoration. Taking these meaningful steps to restore our forests could contribute to more than one-third of the emissions cuts we need to take to limit global warming to 2 degrees celsius by 2030—the climate change mitigation objective set by the Paris Agreement.
Alongside halting deforestation and starting forest restoration initiatives, government leaders must act to protect the remaining forests’ ecosystems, the species that live within them, and the communities that depend on them for survival. Scientists recommend protecting and maintaining at least 50% of land and oceans as intact natural ecosystems to “save the diversity and abundance of life on Earth.”
One of the key actions governments can take to protect and maintain forest ecosystems is restoring land rights to Indigenous peoples, which prevents private interests from clearing the land. A study found that, in Brazil, deforestation rates decreased by two-thirds in areas where Indigenous people fully owned their lands.
While some private companies have committed to ending deforestation in their supply chains, deforestation continues to accelerate. Evidence has shown that we cannot put our trust in private companies to stop plundering Earth’s forests for their own financial gain. We need governments to step up and enforce crucial forest protection and restoration initiatives if we want to put a stop to deforestation.
What Has Been Done so Far?
Local, rural communities are already acting to protect the forested land that they depend on for their survival, and governments are enacting more policies to protect forests. As a result, we are making some progress to reduce the harmful effects of deforestation worldwide.
In 2020, seven countries reported decreased deforestation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Some countries accomplished this by strengthening the enforcement of logging regulations and requiring proof that timber imports were harvested legally. We could also see more governments introduce meaningful forest conservation policies, as 50 countries pledged to protect 30% of the planet by the year 2030 at this year’s One Planet Summit.
While these steps are encouraging, we need to do more, especially when it comes to industrial agriculture and farming interests. The FAO suggests that governments, for example, should create “buffer zones” around protected areas, where no cattle ranching is allowed. And, as individuals, we all have the power to change our broken food system and promote an end to deforestation.
The global demand for meat drives deforestation, especially in the Amazon region. When we eat less meat or cut meat consumption entirely, the meat industry has less incentive to destroy forests to meet the global demand for its products. The United Nations climate change report “describes plant-based diets as a major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change,” and it recommends more policies aimed at reducing meat consumption.
What You Can Do
Widespread deforestation doesn’t just harm forests and the animals that live in them: it harms our entire planet. Thankfully, you can help limit the damage. When you shift your diet away from meat and dairy, you take away financial support from the industrial animal agriculture operations that clear forested land for their interests—a crucial step towards protecting these habitats. Take action today by starting your plant-based journey.
- 5 Big Causes of Deforestation and How You Can Stop It
- This is How Animal Agriculture Causes Deforestation
- Time-lapse Video Shows Shocking Scale of Amazon Deforestation
- Palm Oil Deforestation: A Threat to Orangutan Populations, Indigenous People and Biodiversity
- Soy Consumption and Deforestation: 75 Percent of Soybean Crop Grown in the Amazon is Feed to Livestock
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