Amazon fires are a stark reminder of the true cost of food and the need for systems transformation

Guillermo Castilleja, Senior Advisor, Global Alliance for the Future of Food


This year’s fires in the Amazon, the worst in recent years, are a stark reminder of the challenges of producing plenty, affordable, and healthy food for a growing and more affluent world.

Today, almost all of the soy that Brazil exports goes to China, the rest to the European Union and other developing markets. There, buyers convert soy to animal feed which, in turn, helps grow meat locally (mainly pork, chicken, and beef). By 2017, before the trade-war with the US, 86 percent of the soy China consumed amounted to one fourth of the world’s soy and it was imported from just two countries: the US (33 percent) and Brazil (53 percent). No other country has had such a large share of imports for any other major agricultural commodity in history.

China’s consumption of meat is also rapidly growing. In 1991, the average Chinese consumed 20 kg of meat in a year – today, that number is 50 kg. As a reference, per capita meat consumption in the US is 97 kg. If these trends hold, this increase in demand could represent roughly an additional 30 million tons of soybeans that China would need to import for animal feed and, under current cropping practices, if that amount were to come from Brazil, it would require between 10 and 20 million acres of new cropland. That is a 30 percent increase of today’s total planted area. Some doubt Brazil has the necessary infrastructure and other conditions to supply this amount today.

On the other side of the coin, Brazil is the second largest producer of beef in the world, after the US; and cattle ranching is the top reason forests are being converted for agriculture in the Amazon. But, unlike soy, the main driver here is the domestic market for beef and leather. Up until 2000, foot and mouth disease had suppressed Brazil’s exports but, now, 30 percent of the production is exported, as demand in the country’s domestic market keeps growing (per capita consumption is at 30 kg, up from 25 kg in 1991).The rest of Brazil’s beef goes to a more diversified set of buyers, which includes Hong Kong, Malaysia, several Middle Eastern countries, and also China.

Unfortunately, the expansion of soy in the Cerrado, a vast tropical savanna in Brazil, and, ironically, the effect of the 2006 moratorium on soy grown in the Amazon forest, are today pushing cattle ranching deeper into the forest; locking us into a vicious cycle of deforestation.

We need to start getting serious about the bigger picture.

Many countries continue to encourage access to affordable cheap food as part of their food security policies. Today, the true cost of affordable, cheap meat is not visible to us. Under current accounting practices, not every cost — carbon emissions from deforestation, water depletion, pollution from industrial animal production facilities, etc. — is included in the final price. Globalized supply chains can deliver cheap meat by improving productivity and efficiency all along the value chain and passing large social and environmental unaccounted costs on to the rest of society. Effectively, this means that the real impacts of producing soy and beef – in vast farms, on cheap land and supported by poor labour — are unaccounted for in the price we pay for the final product as consumers.

But, there’s another price that we also need to look at when it comes to affordable, cheap meat: that’s human nutrition. Paradoxically, while it is nominally the goal of any food supply chain, human nutrition is perhaps the least measured and understood aspect of the industrial meat system. It is as if what happens after the final product is bought to be consumed is independent from the choices and decisions stakeholders make to bring the food from farm to market. Magically, it becomes a problem that lands in the hands of those responsible for public health or well-being.

Worryingly, the few studies in the developing world on health outcomes from diets based on caloric-rich and protein-rich food show correlations between the increase of carbohydrate and meat consumption with the occurrence of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, but causality by specific food systems remains elusive. The paucity of research in this area needs to be addressed. In emerging economies, new consumers are compelled to change their diets and adapt to hyper-processed food, but the information on nutrition and health just isn’t there for people to make health-centred decisions.

The apparent conundrum of consumers becoming dependent on a food system that doesn’t appear to be renewable, resilient, equitable, diverse, or healthy needs to be resolved and done so with a strong sense of urgency. The industrial food system cannot be dismantled tomorrow, and perhaps should not be without a considered approach. But, the complexity of this system and the issues that surround it are not an excuse for long-term inaction. There are many alternative ways to realize a sustainable, equitable, secure food system now.

For one, there are other food systems and supply chains producing meat and other sources of protein that are much more local and rely on more traditional, socially innovative and sustainable methods of food production and processing. Indeed, agroecology and non-industrial practices can play a key part in the food systems transformation process. Second, we need to see system-wide visionary leadership – a perspective that enables us to see the myriad ways that the industrial food system is failing us from health to climate, and to bring about real change. Ultimately, without that, the Amazon will continue deteriorating into a commons where clashing short-term pursuits and disjointed and contradictory visions mean we never know – or even think of – the true cost of our food.