Beef: some more ecological considerations

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Wed Apr 17 09:36:42 MDT 1996


"The scale of forest destruction has been growing since the Second
World War as population in the Third World has risen sharply and the
demand for more land has similarly increased. It is the tropical forests
of South America, west Africa and south-east Asia that have borne the
brunt of the destruction--overall since 1950 about half of the world's
tropical forests have been destroyed and three-quarters of that clearance
has been to provide land for agriculture. By the 1980s the best estimates
suggest that about 28 million acres a year were being cleared. About
two-thirds of the total loss was in Africa, in particular countries such as
the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Liberia, Guinea and Ghana, although by the
1970s destruction in the Amazons was growing rapidly. (These figures
are probably and underestimate of the scale of destruction since they do
not include land that has been severely degraded and which, whilst
retaining some forest cover, will probably remain as scrub and never
regenerate into true forest.) In the tropical forests of central and South
America much of the clearance has been to provide pastureland where
large landowners can raise cattle to provide beef for the United States
(the US buys three-quarters of all central American beef exports.) In
Costa Rica cattle ranches took up only 12 percent of the land in 1950
but forty years later the area devoted to ranching had almost tripled and
amounted to two-thirds of the available farmland.

Because of the fragile nature of the ecosystem, destruction of the
tropical forests only offers a short-term solution to the problem of
finding more land for agriculture. Most of the nutrients are held not in
the soil but in the trees and plants and when these are burnt during
clearance the nutrients are destroyed. The underlying soils are poor and
degraded and erode easily once they are exposed to wind and rain. The
land is often cleared by small farmers, who are encouraged to settle in
the forest regions to reduce the pressure for land reform in the well
settled areas. They grow corn for a couple of seasons until the soil is
exhausted and are then bought out by large landowners who convert the
land to pasture for cattle. The soil is so poor that even grassland is only
usable for about five years before it too has to be abandoned--nearly all
the ranches established in the Amazon area before 1978 had been
abandoned by the mid-1980s. It is a striking example of how quickly a
highly productive natural ecosystem can be transformed into a an
unproductive, artificial one.

Large-scale clearance of forests, particularly in tropical areas, can also
alter the climate of an area, leading in turn to further environmental
degradation. When vegetation cover is removed, solar energy, instead of
being absorbed by the trees, is reflected from the bare ground,
increasing temperatures, drying the soil, creating dust in the
atmosphere and helping to stop rain clouds forming. Estimates suggest
that about 100,000 square miles of forest needs to be cleared before
these effects are noticeable on a significant scale. In the last century
about four times this area has been cleared in west Africa. The
consequences are now becoming apparent. Since 1968 there have been
twenty-three years of constant aridity across sub-Saharan Africa (with
some of the effects extending as far east as Ethiopia). In 1989 Gambia
experienced its twenty-first consecutive year of below-average rainfall
and in general rainfall has been a third less than it was a hundred years
ago. As a result, crop cultivation in west Africa has become more
difficult, soil quality has deteriorated and deserts have increased in
size."

(From "A Green History of the World" by Clive Ponting")


Louis Proyect


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