Deforestation is a major problem that needs solving. Every year we cut down more and more trees, encroaching into more of the planet’s land surface. But preserving what remains of Earth’s natural forests – which not only suck up carbon from the atmosphere but also provide ecosystem services like clean water and air – is critical if we are to save our planet.

One of the major drivers of deforestation is the need for land to produce food. Crops, grazing land for livestock and even the building of dams and irrigation systems, all result in lost forest land. Here’s the problem: The human population is expected to increase to over nine billion in the coming decades. All those people need to eat, putting more demand on the finite land resources of the planet.

The Khimki Forest near Moscow, Russia. (Photo Credit: Daniel Beilinson / Flickr)

The Khimki Forest near Moscow, Russia. (Photo Credit: Daniel Beilinson / Flickr)

“It takes about one hectare of land to produce the food to feed the average American,” said Richard Waite, an associate with the World Resources Institute‘s (WRI) food program. “If you clear that forest, that’s going to release about 300 tons of CO2 equivalent, or 17 years of an average American’s energy use.”

If the next billion people begin eating an American diet, that would be disastrous for forests and the planet as a whole. Even a less intensive diet would, it seems, have inevitable negative impacts. But there is hope, according to a new multidisciplinary study, published in Nature Magazine, that argues that there are many scenarios in which we can feed our growing population without cutting down any more forests.

“There is an implicit assumption…that we have to encroach into tropical forests, and we have to use more land to feed the people,” Karlheinz Erb, lead writer on the study and a professor at the Institute of Social Ecology at the University of Klagenfurt in Vienna, Austria, told Planet Experts. “Here, we show that this argument is not valid.”

Erb and his fellow researchers spent nearly seven years working on this project – the first comprehensive look at supply, demand and natural factors, to see if the planet can achieve food goals without deforestation.

“We are interested in what is feasible from a biophysical point of view,” said Erb, “what is possible, what is not possible, and what are boundaries of development.”

The research team found that the key factor was not, as some expected, increasing crop yields, or organic farming, or even land conversions from cropland to grazing land. It was our diets.

“From a sustainability point of view, the demand side seems to be more powerful in the end,” said Erb.

Farmer in India. (Source: Creative Commons)

Farmer in India. (Source: Creative Commons)

This is contrary to a lot of international agricultural thinking, where the conventional wisdom is that meeting future food demands necessitates increasing crop yields, a la the so-called “Green Revolution.” This is what is behind the huge amount of money flowing to companies like Monsanto and massive mono-culture crop systems, despite their huge environmental externalities. If we maintain current diet patterns, we would need to achieve massive, unprecedented yield growths.

“If we only focus on the production side, to keep the current agricultural footprint, yields would have to grow 30 percent more than the past 50 years,” said Waite. “We would need another green revolution with yields rising more quickly than in the past.”

Now, we have another option. If demand matters more that we previously thought, then it would make sense to adapt consumption habits to be more sustainable. Erb’s team looked at five different consumption patterns, ranging from a completely animal-free vegan diet to an animal-rich meaty diet that closely resembles the diets most common in North America and Europe.

The diet that provided the least space for forests to survive was – you guessed it – the American diet. In their 500 simulations, only a small portion of scenarios with meat-rich diets were compatible with the goal of no more deforestation. Conversely, those with vegetarian and vegan diets had far more feasible scenarios.

Staples of the American diet. (Photo Credit: Shutterstock via the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)

Staples of the American diet. (Photo Credit: Shutterstock via the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)

This is clear: An animal protein-heavy diet is the least sustainable. With that comes one major concern: As more and more countries develop, we’re seeing rapidly changing diets, particularly increasing meat consumption. If the western diet goes global, Erb and his researchers believe that we need massive cropland yields, the expansion of cropland into areas currently used for grazing. Otherwise, more forests will likely disappear.

“Diets with a lot of meat will not work in a world without high yields and high intensity agricultural systems,” said Erb.

This does not mean we all need to give up meat. Erb’s team found that some livestock can actually be beneficial, because they reduce risk and can make land unsuitable for crops more productive. WRI echoed this statement in their own recently released report, entitled Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future. They argue that the problem is not that we eat meat, it’s that we eat too much of it, and often the least sustainable kinds.

“We found…even small shifts away from meat and dairy, or shifts away from beef, the most environmentally impactful meat, can give you significant land and greenhouse gas reduction benefits,” said Waite, one of the authors of the WRI report.

One thing that both these reports make clear is that the power is in our hands – or, more accurately, our mouths. Shifting demand is not the end-all solution to deforestation, but it is also clear that changing our diets is key to creating a sustainable food system. And the forests will thank us, too.

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