The Amazon’s burning – and what you choose to eat plays a part 

Covering Climate Now: Connecting your everyday choices at the supermarket to a crisis half a world away might be a hard concept get your head around, but we all have power to effect change, writes Hannah McGowan.


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In the past few weeks, unusually severe fires have ravaged the Amazon rainforests, home to hundreds of tribes of indigenous people, unique plant and animal species, as well as being a major source of oxygen for the entire planet. These are not ordinary wildfires. It is now clear that Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro slashed pre-existing environmental policies to fuel local economic growth, allowing an 85% leap in forest fires since he first came to power. 

New Zealand may not import our meat from the Amazon, but the damage to our land from beef and dairying industries is destructive here too. We export animal products, mine vast chunks of our landscape and we open up sacred land for development. The same dynamics are at play all over the world. Are corporate giants entirely at fault, or does consumer choice play a part?

Blackstone, a major US investment firm, is only one of many powerful multinational companies linked with Bolsonaro’s land-grabbing tactics. The Amazon region offers those looking to make money much more than the space to graze animals and grow crops to feed them: oil and gas exploration, palm oil, logging, the development of infrastructure. Global desire for beef has created a multi-billion-dollar industry. Palm oil will be worth an estimated US$92.84 billion by 2021. The rainforest is burning because there is money to be made.

Some say that “it is neoliberalist to say environmental damage is due to poor individual choices, as opposed to structural systems that work to exploit the land and indigenous people”, or, “there can be no ethical consumption under capitalism”. Others firmly believe that consumers have real power to effect change. “Consider carefully what you eat. Beef is especially destructive, as it requires huge amounts of land for grazing – space often created through the burning of forests.” 

Humans are wired to accumulate and possess, a fact that business organisations are happy to exploit. We are constantly being manipulated and pressured into wanting more, having more, being more. Meat is a highly profitable industry because the majority of the world enjoys eating it, many of us are used to having it as a part of our diet and feel entitled to it. The same applies to dairy products, despite the impact mass-scale dairying has both in New Zealand and overseas. 

The Amazon basin on fire in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state on 23 August (Photo: JOAO LAET/AFP/Getty Images)

Still, it is hard to argue that consuming meat is ethical. According to the Oxford study published in the journal Science, removing meat and dairy products could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by two-thirds. But aggressively pushing veganism on a resistant population only creates division and resentment – which suits corporations very well. The uniting mentality of Annie-Marie Bonneau’s “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly” comes to mind when considering the personal choices of our friends and families. While switching to a plant-based diet is an incredibly important element of curbing damage to our planet, so is reducing food waste and conserving water, using public transport, video conferencing instead of travelling for meetings or switching to electric cars. 

Being mindful of our choices as consumers and making educated decisions to support sustainable industries could take the power back from those who amass billions at the sake of farmers, labourers, indigenous people and our ecosystem. Harmful practices lacking diversity can be improved by adapting to permaculture principles and developing an interest in unfamiliar food sources. Hemp seeds, for example, provide similar amounts of protein to beef and lamb. Hemp is naturally resistant to predators, grows like a weed and actually improves depleted or contaminated soils. Hemp “hearts” are reminiscent of pine nuts, satisfyingly nutty and earthy.

Consumer demand for sustainable alternatives like hemp products, lentils, peas and lab-grown animal proteins could solve many pressing issues. Small, highly regulated farms producing items like meat and dairy can still exist, but we will have to accept paying more for products with a highly detrimental environmental impact. Some people may not be interested in or able to become vegetarian or vegan, but the majority of us can cut down our intake of animal products. Protein is over-hyped; it’s easy to consume more than enough on a vegan diet.

Hemp seeds (Photo: Getty Images)

Locally made plant-based foods and healthy meat alternatives are a thriving industry created entirely by informed customer demand. In the US, non-dairy milk sales have grown 61% over the past five years. Some supermarkets now have ecostore refill stations, expansive health food sections and all have banned plastic bags. Farmers markets and produce stores continually attempt to reduce unnecessary packaging and wholefood specialists like Bin Inn are booming.

While some fair-trade foods are more expensive than their counterparts, an unprocessed plant-based diet is less expensive than one incorporating animal products. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition found that “eating a whole food, plant-based diet is in fact more economical than one that relies on cheap meat and dairy products”.

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But people around the world who live in acute poverty without access to kitchens, struggling with disabilities that limit their food choices and barely surviving, should feel no obligation to try to reduce their carbon footprint buying food they can’t afford. Many might bike or walk or bus because cars are expensive and require maintenance. They probably use far less power than people who don’t have to worry about paying their heating bills. Extremely poor people have an extremely low environmental footprint by default. This inequality is why it is so important that those with adequate incomes choose products and services that support a restructuring of the consumerist way of life. Everyone could be better off if we cared enough to make changes in the patterns of our lives. In the right hands, power can be a force for good.

Public opinion is a powerful force. Cadbury’s popularity nosedived over its use of palm oil in 2009 and Nestlé is currently in hot water over its use of ‘sustainable’ palm oil. Whittaker’s has never used palm oil in its products and its Dark Ghana and Creamy Milk chocolates are Fairtrade certified. Kiwis have considered Whittaker’s “the most trusted brand” year after year and it continues to dominate the market. What the public thinks matters to businesses.

If you want to make adjustments for the benefit of the planet beyond cutting down or stopping meat consumption, check out Extinction Rebellion and Zero Waste Groups. For direct action regarding the Amazon rainforest, CNBC provides a list of relevant organisations you can support. Lasting systemic change can be achieved by continually putting pressure on multinational corporations and electing leaders dedicated to holding billionaires accountable for ignoring environmental guidelines or violating human rights.

We all have the power to disrupt the status quo, to play a hand in ending mindless destruction. If the darkness of the world is laying heavily on you, I highly recommend these documentaries about regenerating forests in New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines and Texas Hill Country. There are glimmers of hope on the horizon if enough of us choose to help restore our environment instead of tearing it apart.


The Spinoff’s participation in Covering Climate Now is made possible thanks to the contributions of Spinoff Members. Join The Spinoff Members to help us do more important journalism.


The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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